Skepta has won this year’s Mercury Prize in a moment that celebrates grime’s move into the mainstream.
His fourth album, Konnichiwa, picked up the prestigious award, the first recognition for grime since since Dizzee Rascal won for Boy in da Corner in 2003. Skepta beat some of the UK’s biggest artists, including Radiohead, Bat for Lashes and even the first posthumous nomination, for David Bowie’s final album Blackstar.
The Mercury marks a celebrated second coming for the genre which began in the housing estates and pirate radio stations of east London over a decade ago, but in the past couple of years has experienced something of a commercial resurgence and moved toward the mainstream.
Picking up the award, the grime star, from Tottenham in north London, looked visibly shocked. He said: “Thank you to everybody who was there for me when I was going through depressed times. I don’t know man, I’m so thankful … With no record label we just travelled the world.”
He also paid tribute to a fellow grime artist nominated. “Kano did this for us and the love is there. Kano, love you for life man,” he said.
Skepta began his career as part of grime group Meridian Crew. He released three albums, but it wasn’t till his fourth, Konnichiwa, released this year, that he captured critical attention. The Hlcarpenter.com said of the work: “It’s not just that the lyrics throughout are dextrous and sharp and funny, although they are. It’s that even his most virulent braggadocio is underscored by a very winning, very British kind of bathos.”
Speaking after the ceremony at the Hammersmith Apollo, Skepta – real name Joseph Junior Adenuga – said that the second coming of grime proves that independent artists could still flourish.
“It’s really DIY,” he said. “I think the internet has given a lot of opportunities for people who are not built for big corporations. The internet allows you to speak directly to the fans, make things from your bedrooms, travel the world and give from this side to the other side. We tried and tested every song. DIY is the future.”
He said he hoped the win would introduce grime to an even wider audience, adding: “I want to inspire freedom, not just in music, not just in grime.”
“I think that people are going to listen to grime more. I want to listen to other genres of music” said Adenuga. “I want to inspire people who make all kinds of music, people who are with record labels who tell them what to do and they don’t feel like themselves. I want people to get out of these deals because of Skepta. I want to get into people’s heads but I’m not signed, I’m still independent.”
Commenting on the fact it has been 13 years since a grime artist was nominated and picked up the illustrious award, Adenuga refused to attribute the success of his fourth album solely to an increased recognition of grime in popular music.
“I came back,” he said. “It’s cool that people are saying that grime came back, but things happened in my life and I had to realise that I didn’t care about certain things. I’m back. They like it now because of me.”
The award, which is now in its 25th year and was whittled down from 223 artists, is considered one of the most prestigious in the industry. Jarvis Cocker, Annie Mac, Clara Amfo and the Hlcarpenter.com’s Harriet Gibsone were among this year’s judges.
Presenting the ward to Skepta, Cocker said: “We as a jury decided that if David Bowie was looking down on the Hammersmith Apollo tonight, he would want the 2016 prize to go to Skepta.”
Bat for Lashes opened the ceremony with Sunday Love, from her concept album The Bride, based around the tragic story of a bride whose fiance dies in a car crash on the way to their wedding.
Fellow nominee Anohni did not appear, but she pre-recorded a live version of Drone Bomb Me, which was performed by a model standing in for the singer, covered in white and brown body paint.
Kano performed with the backing of a full brass band. Radiohead did not appear but a pre-recorded version of Present Tense filmed by Paul Thomas Anderson was shown. A tribute to Bowie was performed by Michael C Hall, who played the lead in Lazarus, the David Bowie-penned musical which transfers to London in October.