The Mercury Prize was created in 1992 as a defiant antithesis to the mainstream BRIT Awards. But almost 30 years on, has it grown out of its rebellious teenage phase and been thrust firmly back into the centre that it originally tried to stray from?
This year’s nominations for the coveted Mercury Prize ‘Album of the Year’ includes UK giants like Stormzy and Dua Lipa who, although talented, cannot be categorised as underdogs. This is especially significant when considering that the Mercury Prize, unlike other music awards, offers a cheque for £25,000 to its overall winner. This monetary prize could make a significant difference for those smaller, fringe artists it traditionally tries to uplift, but for an artist like Stormzy, allegedly worth £20 million, this would be but a drop in the ocean.
The prize also offers notoriety to underappreciated artists, like James Blake, who saw a 2,500% sales increase on Amazon after being announced winner in 2013. It doesn’t feel exactly in line with the prize’s ethos to give what could be a life changing award for a smaller artist to someone already very well established. Dua Lipa won three BRIT awards in 2018 and Stormzy won best British male solo artist at the BRIT awards in 2020. Thus, the Mercury Prize appears to have abandoned the more fringe artists it built its brand through supporting, in favour of chart albums.
Moreover, the controversy this year over the exclusion of British-Japanese Artist Rina Sawayama leaves a bad taste. Sawayama was refused submission for the prize due to her lack of citizenship, despite holding an Indefinite Leave to Remain visa and having lived in the UK longer than Dua Lipa has been alive. How can an awards show that stands for diversity and the underdog define ‘Britishness’ in such a homogeneous way? The Mercury Prize judges themselves state that ‘the albums on the 2020 shortlist showcase a great diversity of sounds, styles, ambitions and experience’, but how can that be true whilst simultaneously excluding Sawayama, whose experience is just as wholly British as anybody else’s and whose lyrics directly reference the British experience?
The problems that the Mercury Prize currently faces are not unfixable, and the ceremony itself not irredeemable. Yet, the 2020 nominations feel safe within the industry’s comfort zone. In comparison with last year’s nominations which included the more anarchistic, if controversial, Slowthai and IDLES, this year’s nominations are cookie-cutter artists, better suited for the BRIT awards.
The Mercury Prize should embrace its anti-establishment roots and celebrate smaller, radical artists who exist on the periphery. For example, this year’s nomination Porridge Radio stated: ‘this is the first time we’ve felt acknowledged by the wider music industry’, and it is this which should remain the essence of the Mercury Prize moving forward. They should be highlighting artists and creators who would otherwise go unnoticed or unrecognised in their talent, while dedicating themselves to spotlighting the true diversity of the British music scene. The Mercury Prize may have lost its way, but with a bit of guidance, it could easily find its way back.