Reporting on a recent event held at Amgueddfa Cymru, Tia-zakura Camilleri reflects on the way institutions are changing to diversify and enhance MOBO presence.
‘To get to a point where we have a prominent MOBO, scene we need more organisations to work together to champion each other’, explains Sizwe Chitiyo (who goes by Szwé on stage), a South Wales-based musician and composer and one of the artists present at New Heights, which took place at Amgueddfa Cymru at the end of January.
The term ‘MOBO’ refers to ‘Music of Black Origin’ and includes genres such as rap, hip-hop, RnB, and jazz. Despite having existed in Wales for decades, the scene has only gained more recognition in recent years through an enhanced effort to support and stage the artists within it. Amgueddfa Cymru’s ‘New Heights’ showcase formed through a partnership with the National Museum of Wales and Arts Council Cymru, is an example of an event attempting to tackle this lack of representation for MOBO artists in Wales.
The showcase, led by Community Events Officer Aaron Schoburgh, aimed to ‘broaden engagement and highlight communities within the museum’. The evening consisted of live performances by Anwar Siziba, Andrew Ogun, Miss Faithee, Cardo and Szwé, and two short film screenings: Black and Welsh by Liana Stewart and The Honey Sessions Mixtape by musician and composer Szwé. Ogun said that the evening ‘celebrated what MOBO artists are doing in Wales’.
Though conceived separately, New Heights was made partially in response to the BBC 100 in Wales exhibition held at Amgueddfa Cymru until April 2023, displaying content from the BBC around Butetown. Liana Stewart’s short film Black and Welsh, featured on BBC iPlayer, explores the history of Butetown and Tiger Bay as a home for many Black people and their feelings about Welsh identity.
Like the BBC 100 exhibition, New Heights was held in the Museum, in the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre. Hosting this event in the museum was a choice that felt surprising, as it is a space often not associated with music, let alone Black music. This was purposeful, and the organisers and artists touched on the importance of holding this event in such a powerful and potentially unfamiliar space. In particular, multidisciplinary artist and Wales Arts Council’s Agent for Change, Andrew Ogun, also one of the event organisers, commented that his philosophy is ‘reimagining spaces, what they can do and who they are for. Many people may associate the museum with history, relics and paintings, and black people might have an even more negative and archaic perception… For us, it was ‘how do we turn this space into something more contemporary and make people feel the museum is relevant… and a space for us?’
Events like New Heights are necessary to acquire the elements needed to fully forge a prominent scene
There has been an array of new strategies to decolonise the museum including Amgueddfa Cymru’s Black Lives Matter Collection ‘Zero Racism for Wales’ curated in partnership with Race Council Cymru, asking how to make working in the museum more viable. The museum’s charter for decolonisation revolves around reviewing the ways in which the museum’s collection and curation may have benefited from imperialist and racist power structures, highlighting the histories of black communities in Wales, and providing staff with extensive training on intersectionality. Reframing Picton, undertaken in partnership with the Sub-Sahara Advisory panel, is a recent example of the museum’s efforts at embedding a decolonial lens in its work. New Heights is another attempt to achieve this decolonisation. ‘We are building relevant spaces within institutions that haven’t necessarily been welcoming to us. The Museum’s audience can be more white middle class so we are here to make a positive change and welcome new communities… breaking down the barriers to accommodate these communities’.
After the event, RnB and Soul singer Miss Faithee says she felt ‘really really special being in a building that’s all pretty… we don’t usually get opportunities like this’. This is seconded by Szwé, who explains:‘The fact this is in the national museum is historic for me, the fact I can say the things that I did on a stage in a building of such importance’. It is evident that being platformed in these (often inaccessible) spaces is beneficial for underrepresented communities, and specifically Black artists. However, why was this such a significant experience for many – artists and audience alike – and not yet a normal one? As Anwar Siziba puts it, ‘music is art and museums display art so fusing the two is powerful’. Why has it taken so long?
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This leads to a bigger question however, about the issues for MOBO artists in Wales. All of the performers at New Heights agreed they had faced challenges as Welsh artists creating Black music. Welsh MOBO has struggled to be recognised so far, as Ogun comments that ‘Wales has a rich history of rock and indie music but it’s not known for its rap, a lot of people don’t understand our genre yet’. Szwé adds that ‘there’s an issue in Wales about how our music is represented – it’s seen as barbaric, rude, unruly. But that’s what makes it one of the best genres. We’re unapologetic.’
The struggle for recognition has no singular answer, but Szwé suggests the expectations placed on musicians in Wales could form a barrier to MOBO artists: ‘it’s funny because Wales loves rap and grime, but they’d love it more if you were Black and speaking it in Welsh. That’s the biggest issue for me – the expectation to perform in Welsh and if you don’t you won’t do as good.’
All of the performers at New Heights agreed they had faced challenges as Welsh artists creating Black music
A lack of racial ‘tolerance’ also seemed to feed into the common dismissal of MOBO music. One song from Szwé’s set, titled ‘Freedom’, was written in response to being wrongly arrested by the police. Szwé explained he has ‘110%’ faced problems in Wales based on how he looks, and that perhaps people forget ‘we don’t make Music of Black Origin, we make Welsh Music of Black Origin’.
Anwar Siziba adds that black singers face different barriers: ‘being one of the only male RnB singers in Wales, it’s hard to find [other] male vocalists’. Miss Faithee highlights that the disadvantages for singers include ‘not enough showcases – men get to a level where they rap and they’re heard – girls and guys that sing need to be heard. Singers aren’t taken seriously, we’re just background vocals in rappers’ tunes’.
Events like New Heights are necessary to acquire the elements needed to fully forge a prominent scene. To get to a point where MOBO is fully flourishing as a scene, Ogun suggests that ‘we need news outlets, multimedia, promoters, social media marketing, support. It takes more than just music creation to make a scene… We have the talent and community but the platforms aren’t there yet… we need to create something of our own and start owning these platforms to be the ones in control. We need more of our people in those higher up positions.’
For me, New Heights was another step in the long-term journey of Welsh MOBO excellence. The event succeeded in bringing individual artists together and empowering them. It platformed artists in what has previously felt like foreign territory and as Siziba, who is both a singer and university lecturer, said, it ‘passed back down the knowledge to inspire up and coming creatives’. For Szwé it shows young black boys and girls that “these are your venues and you can perform here”.
However, there is still much more to be done. Schoburgh tells us that “there’s hopes to host these events on a monthly basis”. Amgueddfa Cymru are also working on a Black mining project for Black History Month. Additionally, after a successful run of a similar in Liverpool, Arts Council Wales have partnered with PRSFoundation on Power Up to support Black music/content creators to get to the next step in their career. In partnership with independent music distributor ‘Believe’ and supported by companies such as Google and Spotify, their aim is to create a self-sustaining action group to drive Black music forward in Wales through a series of digital masterclasses for Black music creators based in Wales.
What’s next for the artists?
Beyond New Heights, Miss Faithee is planning more releases to gain a better connection with her audience. She hopes to create more music videos which you can access on her Youtube channel and potentially embark on a tour. Similarly, Anwar Siziba recently released an EP entitled Afro Love and will soon release an Afrobeats single called ‘LeLe’. Szwé hopes to do more for the music scene and community, and Ogun has recently been sponsored by Turtle Bay, receiving funding which will allow him to create more music.
All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.
This article was co-edited by Maisie Allen and Marine Furet, thanks to the Book Council of Wales’ New Audiences Fund.