Skepta's Mercury Win: A Rare Glimmer of Light in a Year Full of Shit
It feels like a break in the clouds, where a group in charge of an important decision finally made one that is representative of the current UK climate.
If you re-watch the footage from last night's Mercury Awards ceremony, the number of voices calling for "Skepta" before Jarvis Cocker even announces him as the winner is impossible to ignore. The following eruption of screaming, applause, lads in tracksuits literally bouncing with emotion like each and every one of them was informed they had been given their own island, was a scene just as telling.
It's not controversial to say that the Mercury Awards has found itself in something of a ditch these last few years, with many questioning whether it even matters anymore. When Barclaycard pulled out at the last moment in 2015, the event was forced to downscale and ended up in a much smaller venue with a sort of "sexual harassment in the workplace seminar vibe". It was relegated to BBC4 and received only 189,000 viewers, with its future left in jeopardy. Could the Mercury Prize still prove its relevance and importance in an ever-changing music industry and cultural landscape?
The list of nominees for 2016 was a genuinely decent spread of versatile and inventive artists: Laura Mvula, Radiohead, The Comet is Coming, ANOHNI, David Bowie, obviously, and the rest. Anyone could have won and even the most contentious of anonymous Twitter users would have found little to argue with. But the fact that it was Skepta is indicative of something far beyond creative acknowledgement.
In a year that has dealt more blows than usual to marginalised communities and young people in the UK – from the discriminative door policies of West End clubs to the closure of Fabric – Skepta's Mercury win feels like a rare break in the clouds, where a group in charge of an important decision finally made one that is representative of the current UK climate. The face of mainstream British music for the past five years has been defined by the deliberate absence of politics, with Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Adele, and Coldplay acting as spokespeople for palatable and inoffensive pop. Last night, it felt significant that dues were paid to an artist who, earlier in the evening, performed in front of projected images from Black Lives Matter protests - including a sign held by Novelist at July's demonstration down Oxford Street that read "STOP KILLING THE MANDEM". Earlier this month, Black Lives Matter activists in the UK also used "Shutdown" as a hashtag to organise a protest at London City Airport. And you only need to observe the fact that Skepta brought his mum and dad (dressed in traditional Nigerian clothing), his sister (Julie Adenuga, a cultural force in her own right) and whole crew up on stage with him to accept the award to understand that it's more than just a win for one MC.
This isn't just about rewarding the long, painstaking career trajectory that led to the last 24 months of Skepta's unstoppable ascension. It's about grime - a genre that before and long after Dizzee Rascal's Mercury win in 2003, has been burdened by racial and class profiling - gaining the recognition it deserves without having to court a predominantly white industry first. It's about Skepta shouting out fellow nominee Kano in the crowd by saying "We did it bro", because they both knew it didn't matter which of them won, as long as one of them won and the scene was acknowledged. It's about Skepta saying he will use his prize money to "something positive, something to help other people feel as happy and as free as me." It's evidence that critics have finally caught up with the youth, because - acclaimed as he may be - the youth don't listen to Benjamin Clementine. Most importantly, it's about people who are traditionally silenced taking up space and making noise until it is impossible for them not to be seen, heard and respected.
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