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Sampha's Mercury Prize Win Goes Way Beyond the Music Industry

He's not only hit a new level in his career, but has given young men – young black men in particular – a voice for their vulnerability.

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15 September 2017, 12:07pm

Photo via PR

Within an hour or so of Sampha's Mercury Prize win in London on Thursday evening, one comment kept cropping up, flashing in WhatsApp threads or spoken out loud as the night slid towards 11PM: 'I should have just put some money down, eh?' It's true. Since Sampha's name was announced on this year's Mercury shortlist a couple of months ago, those savvy with odds (ie: not me) started making money moves. Right from the beginning, betting shop/high street scourge Ladbrokes had Sampha and Stormzy tied at 6/1 – and this was about two weeks before we even learned the shortlist on 27 July. By a couple of days before Thursday's ceremony, poet Kate Tempest had nudged ahead, with bookies placing her at 5/2 before Sampha at 7/2 (and Stormzy, in fairness, following on that steady 6/1). By the day of, Sampha led the pack.

So in a way, Sampha's win felt like a foregone conclusion – but a deeply satisfying one. Probably like what all those well-meaning white American women wanted to feel if Hillary had won last year. When Sampha walked up to the confetti-covered podium at his home city's Hammersmith Apollo, it felt like years of knowing his work, reading his name, hitting replay on that caught-in-your-throat voice, thick as glue, had finally come to a head. Sampha's approach to grief and vulnerability, as well as his his talent as a producer and singer-songwriter, prove just how much impactful this win felt. And that's almost silly, because awards and award shows don't make an artist. The majority of major awards don't even validate an artist's work – especially once you start to dig deeper into how judges vote, what makes releases eligible or even how the costs of nominating yourself can keep smaller and less-established acts out of the running for prizes like the Mercury.

But unlike, say, the BRIT Awards where commercialism is king, the Mercurys still fundamentally respect skilled songwriting. They don't just award the most widely-played music that may appeal to judges who aren't necessarily deeply embedded in newer sounds, or curious about finding and boosting them. Scroll through a list of past winners, and it's hard to spot a dud (though many would argue Speech Debelle's debut was somewhat of a fluke). In recent years in particular, Skepta, PJ Harvey and Benjamin Clementine have all tapped into either a particular moment in the zeitgeist, demonstrated an incomparable flair for composition or crafted the sorts of albums that make you want to return to them, discovering new highlights with repeated listens.

For Sampha, this is his moment to fully break out as a solo act in his own right. Process did that at the start of the year, and Kahlil Joseph's beautiful film of the same name documented the stories behind the record even further. But those releases may have been easier to miss for the sorts of people who don't have Apple Music subscriptions – and therefore didn't watch Joseph's film – or didn't catch enough radio airplay of Sampha's singles to go out and buy the album after its first-week sales peak (which will now surely change). It's worth noting that Sampha was picked out as one of six artists on BBC Radio 1's inaugural Brit List – a sort of 'let's get better at breaking new talent' initiative the station launched at the end of 2016. Critics of the initiative noted that many of the names on the list would have already been familiar to most people – Stormzy, Declan McKenna, Anne-Marie, JP Cooper and The Amazons were all initially chosen alongside Sampha – but the artist's inclusion may well have played a part in his album cracking the UK chart's top 10, peaking in its first week at number 7.

Fast-forward some seven months later, and he's now earned another well-deserved accolade that cements his potency as a solo act. For years, Sampha was in a sort of 'always the bridesmaid' limbo (a gorgeous-sounding, and inspiring one to be fair), appearing as a featured artist on others' songs or slipping behind the scenes to produce for his peers. He's been out for years, but this was his debut album. When, after being handed his statuette by Idris Elba on Thursday he said: "Feel like I'm dreaming a little bit – this is incredible," you can tell he meant every word. There's a wider debate to be had about who awards really benefit – whether labels, the award show organisers, the artist when caught at the right time in their career – but it's hard to deny how special this victory feels.

And that's because Sampha's music gives a voice to pain and love in a way that shows young men, and young black men in particular, that their emotional responses to tragedy or euphoria can be richly layered. They don't have to fit the "tough and never soft" stereotype. Process shows them that they can be open about how it feels to lose someone they love; that they can struggle with their own identity; that they can let themselves be swept along the tide of romantic love. It is heartbreaking to imagine how Sampha would have felt, making this album in the wake of his late mother's battle with a terminal form of cancer, but the work he produced from that difficult time will go on to help so many others. The Mercury Prize judges have recognised that in a way that will most likely push this album into the arm's of new listeners, who hadn't yet realised they needed it. And even though a lot of people may have seen this win coming, that doesn't dull its brilliance in the slightest.

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