“And it came down…to just…two…black stars” announced Jarvis Cocker, moments before he unveiled the winner of this year’s Mercury Prize. An ambiguity worthy of any accolade, but did this refer to grime’s current proponents Skepta and Kano, or the excellent soul of Laura Mvula and Michael Kiwanuka? Or even clever wordplay regarding David Bowie’s parting gift – Blackstar?
To digress momentarily, this year’s Mercury Prize was no disappointment. In its 25th outing, acts celebrated included pop sensations The 1975, stalwarts Radiohead and as mentioned, the first ever posthumous nomination for the prize to Bowie’s Blackstar. All acts performed bar Radiohead – who presumably didn’t want to turn up only to be snubbed for a record fifth time – as even Bowie’s Lazarus was performed by stage actor Michael C. Hall.
The iconic Bowie was the bookies’ favourite, and with some justification. Blackstar was (and still is) an incredible album, lasting only seven tracks, but each telling a poignant story. However it would’ve always felt like a bit of a cop-out for Bowie to win. It might just be the cynic in me crying out for attention but if he won, there would be no way for the usual critics of the prize to slander the decision.
Year in year out, the Mercury Prize receives some sort of stick for awarding the prize to the ‘wrong’ act. But who would dare criticise them if Bowie won? And in similar fashion to Radiohead, what good would it do for Bowie to win? There’s not a soul alive unaware of Bowie or Radiohead, and winning the award would hardly open them up to a new group of fans.
That’s not me claiming that the most obscure artist should’ve won, otherwise the epic ‘space-jazz’ of The Comet Is Coming would’ve walked home happy. Even being shortlisted astronomically enhanced their visibility, and the sceptical fans at the ceremony were blown away by the maverick music of Space Carnival.
Skepta isn’t the first grime artist to win this prestigious title, as Dizzee Rascal took the gong in 2003 with Boy in da Corner. This pushed the previously-underground genre into the mainstream for a while, before slipping out of the spotlight at the turn of the decade. It seems likely then that Skepta’s triumph should provide a richly-deserved renaissance for grime.
Kano was also recognised for his similar work, with the Brit opting for a powerful use of a brass band to accompany his performance of 3 Wheel-ups, from his acclaimed Made in the Manor album. That’s the selling point of the Mercury Prize. It’s not an inflated-ego fest like many other awards, but encourages diversity and experimentation.
Skepta seemed humbled as Cocker proclaimed him the winner – “I’m sure if Bowie is looking down on us now, he’d be happy to see that the winner is…Konnichiwa by Skepta.” The Mercury Prize should reflect the musical zeitgeist of the year, and 2016 was no different. Expect a further grime resurgence next year.