Bowie vs. Grime: The 2016 Mercury Prize Story

By on Friday, 16th September 2016 at 11:00 am
 

People. I think we need to have a serious conversation about the Mercury Prize. Last year, our Steven wrote this thought piece about how he felt tastemakers weren’t doing the general public any favours by choosing underdogs and acts we’d never heard of instead of popular favourites. Where was the public’s say in all of this? Well, for 2016, it definitely sounded they’d taken what Steven had said to heart. In an unprecedented move in its silver anniversary year, 11 of the 12 nominated artists this year were either household names and major label signings, or at least a major festival draw in the case of Savages, who are signed to Beggar imprint Matador.

2016 has not been kind to us. In addition to losing Prince in April, we also lost David Bowie, the most beloved weirdo alien in Ziggy Stardust. One needs only to look at how Bowie decided to hide his cancer from the world, only his closest family and himself holding on to that kernel of knowledge until the very end. He must have done this on purpose, so the anticipation towards ‘★’ would not be unfairly tainted by any questions on what influence his impending death might have had on the final product.

When the shortlist of 12 nominated albums was unveiled last month, I was honestly initially struck with surprise that ‘★’ had been nominated. Or maybe I shouldn’t have been? Maybe I should have assumed that Bowie, having such a far-reaching impact from his many decades and albums of influence over countless fans and musicians, would automatically be nominated? What I found even weirder were the countless Tweets and messages I saw following the nominations announcement saying Bowie deserved to win.

Um, sorry, David. I was more interested in the acts still alive that I might be able to see perform one day. However, Michael Kiwanuka, Laura Mvula and Radiohead seemed way too safe bets. Not just one but two grime acts, Kano and Skepta, were recognised for their contribution to a genre that had begun in East London a decade ago. Add in the astonishing inclusion of the 1975, the Manchester band much derided for their foaming at the mouth fans and suddenly, taken together, this all suggested to me that this was going to be one interesting match.

Skepta 400x400 Konnichiwa album cover

After all that was said and done, it was Skepta and his fourth album ‘Konnichiwa’ who proved victorious. Indeed, judging from the post-ceremony reactions last night, it was quite an arresting ‘hello!’ from the Tottenham artist to those unfamiliar with not just him but with the entire genre. As I predicted, there were many public calls that Bowie had somehow been robbed of what had been rightfully his, and by some guy they’d never heard of, of a genre that they’d heard of either and therefore meant nothing. However, there is no escaping the argument that had ‘★’ indeed been chosen as the winner of the 2016 Mercury Prize, there would have been enough detractors accusing the tastemaker panel of the sympathy vote. Frankly, it would have been lazy on the panel’s part, had they given the Mercury to Bowie. Full stop.

Skepta could have very easily gone the route of Young Fathers 2 years ago, choosing to say very little, such that there would be so little room for him to be criticised. However, despite being in shock upon the announcement he’d won, he took to the microphone with relative aplomb. He used the opportunity of all eyes of the music world on him to say “Thank you to everybody who was there for me when I was going through depressed times. I don’t know man, I’m so thankful…” And in a moment of poetic beauty, he concluded his acceptance speech by honouring both Bowie and the late Amy Winehouse.

In a conversation with NME after winning the award, Skepta was very clear that his award after coming from such humble beginnings should be a call to action for young people: “I want them to be themselves…When old people are telling them to be quiet, and old people are telling them they’re not right, and people who just don’t understand kids are just saying stuff to them [to suit] their own boxed-in lives, I want the kids to be like, ‘No. Do you know what, Skepta showed me that I just need to do and say how I feel. Because you only get one chance to say how you feel, you know.” Now, who do we know (or rather, who have we followed) that might have said something like that?

I refuse to repeat some of the worst comments I’ve seen in reply to the BBC video Tweet of the moment when Cocker announced the winner. You can read them here if you’re truly interested. We know from hearing it from the words coming out of Jarvis Cocker’s mouth that he and the rest of the tastemaker panel were aware of the potential public backlash of their selection and felt they had to be prepared to defend their choice. This decision can be interpreted in many ways. But one most obvious interpretation to me, in these times we live in where divides by class, race and even just plain experience are proving so prominent, feels particularly awful and terrible. In case you missed it, Bowie’s own Facebook page have provided a transcript of Cocker’s words:

“OK, I have the result here. But, I’ve got to tell you a little bit of a story before I let you know whose name is inside here. OK? Now, myself and my fellow jurors, about 4 months ago we started off with 223 albums. We had to listen to those and that was whittled down to the twelve that you’ve seen performances from tonight. But in the end, the winner came down to a contest between two black stars.

“And we as a jury decided, that if David Bowie was looking down on the Hammersmith Apollo tonight…and let’s face it maybe he is, we’ve seen traces of his influence in many of the bands you’ve seen perform here tonight…if he was looking down at the Hammersmith Apollo tonight, he would want the 2016 Hyundai Mercury Prize to go to…Skepta.”

At the end of the day, the Mercury Prize is a piece of metal on a shelf, another subjective award given to a musical act. For those who really wanted – and expected – Bowie to win this year, I have to ask, what exactly did you hope would be achieved from ‘★’ winning the gong? By awarding it to someone else, someone like Skepta who can and will undoubtedly inspire future generations to be inventive, to be outspoken leaders, to be trailblazers, to be someone who will make a difference to others? That, my friends, is the real prize.

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