On the winner of the Mercury Prize: Benjamin Clementine

After endless deliberation over who the winner of this ‘enigmatic’, ‘diverse’ and frankly bizarre award could be, last Friday night 26-year-old British-French Benjamin Clementine won the 2015 Mercury Prize for his album At Least For Now.

Supposedly an ‘underdog’– that is to say, the British press did not whip up a huge amount of hysteria around his album – the bookies still foresaw the likelihood of his unlikely success, as it were: allegedly, half of the bets placed since the Tuesday prior to the announcement were in Clementine’s favour.

If Wikipedia classed my music as avant-garde, minimal, art-rock, rock opera, expressionist, chamber pop, classical, folk and spoken word – all at once – I wouldn’t be holding it together like Clementine is. But in many ways these sorts of terms are restrictions; exactly what the Mercury Prize is not about. Clementine’s Nina Simone like vocals (in range and pure soulfulness) are daubed with tenderness. This sonic fragility is placed in counterpoint with dynamic classical piano. He both sings and speaks on songs, of melodies that are not at all obvious – often the rhythms seem to unsettle the piano lines and, only at the last minute, fall together into disturbingly moving sequences.

It is easy to see why, even amongst 11 other groundbreaking nominated records, Clementine won it. His record transfigures genre boundaries, these transgressions assumedly representative of his eclectic life, non-conformist adolescence and early musical career. For Clementine left his London school at 16, moved to Paris at 19, and busked around the Place de Clichy before stumbling across an agent. This sincere realism is heard throughout the album.

Several weeks ago, for this paper, I deliberated the necessity for music prizes at all. But perhaps the idea of a ‘winner’ isn’t important. Speaking to presenter Lauren Laverne, judge Corinne Bailey Rae argued that the shortlist is the most important thing about this prize. And perhaps she’s right. No matter the notes that escape Clementine and his piano – no matter if you’d have preferred an artist of a completely different sound and temperament to win – Clementine represents one of 12 nominated musicians (whom he courteously invited up on stage with him), who in turn stand for a segment of the creativity of our generation.

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During his humbling acceptance speech, Clementine said, “I know it’s about the music, but I want to dedicate this to what happened in Paris”, the city that spawned his musical career. Drowned by this sincerity, Clementine broke down into a startling display of compassion. And it was only when he played again, allowing himself to be engulfed by the song, that Clementine filled with hope once more.

This expression of humanity encapsulates what this industry of ours should be about. Musical subjectivity is rife here, but as an intelligent, considerate human being, Clementine stands for us all. Perhaps music and humanity are not such different things after all