Written off as a single young mum, Kanya King went on to found Europe’s largest urban music awards show
Asked to advise young people on business success, Kanya King singles out perseverance as the key ingredient. “I have always said if you do whatever it takes for as long as it takes and refuse to quit, success is only a matter of time,” says the founder and chief executive of the Mobo Organisation.
She might as well have been describing her own rags-to-riches story. Born to a Ghanaian father and an Irish mother as the youngest girl in a family of nine children, she failed to live up to early expectations. “My parents wanted me to become a teacher, instead I left school at 16 and became a parent,” she laughs.
She did try to gain a university education, studying drama and English at Goldsmiths, University of London but she was kicked out because she didn’t attend enough lectures. “It was not because I was out partying. I had a mortgage and a young son. It was actually quite difficult trying to balance it all and ensure that I could pay the bills.”
Today she has plenty to smile about. At Mobo she employs hundreds of people, staging the largest urban music awards show in Europe, attracting 250 million viewers worldwide. She founded the Mobos in 1996, having noticed that there was nowhere for artists, who played the music she loved, to showcase their talent. “I was surrounded by great musicians who weren’t getting the recognition they deserved, so as a hobby I was organising gigs and music events in my spare time and the turnout was incredible,” she explains.
Later, while working as a television researcher, the opportunity to stage the first Mobo awards came along. She had been knocking on many doors seeking backing for her idea of an awards show for music of black origin, but was repeatedly turned away by people who claimed there was no audience.
When, in 1996, she finally got a broadcast slot on Carlton Television but was given just six weeks to set up the event, she jumped at the chance. “I knew that when you get opportunities like that you just have to grasp them and run with them. It wasn’t a question of whether I should do it, it was more a question of, how can I do this?” She remortgaged her house, set up an office in her bedroom and enlisted a group of friends to help prepare the event.
Proving just how much can be done in six weeks, when the first Mobo awards show took place at the New Connaught Rooms in London, Lionel Richie headlined and Tony Blair, then leader of the opposition, was in the audience. The event was a massive success and a year later the awards moved to the Royal Albert Hall. It has since become a fixture in the music industry and has featured performances from many leading artists, including Tina Turner, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West and Amy Winehouse.
King always harboured an ambition to start her own business, even if the expectations for her at school were low. “Whenever I talked passionately about what I wanted to do in careers advice sessions I was always told that I needed to be more realistic and that if I worked really hard I could maybe one day become a manager in Sainsbury’s,” she says. “Not that it wouldn’t have been an honourable career, but it just wasn’t what I wanted.”
Having lost her father when she was 13, King’s mother often relied on her to help pay the bills, so she quickly became used to juggling jobs and developed a knack for spotting a business opportunity. “Any type of event out there I would look at to see how I could generate an income for what I needed,” she says.
Rather than formal training, it was a mix of passion, persistence and an enterprising mind that helped her set up and grow the business. “I didn’t have the skills that you would normally need to set up a business, I didn’t go into a sector I was familiar with and I didn’t have the guidance of an accountant or a legal person in the family,” she says. “I have learnt on the job and you learn very quickly, but sometimes it is the best way to learn—by actually doing.”
Her risk-averse mother would clearly have preferred her to follow a more conventional employment path. “At the first show when my mother met Tony Blair she was telling him how hard-working her daughter was. She was basically trying to get me a job because she couldn’t accept the fact that I was running a business and employing people,” she says. At what point did her mother realise that she was doing a proper job? “Probably when I was given my MBE in 1999; I guess she thought that I was doing OK after all.”
Since that first year the Mobo Organisation has gone from strength to strength. “We grew very quickly and we became a beacon organisation with a high profile,” says King. She set out to be the biggest from the start. “I always had a strong vision and I was very ambitious in where I thought the brand should be. We spent a long time building a strong branding policy that ultimately would facilitate expansion into other areas beyond the music. We have already extended the brand to magazines and other events. The website has opened up so many opportunities and we’ll be doing lots of new products and services,” she says.
Although still deeply involved with the day-to-day running of the business, King recognises this will change as the organisation expands further. She sees herself more as an ambassador: “I’d describe my role as that of a driver and innovator who ties the pieces together and brings in new opportunities.”
She credits her mother for her motivation. “I lost my mother in 2008, but she has always been my greatest inspiration. Here was a strong Irish lady who came to this country when she was very young and suffered a lot of discrimination. She didn’t have the opportunities women have today, so however difficult things get it will never be as hard as what my parents experienced.”
Perhaps King’s constant sunny disposition is owed to what she knows about her mother’s struggle. For her, the glass is always half full. Difficulties are challenges and obstacles merely opportunities in disguise. Surely, in a male-dominated industry, it must have been hard to be taken seriously?
“As a woman, sometimes people do question your capability and people have asked to see the boss, but I think the positives far outweigh the negatives,” she explains. “People remember you when you have meetings and you are the only woman because you stand out, so I don’t feel there have been any barriers at all.”
If 14 years ago people in the UK doubted a place for urban music, it is different today. “The perception of urban music used to be incorrectly assumed to be niche, but the face of Britain is changing. There is a new generation of Britishness and the common denominator for that is urban youth culture. We represent the fashion, music, language, trends and culture of today’s urban youth,” she says.
But for King the Mobo Organisation is about much more than an awards show. She takes cultural and social responsibilities seriously. “Profit is important, but I think it is important to play a role in the community and it has always been part of our ethos.” She doesn’t see herself as a spokesperson but is regularly consulted on social issues and sits on government task forces. “When you put your head above the parapet you are often contacted to get involved or champion new initiatives.
Mobo has become a key source of information and advice,” she explains. Encouraging and supporting young people to enter business is particularly relevant for her and she has been working on an initiative giving practical advice.
“It is hugely rewarding. You are talking about kids at school level who come up with ideas that are sustainable for their local communities and are given a mentor and financial support. I would have loved that when I was at school,” she says.
Moving the awards show to Glasgow last year—the first time outside London—demonstrates, she adds, that the Mobos want to innovate. “We have always tried to find new ways of bringing urban music to a new audience and that is why we decided to take the awards to Glasgow. Some people thought it was great but others questioned the move,” she says, adding that the venue switch was precisely about acknowledging that the music is listened to across the UK. “But we also wanted to demonstrate our belief that talent is found in every corner of the British Isles.”
The move was a triumph. The venue could have sold out many times over, the BBC live transmission had double viewing figures and the show boosted Scotland’s event and tourism industries, but King acknowledges it was risky: “If you are looking to do things differently you have to take risks. Some people asked us why we were going outside London—well, why not? And it has paid off.”
She now plans to take the show to other UK cities and “we will be doing an international event in the future. We engage with so many people from across the world on our website, and any business that has a website is not just about the UK anymore.”
Alan Edwards, chief executive of the Outside Organisation, says the music world has a lot for which to thank King. “The Mobos are as much as anything a testament to Kanya’s unswerving commitment and vision to the elevation of music of black origin to its rightful place,” he says. “Prior to her arrival on the scene black music was very much the poor relative, a token award stuck on the back of other things. A glance at any chart over the last 50 years would illustrate the incredible significance of black music to the culture and commercial success of popular music. Without Kanya’s dedication, it would still be largely left in a corner in terms of recognition.”
King is well aware of her impact. “Before the Mobos there was no MTV Base or Radio 1Xtra. Urban music is an important genre and we have helped it make the transition from what was considered niche to mainstream,” she says. “We have become a voice for a large part of the community that in some sense feels disenfranchised, so we have always had that social and cultural responsibility.”
Giving these artists the exposure they deserve, she adds, helps them to take charge of their careers. “A lot of acts we work with are very entrepreneurial. The language of urban music and entrepreneurship are so entwined. These guys seek opportunities, take risks and innovate, and that is the profile of a good entrepreneur.”
More than a decade after setting up the Mobo Organisation and with an honorary fellowship from Goldsmiths in the bag, King is still determined to prove people wrong. “Many people had written me off as a young single mum. They thought ‘well… you are not going to achieve anything’. There are a lot of young people who feel the same—that because you come from a council flat and you have no money your chances of achieving your potential are limited. Well, no, you don’t have to have extraordinary talent to achieve things, you have to be committed and focused.”
by Tina Nielsen