Opinion: Why Young Fathers deserve the 2014 Mercury Prize
The Edinburgh group's win suggests there’s still a place for music which lies outside what's sold to us as being acceptably ‘out there’
Congratulations to Edinburgh’s Young Fathers, only the third Mercury Prize winner from Scotland in its 22-year history – and certainly its least heralded, considering the hype that Primal Scream and Franz Ferdinand swept in on in 1992 (the first ever Mercury) and 2004, respectively. Judging by the social media reaction after the announcement yesterday evening, even those on the Scottish scene who have known and supported the group for many years couldn’t quite believe they’d done it, not from an open field which also included old-stager Damon Albarn, emerging hype-generators Royal Blood and FKA Twigs, and the genuinely brilliant and era-defining (as a poet, anyway) Kate Tempest.
In the aftermath of the win it became an amusing sport, watching profilers of the group bat around their appeal and reasons for winning, even as most of them were hurriedly listening to Dead, the album which won the Prize, once again. Clearly they had glossed over it when compiling their preview features on the runners and riders, most likely burning a hole in their preview copies of Tempest’s Everybody Down in the process.
On one hand – despite their SAY Award win earlier this year for 2013 album Tape Two – Young Fathers were simply one of the shortlist’s outsiders, more esoteric and unknown than a lot of others on there. On the other, it was almost as if they had been designed to be unknowable: a Liberian, a Nigerian and a Scot, all from Edinburgh, all making hip hop music. There’s no-one else out there to give context to such a group, is there? Hopefully now, the wider world will look to Scotland as home of much of the UK’s most vital and socially conscious new rap music, from Loki to Stanley Odd, Hector Bizerk and beyond.
Their win suggests there’s still a place for music which lies outwith the closed consensus of what is sold to us as being acceptably ‘out there’, the narrow sightlines which tell us that Radiohead (while being a great band) are about as experimental as any group could ever hope to be. Many have been left amused by the viral think-piece attributed to The Telegraph’s chief music critic this week which pondered ‘Why none of these albums deserves to win the Mercury Prize’. Why did they not give it to Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, Paloma Faith or Kasabian, he wheezed. Because artistic merit equals pound signs and chart placings, right?
This year’s Mercury panel are to be congratulated for selecting an eclectic shortlist and for giving the award to one of the least likely bands on there: a group who have delivered an album rich in attitude, contemporary resonance, melody and sonic adventurism. There is, sadly as ever, an unspoken racial overtone to questions of where they might go now: whenever a Mercury panel chooses a black British artist or artists, the implied suggestion always persists from the commentariat that it’s an edgy choice and that the group must go on to prove themselves anew. Ms Dynamite and Speech Debelle buckled under the pressure and are held up as the most extreme examples of the curse of the Mercury, while Dizzee Rascal’s career only kicked into new life when he reinvented himself as a Calvin Harris-abetted East End wideboy.
These are never issues which The xx or James Blake had to contend with, despite their unknown status when they received their own awards. It’s to be hoped that neither obscurity nor a dulling of their creative edge awaits Young Fathers, but it’s perhaps also not fair to expect boundless success alongside a refusal to compromise from them. From their teenage beginnings as Edinburgh b-boy boy band 3-Style, they’ve been well managed, through their deal with Anticon and up to this point, and their deliciously terse thank you speech suggests they’re happy to do things on their own terms. They are, awards aside, clearly single-minded musicians who are unafraid of hard work and persistence, and it would be a shame if this transient success threw them off course.