Singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka has won the 2020 Mercury Prize for his soul-searching third record, Kiwanuka.
A lush, immersive album of politicised soul, it sees the star exploring themes of self-doubt, faith and civil rights.
Released last November, Kiwanuka beat best-sellers like Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Stormzy’s Heavy Is The Head to win the £25,000 prize.
“It’s blown my mind,” said the singer. “Music is all I’ve ever wanted to do, so I’m over the moon.”
Kiwanuka’s victory was revealed by Radio 1’s Annie Mac live on The One Show, after Covid-19 restrictions made the annual award ceremony impossible.
The DJ, who was on the panel of judges alongside the likes of Jamie Cullum and Jorja Smith, said it had been a “unanimous” decision.
“I don’t think any of the judges walked away feeling unhappy,” she said.
The 33-year-old, whose Ugandan parents escaped Idi Amin’s regime to settle in Muswell Hill, London, is a former session musician who dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music to become a solo artist.
He first came to attention after supporting Adele on her 2011 tour and winning the BBC’s Sound of 2012. He released his debut album, Home Again, later that year.
Kiwanuka cemented his reputation with 2016’s Love And Hate, which made him a star in the US when the opening song, Cold Little Heart, became the theme tune to the TV series Big Little Lies.
Despite his success, his latest album emerged from a period of crippling self-doubt.
“I’ve always had imposter syndrome,” he told the BBC last year. “I was always waiting for someone to find me out.
“But about a year and a half ago, I got tired of that way of thinking. I just went, ‘This isn’t helping anyone, least of all me.'”
The result was Kiwanuka’s opening track, You Ain’t The Problem, on which the musician vows to stop getting in his own way, singing: “I used to hate myself / You got the key / Break out the prison.”
The record continues as a song cycle where Kiwanuka’s own experiences and fears are interwoven with samples of civil rights campaigners and reflections on racial politics.
On the psych-rock soliloquy Hero, he compares the murder of 1960s Black Panther activist Fred Hampton with recent US police shootings. Exasperated, he turns to God for answers on the call-and-response coda of I’ve Been Dazed.
Released last November, the album earned rave reviews and reached number two in the UK charts. In July, it earned Kiwanuka a hat-trick of three Mercury nominations for his first three albums.
And it is the latest album reflecting the experiences of young black Britons to be chosen by Mercury judges. Kiwanuka is the fifth black male solo artist to win the award in the past six years. Rapper Dave won for Psychodrama last year.
Announcing the winner on The One Show will undoubtedly gave Kiwanuka’s record extra exposure. The prime-time BBC One programme regularly attracts three million viewers, compared with the 155,000 who tuned in to last year’s final on BBC Four.
The full 2020 shortlist was:
- Laura Marling – A Song For Our Daughter
- Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
- Porridge Radio – Every Bad
- Sports Team – Deep Down Happy
- Kano – Hoodies All Summer
- Anna Meredith – FIBS
- Georgia – Seeking Thrills
- Lanterns on the Lake – Spook the Herd
- Moses Boyd – Dark Matter
- Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
- Stormzy – Heavy is the Head
- Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka
The shortlist was praised for highlighting female artists, who outnumbered men for the first time in the prize’s 29-year history.
But organisers came under fire for excluding British-Asian artist Rina Sawayama because she does not hold a British passport.
After the singer said she was “heartbroken” by the decision, the BPI, which organises both the Mercury Prize and the Brit Awards, said it would review its eligibility criteria.