MOBO Awards founder Kanya King on redefining British music

MOBO Awards founder Kanya King on redefining British music | Soho House

The powerhouse entrepreneur and Soho House member built her brand from the ground up – and she’s only just getting started

Thursday 29 December 2022   By Soho House   Photography by Jonathan Williams 

This year marked a quarter of a century since the very first MOBO Awards. Established in 1996 to celebrate Black music, over the past 25 years they’ve not only charted the incredible growth, visibility and popularity of Black British music, but also done much to help take it from the margins of British culture and placed it firmly in the mainstream. None of this would have been possible without the hard work and dedication of the MOBO Awards founder and CEO, North London-born powerhouse, Kanya King.

King’s entrepreneurial streak emerged early when, at the tender age of eight, she earnt her first income from collecting the deposits on bottles found at her local park, showcasing the kind of ingenuity and determination that would go on to serve her so well. Under King’s guidance, MOBO has grown from ‘just’ an awards ceremony (albeit a truly visionary one) to become a globally respected, multi-platform brand synonymous with championing equity, diversity and inclusion across music, culture, arts, fashion, media and the wider creative industries. 

Today, the MOBO Group’s initiatives include the MOBO Trust (a charity dedicated to creating life-changing opportunities across the creative industries), MOBO UnSung, which unearths and propels new musical talent, and career and networking platform MOBOLISE, which was launched earlier this year, backed by Accenture. 

In 2018, King was presented with both a CBE for services to music and culture, and the Legacy Award at the inaugural Investing in Diversity Awards. And in 2021, she received the Strat Award at the Music Week Awards, one of the highest music industry accolades. 

Here’s how she became such a success.

Being underestimated can be one of the great motivators. 
‘When I left school with no qualifications, I wasn’t expected to do anything worthwhile with my life. So, I wanted to show that even though I didn’t have money or status, I could still contribute to my family, friends, community, and country.’

When you want to succeed, you need to be able to push yourself. 
‘Learning to pick yourself up after a setback and moving on is a hard lesson, but well worth it. Successful entrepreneurs have both the persistence and tenacity to succeed, and the stamina and self-motivation to make it happen.’

I was extremely shy growing up and often preferred to internalise things, rather than speak up or speak out. 
‘It took an awful lot of courage for me to go up to families in the park, asking them nicely if we could return their finished bottles. Each one gave me a return of 5p, which soon added up. Once I’d started earning my own money, I relished in my new-found independence. I no longer needed to wear jumble-sale clothes – which might be called vintage now, but were seen somewhat differently at the time. There was no turning back.’

Mentors can come in different forms and at different times in your life.  
‘We all have people in our lives who inspire us and help us go the extra mile. In my case, although my mother is no longer alive, her values of determination, drive, empathy and grit spur me on. My mum came from Ireland and my father from Ghana. They both came to the UK at the age of 18 at a time when there were notices on houses stating “No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. 

‘We lived in a small, cramped council flat with a lot of uncertainty, often moving from bedsit to bedsit. Almost every day there was some challenge that we had to try and navigate. My mother worked very hard in caring professions (in the NHS and as a home help) and she looked after my father, who was sick with leukaemia. Despite our lack of money, she would often take homeless people in, as well as my older brother’s friends who had nowhere to go. She was my superhero.’

It’s important to know what you’re great at and what you’re not so good at, so start with self-reflection and self-awareness. 

‘To my younger self, I would say: accept your weaknesses and supercharge your strengths. Don’t hesitate to clarify what others expect of you. Do things outside your comfort zone. The best way to learn and develop is to take on new challenges and different tasks. Try where possible to find meaning and purpose in all you do, as that will give you momentum. And finally, be the best you can be, because every one of us is entirely unique.’

It’s hard to put into words what reaching this milestone year means.  
‘We have overcome a huge amount to be here. To be able to celebrate the luminaries of the scene in a world that is a far different place to the one where we started from is overwhelming. What makes this year all the more of a landmark is the culmination of 25 years of hard graft, seeing the awards come full circle, returning to London where it all began back in 1996.’

Click here to watch the 25th MOBO Awards.

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