The Kanya King Interview
One of the innate abilities of any entrepreneur is being able to identify a gap in the market, or latch on to a wider societal movement that means there is suddenly a demand that needs to be met. In the case of Kanya King MBE, who set up the MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Awards with Andy Ruffell in 1996, it was based on an inherent understanding that the music scene was particularly hard for black artists to get into, and that black music as a whole was not being given the exposure it warranted.
"In the mid-1990s Brit-pop was at its peak, and British urban music was practically invisible to the mainstream, so I wanted to celebrate and recognise artists of any kind of ethnicity or nationality performing black music," she recalls.
"I always knew there was a big void to fill, and I realised early on that there would be additional benefits in celebrating these particular achievements; not just in inspiring individuals to follow their own music but also their entrepreneurial dreams. It was just trying to give hope to a lot of young people. Our ethos from day one was that any person, regardless of their colour or background, should have the opportunity to discover their creativity, and fulfil their potential with the power of music."
King had already had some experience of the music industry, putting on gigs in London and packing out venues such as the Hippodrome, while also working as a researcher for Carlton Television. But her big break for the awards came at a chance encounter at a football match. "I used to work at Highbury and I remember this gentleman arrived late, looking very flustered," she said. "He had arranged to meet his young nephew there and he couldn't find him, so he was just panicking a little bit. I took control of the situation, arranged for a message to go out, found a meeting place and sorted it all out."
He turned out to be the MD of London Weekend Television - part of the wider ITV network - and she proceeded to pitch her idea for a televised awards show. "I guess he would have heard that kind of thing from many different people when he told them what he did for a living," she says. "But the only difference with me was I had his captivated attention, having been very helpful, so I told him about the concept and why it was needed." In the end he asked her to send in a proposal and guaranteed someone from Carlton would be in touch to arrange a meeting.
King set about launching the concept to have something to show Carlton. "We did it at The Ministry of Sound on a Saturday, because it was cheaper than doing it during the week, and invited key people, and we got a lot of support from talent, who said that we need the MOBO Awards to redress the imbalance in music," she recalls.
The TV company liked the proposal, but then came the next challenge; King would have just six weeks to put on the event. "When you get an opportunity like that, you've just got to run with it, and I just grabbed it with both hands, and I was prepared to make all the sacrifices needed to make it happen," she says. She had to find desk space, build a team and attract sponsorship, and even remortgaged her house to find the finances to put on the event. "I didn't have a plan B, but I just knew I needed to make this work," she says.
King received another piece of luck, though, with the names she was able to attract to the inaugural event, particularly getting Tony Blair to attend. "He was leader of the opposition at the time and was seen as the big next hope," she says. "We contacted him, and when they said no, I asked if we could keep in contact in case his schedule changed. There's always a fine line between being a pain and being persistent but we kept in touch and a day before the show they said there was a chance he might be able to attend." In the end he came with his wife Cherie, and other high-profile people including Lennox Lewis.
"Lionel Richie picked up the lifetime achievement award, and Jazzy B was also honoured and made a very moving speech about this being the first accolade in this country that he received. It just motivated me even more, because it proved that this was indeed needed."
King initially started out in the music industry because it would fit around her family life, having had a child at the age of 16. "A lot of people had written me off, because they thought if you've become a parent you're not going to amount to much," she says. "I definitely wanted to prove them wrong, and in a way it made me more determined to work hard. My son was my priority, so I had to ensure he had everything he needed. So I would get up in the early hours of the morning and do promotional work, which could be quite flexible and would fit in with my studying."
Much of King's desire to improve both her own lot and that of others stemmed from her own background, as the youngest of nine siblings. Her mother was a nurse but would take on a number of other roles to make ends meet, including renting out rooms in the family house. Her father died when she was young, leaving a teenage King to forge her own way in life.
"He'd always instilled in me the ethos to be the best I can," she recalls. "I had to work at an early age doing multiple jobs to contribute to the household finances. I had the usual paper round, but I also spent a lot of time in my nearby park, and I found a way of making money by collecting bottles at the park, and returning them to the café which would give me some money." This progressed to other ventures, including selling whistles at Notting Hill Carnival.
"I'd buy them for 35p and sell them for a pound," she says. "I'd persuade my friend to do it with me and we used to position ourselves near the train station. As people came out, lots of people would descend on them trying to sell them something. I used to be a little bit further away and give them a little bit of space, and people used to gravitate towards me. I think it was because I didn't look miserable, and that taught me a valuable lesson."
There were plenty of other lessons to come, as King sought to build up the MOBO Awards after the success of the inaugural event. She admits that after the first ceremony she was approached by lots of people looking for help and support, and had to refocus on building her own business. And there were times when she felt alone. "I felt very isolated; it's not as if there were lots of networks or people I could talk to," she says. "I didn't have the kind of mentors that you might normally have in your family or friends, and I didn't know anybody who was running a business who I could talk to. In business you do need to have that mastermind of networks and I didn't have that, so I was very much learning on the job."
Despite this, the event itself continued to grow and prosper and last year celebrated its 20th ceremony; something which finally gave King the time to reflect on what she has achieved when ITV featured her story in a documentary, showing how the awards had helped to launch the careers of numerous acts, including Craig David, Ms Dynamite, Estelle, Kano, Amy Winehouse, N-Dubz, Chipmunk, Emeli Sandé and Rita Ora. "It reminded me of all the artists that had ever performed at our showcases and events, or supported us in some capacity, and I felt very proud that these people have gone on to have incredible success," she admits. "Those are the things that I'm proudest of really; that we've been able to make some difference to their lives."
Last year was also significant for the MOBO Movement; a series of events designed to encourage talent into other sectors outside of its musical niche, including film, fashion, the arts and literature. This included last year's Rise With Us season, run with ITV2, which saw Sir Lenny Henry presented with a "Paving The Way" award, where a paving slab is laid in a place which helped them along the way; in his case Buffery Park in Dudley, where he had played as a child. "It was a very inspirational moment because he's influenced so many people himself," she says. MC and record producer Wiley was also recognised, and chose to lay his slab in the grounds of Bow School, which both he and his father had attended.
King has also done her bit to help others, including sitting on the board of the entrepreneurial network E2E Exchange and on a government taskforce looking at the music industry, as well as, more recently, working with the London Theatre Consortium to offer fellowships to black, Asian and ethnic minority people looking to break into theatre production. But she's also keen to stress the importance of having the right attitude and belief when starting a business.
"I've always believed a lot of it is around your mindset, and researchers at top universities have found that attitude is far more important than intelligence, money, special talent or luck," she says. "That can help you to overcome the trials and tribulations that come in your way."
Unsurprisingly, given her own personal experiences, she also advises would-be entrepreneurs to build up solid networks and contacts from day one. "You need to surround yourself with the right advice and the right team, cherish relationships and build rapport, because it makes all the difference," she explains.
"If you can connect with people in a somewhat similar situation, who have a track record of overcoming challenges, it means you don't have to do it on your own. That in turn helps you to overcome obstacles or challenges, because when you have a support system or can bounce ideas off someone the problem is almost halved. That's what I would do differently, if I was starting out again."
Despite now being in her third decade at the helm, King is still keen to develop the MOBO brand further. A major focus is MOBO UnSung, which aims to showcase fresh musical talent and give it a platform to perform. "It's about identifying and celebrating the next generation of talent and music, so individuals who may not be household names in their field yet but have already shown incredible promise," she says. "We give them the opportunity to reach their full potential." Regular workshops are also on the cards, giving people the chance to learn about running a business, making money from music and even writing a hit song.
"I've realised more and more that I just like the idea of creating new things and seeing them come to fruition," says King. "That's where the real work comes in. But one of the things we have to do is minimise the ideas, because we have a very creative team." International partnerships are also on the horizon, following the success of last year's collaboration with New York Hip Hop radio station Hot 97, which flew over to support the awards.
Away from MOBO, King also has a few ideas bubbling away. She'd love to write books to inspire others, and also wants to focus on her growing property portfolio, which started after she bought a house at a young age. Then there are all the ones that she's yet to start. "I get so many projects coming in all the time, asking me to get involved in some capacity," she says. "It's nice to do things that mean something to you, and that you can make a difference to. So there's definitely a next chapter, that's for sure."
Post Date: March 15th, 2016