Claiming the coveted award for his self-released album, the grime MC beat out bookies' favourite David Bowie
With the awarding of last night’s 2016 Mercury Prize to Skepta, many casual music fans will be approaching the news with a tinge of sadness. The 33-year-old grime and British hip hop artist’s success is bittersweet for fans of David Bowie, whose album Blackstar saw him posthumously nominated for the prestigious music award – one which he and his vast catalogue of genre-defining songs will now never claim.
But the night belonged to grime MC Skepta, whose album Konnichiwa, which he produced and released himself, was the jury’s pick for the best of 2016. Here are seven things to know about the British musician...
The son of two Nigerian migrants, Skepta was born Joseph ‘Junior’ Adenuga in September 1982, with his family settling in Tottenham, north London. As a three-year-old, Skepta proved himself adept at making a big impression when he accidentally burnt down the family home when he set his teddy bear on fire.
The 12-track album is littered with lines that skewer the reigning authorities and how that impacts the lives of people of colour in modern Britain. As Skepta says in Shutdown, the song he rapped on stage at the Mercury Prize ceremony, “We don’t listen to no politician.”
One of the album’s tracks, Crime Riddim, recounts Skepta’s personal experiences of a night he spent in a police cell after he was stopped and detained by officers in London.
Skepta has two siblings working in the music industry, with his brother a famous producer and his sister a radio DI on Apple’s streaming service Beats 1 Radio. He also is very close to his parents, who he brought up on stage when accepting his prize, dedicating it to “all the mums and dads, because they made us, they gave us that voice in our head that’s talking to keep us in line, to keep us in check.”
Skepta credits the Internet has having given independent musicians like him a platform to not only make the kind of music they want to make, but also to distribute it. Famously, when Time Out magazine turned up at his home to carry out an interview with him, the journalist noted that everywhere in his house was filled with CDs piled from floor to ceiling.
The award-winner had signed to labels in the past, but has become something of a musical iconoclast, eschewing the controls that music executives assert over their artists and driving home the message that musicians can manifest their own destinies.
“I want to inspire people that make other genres of music to think, ‘Why am I with this record label? They tell me what to do and I don’t feel like myself anymore. So I’m getting out. I’m getting out because of Skepta. Skepta did it,’” he told the BBC.
At his lowest ebb, having been dropped by a major record label and with a close friend close to death, Skepta got an unexpected pick-me-up from one of the world’s biggest musicians, Adele. “One day, I was just chilling and Adele posted up a picture of me [on Twitter] that said ‘Tottenham boy’,” Skepta said.
“I was going to quit... I was going to quit music that day. But that was one of the sickest things that could have happened.”
Skepta was invited to appear on stage by Kanye West when the American rapper gave an incredible performance of All Day at the Brit Awards, and while a number of British grime performers were included in the mix, Skepta was the only one named and thanked by Kanye during the performance.
He’s also got the backing of Drake, with whom he has an ongoing creative relationship of sorts. Skepta was one of the many names Drake thanked in his note that was published with the Canadian’s album If you’re Reading this it’s too Late. Drake even borrows a line from Skepta’s That’s Not Me in the Lil Wayne song Sorry 4 the Wait 2.
While Skepta isn’t afraid to wade into political waters with his lyrics, he says what he really is trying to do is to wake people up to their own prejudices of the world and the people in it.
“I’ve grown up in this society and realised everything I was worried about, from the government to money, I was putting stress on myself. A lot of self-inflicted pain.
“Once I told myself, I don’t want money and I don’t want to be on the telly, and I don’t really want an award, I found myself. I was able to be very true and be free.
“It’s a message I think is important for the kids to know. You don’t need to listen to anyone else. You need to find yourself.”