Interview: Kanya King - King maker

BORN TO poverty and a single mum at 16, Kanya King turned her life around when she founded the Mobo Awards.

Now she's bringing the show to Glasgow and inspiring a new generation could be standing in any dreary windowless basement office in central London. There are faded carpet tiles, an old fire extinguisher and lots of uninspiring furniture. Overhead there's the steady rumble of traffic and a forlorn half-full mug of cold coffee sits on the edge of a laminate table.

But this isn't any old office, and the person at the helm is about as far from David Brent as you could imagine. A 6ft glittering sculpture bearing the letters "MOBO" is the giveaway that this is no ordinary workplace, and greeting me, standing next to it – nearly 6ft tall herself with hair and heels – is the inimitable Kanya King, the founder of the Music of Black Origin awards (Mobos for short) which this year leave London for the first time to take place at the SECC in Glasgow on 30 September. And with nominees including Beyonc, Kanye West, Mariah Carey and Alexandra Burke and rumoured performers including Alesha Dixon, Dizzee Rascal and Jermaine Jackson, this year's awards promise to be among the best so far.

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It's the morning after the party at the Mayfair Hotel to announce the nominations for this year's awards, and King (who refuses to disclose her age but, calculations suggest, is 39) is clutching a cup of Starbucks coffee almost as big as a Mobo statuette. Last night she was all big hair, towering heels and immaculate make-up, and this morning she's, well, just as glamorous, but dressed down in black jeans and a T-shirt.

She leads me through the nondescript office, staffed, of course, by the requisite trendy, young, beautiful people, and into a meeting room where an enormous framed montage of the movers and shakers of the urban music world – Tina Turner, P Diddy, Beyonc, Lionel Ritchie – leans against one wall. On a table sits a mock-up model of the Mobo stage, complete with tiny plastic performers.

King crosses her legs, takes a gulp of her latte and lets out a long breath, simultaneously flashing me the same 1000 megawatt smile she wore for the assembled paparazzi last night. With the Mobo awards now in its 14th year, no one could blame her for feeling a little tired, but she seems as wide-eyed with excitement as if she were organising the very first show. But then, with the Mobos moving out of London for the first time, she's facing a whole new set of challenges.

"We've reached our 14th year. We've grown up now and it's time we moved from our birthplace," she says animatedly. "Over the years we've had e-mails from people asking why the event is always in London when our fans are nationwide. Paul Bush (the chief operating officer of EventScotland] had seen the show and thought our passionate audience would fit in very well with the Glaswegian audience. Plus, there's a strong live music scene there, it was awarded Unesco City of Music… there just seemed to be so many links with us. We pride ourselves on bringing Mobo to the masses, and we've never really done what people have expected from us."

Certainly, bringing the Mobos to Glasgow is an unexpected move. Glasgow audiences may have been praised by numerous artists as among the most animated and responsive in the world, but they're not necessarily the most racially diverse. King was initially accused of making the Mobos "too black", then as the event became more mainstream and embraced artists such as Joss Stone, very quickly the Mobos began being described as "too white".

"People have tried to pigeonhole us … but this music has never been more mainstream than it is today," she says. "People misunderstand. Because they hear 'black' in the title, they think it means artists of black origin. But it's music. Most people would agree that most popular music today has its origins in black heritage, but before the Mobos there was no vehicle around where these artists' music could be championed.

"Our mission statement has been to honour the past and inspire the future, and I feel that in the past that hasn't been done. A lot of the artists we've grown up listening to didn't get the recognition they deserved; black videos weren't played on MTV for a long time. But music is universal and Mobo is the sound of Britain at the moment so it's fitting that it's outside London."

King's story is textbook rags-to-riches. Born to an Irish mother and a Ghanaian father, she grew up in London with eight siblings. Her father died when she was 13 and her mother looked to her to help pay the bills. She became pregnant at 16, and was on track to becoming just another statistic, but was unwilling to have her path in life decided for her by an impoverished upbringing.

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Spotting a gap in the market, and with determination, the ability to work hard and charisma on her side, she set up the first Mobo awards in 1996, a roaring success attended by then Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie. The awards ceremony has gone on to become a fixture on the music industry's calendar, with performances by everyone from Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake to Tina Turner, Jay-Z and Amy Winehouse. Today the show has a global television audience of up to 250 million people.

Indeed, King credits the rags portion of her story with inspiring the riches. "I would hate to have had a privileged background where I don't know what it's like to be without," she says. "I think that shaped me, who I am. I'd hate to have been given everything in life, because it's made me appreciate more what I do have. Growing up having everything, I don't know, will you have the same desire?"

King has mingled with some of the biggest names in the music industry, and indeed, in the world; she talks casually about meeting Blair, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, for whom she organised an event at the House of Commons commemorating his inauguration. She describes the US president as "charismatic", laughing about the fact that she considered trying to get him to travel to this year's awards, but changed her mind when she realised how much his security would cost.

"I've met lots of phenomenal people but those humble people who have come from adversity are the ones who inspire me. There are loads of people of my mother's generation who've spent their whole life working for others. And who knows about them? What recognition do they get?"

King returns repeatedly to the subject of her mother, who died last year. Charged with bringing up nine children and caring for an ill husband, while being unable to turn to her extended family because she'd chosen to marry a black man, it is this remarkable woman (who went on to start her own business, running a hotel, at the age of 70) whom King looks to for strength and inspiration.

"My mum spent her whole time trying to care for other people, even in addition to us. I used to wake up to find that she'd rented out the living room to a homeless person," she says, smiling. "So I always think, no matter how difficult and challenging things are it's never going to be as bad as what my parents had to deal with. In a way I can never complain. So long as I've got somewhere to live I feel I'm blessed, because often my mother didn't have this. Our gas and electricity bills would be cut off and mum would look to me to pay the electricity bill. So from a young age I knew I had to get things done and make things happen."

And make things happen she did. She started banging down the doors of a music industry riddled with nepotism, was repeatedly told that there was "no market" for her idea, and without contacts or guidance, had to forge her own way. She credits "passion and enthusiasm" for taking her two thirds of the way, but perhaps it was a determination to escape the well-trodden path of becoming a teenage single mother on benefits that took her the rest of the journey.

"I was determined that I wasn't going to be that stereotype," she says. "Just because you're a single parent it doesn't mean you can't achieve or be self-motivated, responsible or community-orientated. I didn't want to allow people to write me off because that's what I felt was happening. It was like, 'what a shame, she could have been something'. I thought, actually no, I have a responsibility now and I have to show a great example. I have to practice what I preach."

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Today she feels a similar sense of responsibility to the young artists for whom the Mobo awards is a money-can't-buy platform, many of whom have come from backgrounds similar to her own. Far removed from the image of the soulless chew em' up and spit em' out music executive, King seems to have an almost maternal mindset when it comes to the musicians she helps to nurture via the Mobos.

She is particularly excited about the recently launched, a forum to help budding artists develop their skills and communicate with one another, and, after finding that 50 per cent of the calls to the Mobo office are enquiries from people looking to start their own business, is in the process of launching a business development platform on the site.

At the previous night's nominations, wearing a daringly short Christian Audigier dress and with her black curls tumbling down over her shoulders, everyone wanted to speak to her, from fat cats in the music industry to endless throngs of young men wearing sunglasses indoors and weighed down with bling. King made time for them all, smiling graciously as she went, but became most animated when she spoke to the young up-and-coming artists, from Chipmunk to Master Shortie, who'd turned up to hear their names make the shortlist.

"A lot of the time they feel like there's no hope," she says with a shrug. "They wonder what opportunities they really have. If you're coming from a broken family or you only have one parent or haven't got anyone guiding you, a lot of the time music inspires you and a lot of the artists you're listening to inspire you. It kind of gives you a sense of hope and I feel that sense of duty and responsibility to these aspiring artists."

Hearing her speak these words, King seems at odds with the typical image of the music industry bigwig. The previous night I stood in a room that seemed divided into two types of people: the ruthless industry insiders who hold the golden keys to success and will spend the rest of their lives leaving parties in Bentleys, and the bright-eyed young things with one foot in the door, likely to get a year or two in the spotlight if they're lucky. Then at the centre of it all was a woman who, after 14 years in the business, still believes in championing black music and giving young artists a platform they'd otherwise never benefit from. She seems unspoiled by that most notorious of industries, and after more than a decade is still grinning with all the enthusiasm of the young up-and-coming musicians whose names have made the shortlist of nominees.

King offers up one last anecdote about her beloved mother before she trots off through the dreary office, taking a final sip of her never-ending latte: "You know it's quite funny; when my mum came to the first show in 1996, I had all these very senior execs in the music industry there, and she was telling them all that I had a lot of determination, that I'd do very well at a record label; she was trying to get a job for me because it was a while before she saw this as a 'real' job. And they were saying to her, 'I don't think your daughter needs a job; she's doing just fine'."

The Mobo awards are at the SECC in Glasgow on Wednesday 30 September and live on BBC3 with edited highlights shown on BBC1 a few days later. Tickets cost 29-49, visit for details.