“this is real. i’m not signed. this is independent!” skepta won the mercury prize last night and so did grime
Up against dearly departed Bowie, Skepta’s Konnichiwa won the award for both the genre and independent artists everywhere.
For the first year in a long time the Mercury Prize shortlist caused little furore. On it was a solid selection of quality music. Better still, it seemed to be the most diverse for years, with not just genre but gender and race celebrated on equal terms. And as the nominees - Bat For Lashes, The 1975, ANOHNI, Michael C Hall for Bowie, Kano, Jamie Woon, Michael Kiwanuka, Skepta, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood on film, Savages, Laura Mvula and The Comet Is Coming - performed and the judges deliberated, it became more and more likely that we'd be witnessing something a little different this time: the first grime act to win the Mercury Prize since Dizzee's Boy In Da Corner, 13 years ago - and the very first independent one.
Representing a judging panel that included the likes of Clara Amfo, Ellie Rowsell and Naughty Boy, Jarvis Cocker took to the stage and hinted that "in the end, the winner came down to a contest between two black stars," referencing Bowie's Backstar and alluding to a few potential others. "If David Bowie was looking down on the Hammersmith Apollo tonight," he continued, "he would want the 2016 Hyundai Mercury Prize to go to… Skepta!" The audience went wild, there was a standing ovation, and everybody appeared genuinely pleased and in total agreement that the right person had won. Man like Skeppy celebrated with his friends and family before joining Jarvis on stage, friends and family still in tow. Shaking his head in disbelief, he accepted both the award and with it, serious critical recognition.
"The star is the person on the mic who always gets seen, but I want to say thank you to everyone that made Konnichiwa happen," he opened. "Everyone who knows what it takes to put an album together will know that it's so much more than just making the music... thanks to everybody who was there for me when I was going through depressed times." After shouting out his late friend Lukey Maxwell, who tragically died last year, he continued…
"I've been trying to do this music stuff for so long, and it was the moment where I was like, 'yo, let's do this for ourselves and the family!' You know, we travelled the world - no record label, nothing. We just travelled the world and did this for us... but the love is very appreciated. Kane - love for life bro." He said, acknowledging his fellow nominee Kano, before thanking his parents, who were on stage with him, his mum having a little dance, "because they gave us that voice in our heads to keep us in line and check. Konnichiwa!" he signed off, performing Man (Gang) with BBK and reminding people exactly why he won. For an independent album that charted above Beyonce's Lemonade at #2, an artist that Kanye invited to perform with him at the BRITS last year, who Drake got a BBK tattoo for, before signing to the label, and who is steering the good ship grime to a place that can be admired not just from afar but fully celebrated and commercially accepted.
Skepta's win felt like a victory for a scene that he almost single handedly dragged out of the doldrums with That's Not Me, which reintroduced theraw, urgentenergy of its early days back into the music. The lo-fi video by Tim and Barry reinvigorated the genre by stripping away the excesses and focussing on the beats, rhyme and attitude; by not aiming for the charts and instead sticking to the beating underground heart, he broke the mould for grime allowing a whole new generation of artists to come through and/or re-emerge. His track Shutdown, and then Konnichiwa, with its Mercury win, feel like crowning achievements for the second wave of the scene and something he helped to pioneer first time around.
Later on, backstage, he told press that he didn't necessarily do this for the genre, but for independence. "I did this for people to see freedom. I wanna inspire other genres of music to be like: why am I with this record label? I don't understand what it's doing for me? When I first came in here they told me I'd have all the freedom and now I'm in this deal and they tell me what to do. I don't feel like myself anymore. I'm getting out because of Skepta. Seeing how Boy Better Know and Skepta did it... I want that to get into people's heads." he explained. "This is real. I'm not signed. This is independent."
He described both the scene and himself as growing. Adding, "When I was younger I didn't really have my head screwed on properly. I'm happy that people are finding me at this stage in my life because I'm much more content, much more comfortable, and my swag is the one that I want to go to the world; the positive one rather than the negative one."
Talking of which, when reminded about the £25k prize money he stated that he'd use it to do, "something to help other people feel as happy and free as me right now." Currently building a studio on his old estate to help kids get into music production, he'll go on to take those involved to perform a show at the V&A, "because experience is everything."
Asked about the red and black projections that featured Black Lives Matter slogans, images of Muhammad Ali, and shout outs to BBK, that accompanied his earlier set, he reaffirmed his independence. "I'm for freedom, and I believe that I am all of those guys reincarnated and I'm just in this body now and I'm pushing freedom - that's what it's all about. It comes from my mum and dad." He spoke of giving back to his parents, his family, his community. "I come from a struggle, so it's very important to me." And advice for those who hope to follow in his footsteps? "You only get one chance to say what you feel, you know? Even if you don't do music: express yourself. The only regret you can really have is all the stuff you didn't say. So to all the kids; I want you to be free, be strong, you're right. Do you."
13 years since Dizzee put grime on the map with Boy In Da Corner, Skepta is adamant that it's resurgence owes a lot to him. "It's cool that people are saying grime has come back… but I came back. Things happened in my life. I had friends that died and I had to realise that I didn't care about certain things I used to care about. I am probably the most comfortable and content Skepta that I've ever been in my life." And why now? "Because of me!"
Text Francesca Dunn
Image courtesy of JMEnternational