16th June 2020
The Rt Hon Oliver Dowden CBE MP
Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Dear Secretary of State,
In advance of the music industry round table discussion, I would like to share some thoughts with you. My name is Kanya King, I set up the MOBO Organisation, a music, culture and entertainment company, to challenge the status quo and to secure a level playing field.
You have asked to hear a wide selection of views, so would like to give you mine in the form of an open letter which is the most difficult one I’ve ever felt compelled to write.
The existing inequalities.
As we know, black and minority ethnic people are dying in disproportionate numbers during the current coronavirus crisis so any strategies for dealing with this challenge should also help combat the worst pandemic we are facing which is racism. What needs to be taken into account are the structural and racial inequalities that shape the daily experiences of people from Black Minority backgrounds including the role that they play in the music industry as this can no longer be swept under a red carpet.
Over these last few weeks, the death of George Floyd has united the world in horror and protest and has become a catalyst for much needed action and social change against the inequalities that also exist in our sector. I’ve had every emotion from sadness, to pain, to anguish, to incredulity to finally an overwhelming strength and hope.
One of the amazing things that have happened over the last few weeks is seeing the way the world has come together to register their protest or show their act of unity. We believe in the power of the culture to bring people together and are mobilised to step up the fight in order to achieve reforms and do away with the injustices that are prevalent today. We see the current calls for greater equality, diversity and inclusion fully in line with the causes we have been fighting for over the past 25 years. Therefore one of the solutions that we would like to see is for the music industry to come alongside other sectors as united we will stand but divided we will fall.
Where was the support?
MOBO was set up to challenge the status quo and provide a much needed showcase and spotlight for black talent to shine. For our very first show the expectations were that there would be trouble, the event would be disorganised and all the usual stereotypes associated with black events. I thought that if we worked incredibly hard and put on a great show with high production values, the music industry would consequently give us the necessary backing. How wrong I was.
When the media began comparing the music industry’s biggest event, the BRITs, to MOBO – the small independent that was punching above its weight - our fate was sealed. This is where many of our challenges began because we were then seen as a competitor and were often being pictured in a negative light.
Over the years there have been various artists who have won one or multiple MOBO Awards, who will often see that achievement completely erased from press releases once there is a BRIT nomination or win. However, if and when an artist is linked to any kind of trouble, then they are suddenly referred to as a MOBO artist.
As in the old days the music industry has tried to dilute the black story, from taking black artists off album covers to taking black people’s names off songs. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that MOBO was and is an inconvenient truth. However this is a story you cannot easily erase - our spirit is too big and our pain is too deep!
External forces almost put us out of business.
Over the years MOBO has had to overcome many obstacles. One of the challenges that nearly put us out of business altogether was when a serious incident took place at an after-show party organised by a record label (with no MOBO involvement whatsoever) following a very successful show. We had a rude awakening with our first front page mention in a tabloid with a headline that shouted ’STARS FLEE RIOT AT AWARD PARTY’ clearly implying that this was about the MOBO Awards. In the article there was talk of guns and stabbings yet none of it had anything to do with our event.
Although our show had been very well received, the perception among the general public and commercial partners changed after that. We did not truly grasp the huge ramifications at first. Following that negative publicity, venues refused us and potential sponsors turned away. We managed to get a brief written apology somewhere on page 17 or so, but the enormous harm had been done. We never received a call or offer of support from the label that held the party and with no sponsorship and venues hesitant to take our booking, we almost went under and I had to remortgage my home again to put further funds into the business to keep it going.
Financial rewards should benefit more.
The music industry, it is fair to say, could and should have dealt better with black artists, black run companies and taken on more black executives. In many cases the black businesses, institutions and communities that give rise to black expression and talented individuals have not been able to benefit or partake in the financial rewards that have driven billions to the UK and global economies and helped create entire industries. It is not surprising that black organisations will employ black people but if they are not recognised or supported, how do they go on and support others? I have watched with joy and pride when people we have employed and given opportunities to over the years, have gone on to achieve incredible success, win awards, become presenters, producers, broadcasters and run businesses but the stark reality is there so much more I would have wanted to do if there had been a level playing field.
Over the years so many people have said to me, ’Why are you still in the music industry when it is affecting your health and causing you so much grief. Surely it can’t be worth it?’. To me it is though. This might sound dramatic and incomprehensible to some but to me some causes are absolutely worth fighting for. I have a son and he will have kids – I don’t want them to have to experience the same challenges previous generations have had to go through.
MOBO, aspiring and impacting many.
There is a silver lining as it is truly uplifting when you see the success of so many artists, who have benefitted from the MOBO platform, talking about the life changing impact they experienced from e.g. Beverley Knight, who has said publicly that it was only when she won her MOBO Awards that the world took note to Emeli Sandé, who stated that MOBO had her on their radar before anybody else, to more recently Konan (half of Krept and Konan), who talked about its impact on the UK scene in championing the underground up-and-comings to the more established artists in the same space.
With Stormzy saying that seeing Krept & Konan, guys who looked like him, on the MOBO stage made him dig deep, quit his job and find the courage to become the star of his own story, these and many more quotes have given us the validation that what we are doing is not only truly working but also badly needed for the countless aspiring youngsters in search of that first sparkle of hope of some recognition once connected to MOBO.
My drive comes from a deep place.
To understand what drives me, you have to understand my background. I grew up watching my parents suffering so much discrimination.
At the George Floyd’s memorial, Al Sharpton said the George Floyd story has been the story of black folks because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to be, is that you kept your knee on our neck. This has been a grim reality for many black people. My own family couldn’t be who they wanted to be because of overwhelming discrimination. My parents came to the UK from Ireland and Ghana at a time when there were notices on houses saying, ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’. My father was often out of work. In that time there were not many companies wanting to employ a dark- skinned black man with a strong African accent. My mother was ostracised from her family in Ireland because of her relationship with a black man so she was on her own trying to bring up 9 children with no family or financial support. Four of my older sisters grew up in care and I also spent a crucial time of my growing up in care when I should have been in secondary school so I ended up with minimal qualifications.
I have never told this story before, but I have a younger brother who, after getting racially attacked at a football match, has suffered from ongoing health issues and barely leaves his house. It is traumatic watching so many people you care about having hopes and dreams being wasted. One of my sisters who suffered serious discrimination, often being the only person of colour in a white environment, became unhappy in her own skin so used to wear lighter foundation. She consequently became an alcoholic and died from a broken neck. All she wanted was to be accepted.
Growing up there weren’t many positive images of black people mainly just disparaging stereotypes. This is why it has always been very important to me to have celebrations of black music and culture bringing together the biggest artists, entertainers and performers around. This felt like a symbol of our unity and our defiance in the face of so much injustice.
Positive black representation on television screens is an important step in the struggle against anti-black bias. Representation is so powerful. The media create meaning about race and ethnicity and play an important role in shaping the way we think and the way we feel about ourselves in our everyday lives.
We are about supporting talent.
Now is the time to be taking action.
I have struggled writing this letter as I realise I will be jeopardising the little support we do receive from the music industry but as we stand on the precipice of change sometimes you have to find the courage to speak your truth. The world is now finally waking up to the significant inequalities that exist socially, culturally and economically for black lives. We do need to step up and speak up now so that the generations that come after us will not be demonised and just be tolerated but be able to thrive, succeed in life and make a worthy contribution for their family, friends, community and country.
We need to raise awareness and be comfortable having ongoing conversations about race with our neighbours, at school, in our local community and with those outside of our tribe so that there can be a deeper understanding of systemic racism and the devastation it often causes. Today we have a significant number of people who are willing to be in a respectful dialogue, willing to learn and willing to make the necessary changes.
A rallying call to unite and take part.
We want to continue to shine a spotlight on a cause that has touched us in so many ways because we believe in the power of black culture to bring people together.
We feel there is a need for a high level event to bring the creative and entertainment industries together so that we can show solidarity, express our strong voices and work together to help implement changes. Our rallying call to the music industry – the record labels, music talent, managers & agents, PR companies and others – : let us unify, come together and produce a celebratory event with such a crucial purpose as we work towards a world free from racism, injustice and brutality.
UNITED WE STAND is an event with a powerful purpose to inspire unity and collaboration, educate viewers and listeners and raise funds to empower organisations in their fight for equal opportunities.
The key objectives:
We’d like to call upon high profile names from the worlds of comedy, music, film, television and sport to come together to help tackle racial inequalities and social injustice.
We would like to further build upon the significant pledges from the major labels, Stormzy and others to support organisations and charities that are promoting and campaigning for equality to further progress the cause.
For those wanting to get involved, they can email firstname.lastname@example.org
Secretary of State, I trust that this letter has served a purpose and is giving you an insight into the structural changes we jointly want to see happening.
Thank you very much for having taken the time to read this letter.
Kanya King CBE
CEO & Founder MOBO Organisation