Black people have suddenly become a must-have at high-profile British awards shows. After years of racial myopia, our presence has seemingly been magnified, our melanin on display in split-leg gowns on red carpets, or trussed up in a suit and tie on stages. This, after all, is what people have been asking for for years: visible representation. The BAFTAs have been moved to introduce a diversity criteria for some of their categories; the BRIT Awards nominated a far more diverse pool this year than last; and last week Laura Mvula, Michael Kiwanuka, and Skepta were among those who received nomination nods for the songwriting Ivor Novello Awards. Reporting around the nominations consistently zeroed in on the diversity of the candidates up for the awards. But that's where things start to get complicated for the Ivors.
You'd be forgiven for not having heard much about them before. The awards aren't televized, for starters. And their remit is to highlight UK songwriting and composing accolades that, unlike the BRITs, are not tied to album sales. Generally, that means fewer nominations every year for the same two acts the music industry has been pushing aggressively since the BBC's Sound Of… poll the December before (*waves at Rag'n'Bone Man and Ed Sheeran*). And those involved in the awards understand and exploit that as a selling point. Take a recent statement given the night of the nominations announcement, by Crispin Hunt—chair of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA), which oversees the Ivors. He reckoned the "music business is morphing into the selfie business." He continued: "I think this year's nominations reflect a different bit of British music, more to do with the creativity of our figures like Laura Mvula, than just commercial success."
Fair enough. The Ivors aren't meant to just be the place that pats the biggest hitmakers on the back. Mvula, as the only black woman nominated in this year's pack, has been chosen as a representative of the awards' brand in this way, perhaps because she seems like the antithesis to the Instagram generation and slickly synthetic pop. Despite actually being very active on social media, she has authenticity bound up in her pianist fingers, her classical training and her arrangement skills.
And yet sales of Mvula's 2016 album The Dreaming Room slumped, despite it being a beautifully precise pop LP that put all of her skills on display. She subsequently lost her five-album record deal with Sony. Of that, Hunt said: "You don't necessarily need a label these days, and hopefully she'll carry on, but I think that demonstrates there's something a little bit awry about the way the music industry is working. I worry that culturally we aren't fully valuing that connection from music made by people like Michael Kiwanuka and Laura Mvula."
Don't get me wrong: it's fantastic to see Mvula held up and appreciated, after seemingly pouring so much of her creative energy into such a lushly produced and textured album of orchestral pop. But that's not say that the Ivors don't need to be careful about how they move forward from here when it comes to addressing black talent. After the #BritsSoWhite controversy in 2016, the BRIT Awards seemed to take pains to pick a more diverse mix of British nominees this year, including Kano, Skepta, and Nao. But then, beyond Emeli Sandé and Leigh-Anne Pinnock of Little Mix, no other British people of color won at the ceremony in February. The nominations felt like a token gesture.
As such, diversity can easily become a crude plaster placed over a wider structural problem. Now that British awards are trying to wake up to the realities of a historical lack of representation for black Brits in the media, the Ivors are setting themselves up for a potential fall when it comes to talking about race. In the era of online outrage culture, they're in treacherous territory.
They haven't explicitly said they've decided to nominate more black people this year but Hunt's mention of Kiwanuka and Mvula appears to single black artists out. Meanwhile, BASCA CEO Vicki Bain deemed this year's nominees list "so diverse," with 'diversity' in genre seeming to serve as a dog whistle for the word's other common use today: related to ethnicity. How do BASCA think the Ivors compare on diversity to other award shows, then? "The Ivors are special in that they honor songwriters and composers, the writers of music—not the performers," they wrote to Noisey. "As such, we're the only award show in the UK to solely represent this creative force. We can't comment on how we compare in terms of diversity with other awards, but it's fantastic to see the ever-growing diversity within the popular UK music scene and we're delighted the Ivors reflects this in the nominees this year."
Hunt also told Noisey that Skepta's omission from his statement about the "selfie business" last week was accidental, "rather than a deliberate one in light of the popularity of grime" and that he believed that "grime's popularity is a welcome relief musically to mainstream pop." Since this explosion of establishment recognition feels like a new phenomenon for millennial-age artists, it's arguably pretty difficult for these awards ceremonies to get it right. Nominate lots of black artists then reward none of them, like the BRITs, and you look stupid or half-hearted. Nominate a mix of genres and ethnicities, like the Ivors, and you risk putting your foot in it when people read into who you choose to champion out of those nominees.
The bigger question, of course, is why we crave recognition from the institutions that may have ignored our creative work for years. Although I'm inclined to believe that all nominations and wins for the black community should be celebrated, that doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to question the rhetoric used around their successes, and consider whether we can try to frame a more honest discussion around what we implicitly mean by "diversity" in music today.
Like most parts of British society, a direct conversation about race seems to be one the Ivors would rather avoid, while still making sure to sound proud of the diversity they've celebrated. As Solange Knowles suggested after her sister Bey's visual album Lemonade missed out on album of the year at the Grammys: "create your own committees, build your own institutions, give your friends awards, award yourself and be the gold you wanna hold my gs." Unless a more conscious shift in institutions like the Ivors and the Oscars proves to last longer than 2017, maybe that's exactly what needs to happen.
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(Lead images via PR and Flickr)