Last Wednesday night was a very, very good night for hip-hop in Boston.Dorchester rapper Cousin Stizz became the first-ever hip-hop artist to earn Artist of the Year honors at the Boston Music Awardsceremony. He also took Hip-Hop Artist of the Year for the second straight year.
The genre’s renaissance in the city was echoed by a near-sweep of the cross-genre categories, with other big wins from STL GLD for Live Artist of the Year and Latrell James’ “Okay” for Song of the Year. Their wins, along those of hip-hop artists at every career stage, mark a promising shift for an awards competition that has previously heavily reflected rock- and pop-leaning trends.
The 31st installment – the third time at the House of Blues – of the Boston Music Awards was the biggest yet with a newly expanded pool of 10 nominees in each of 36 categories. With such a large group of competitors, getting a grasp on the depth of talent every category features feels near-impossible. But if the goal is to stir up conversation about the best of Boston’s musical talents, more names are helpful. This year offered a more thorough representation, more powerful recognition,and a wider understanding of what it means to make art here.
This year’s nomination roster featured as wide a spread of talent as ever, ranging from the area’s most commercially successful and well-known breakouts (Joyner Lucas, Clairo, Converge) to rising talents regionally. The BMAs often face criticism for this uneven setup that pitsnational acts against locals with vastly fewer resources, but this year’s outcomes were mostly refreshing, suggesting that raw talent, when paired with a fervent and hard-earned local fanbase, can compete with the name recognition that comes with big-money industry support, at least on the BMA scale.
Months ago, the 2018 nominee list hinted that hip-hop was having a massive year in Boston — six out of this year’s ten Artist of the Year contenders staked out different corners of the genre — and the awards effectively measured them on both national and local levels. Atlantic Records signee Joyner Lucas took Music Video of the Year with the pointedly political “I’m Not Racist,” which is also a current 2019 Grammy nominee for Best Music Video.
This marked Lucas’s second consecutive win in the category, following last year’s first place for “Just Like You.” In his case, it’s worth acknowledging that in a category where production resources and promotional abilities matter, major-label backing is likely to give nominees a significant edge.
For all that, the area’s most established artists didn’t dominate the night. The show was arguably stolen by rising hip-hop artists Oompa (who took both 617Sessions Artist of the Year and Unsigned Artist of the Year) and Cliff Notez (New Artist of the Year). Both performances were high-energy highlights, including Cliff Notez’s well-received “F--- the system” call-and-response and a jazz-inflected rendition of Oompa’s “Catch 22.”
The nights awards and sets, including a soulful pop-rap performance by Peabody native Justin Clancy, demonstrated a range of interpretations of what hip-hop is right now. More importantly, in a city that hasn’t always given the genre as many footholds as it needs or deserves, the awards made a powerful statement about its cultural importance here.
With honors selected by the vote of both the nomination committee and the public, the BMAs called attention to the fact that Boston has a measurable appetite for more hip-hop. The question that naturally follows: Can that attention bring along more opportunities for artists?
This year’s winners also showed that in 2018, there’s more than one way to make a name as an artist, even without a label. Two of the city’s Bandcamp breakouts took home awards: Viral bedroom-pop singer Clairo claimed Pop Artist of the Year, while past 617Sessions participant Sidney Gish returned to win Album of the Year with her playful release, “No Dogs Allowed.” With “extremely online” fanbases and the warp-speed revelations of internet fame taken into account, it’ll be interesting to see where both of their careers will be this time next year.
Big winners aside, the night had no shortage of memorable moments. Last year’s Country Artist of the Year winner,Ashley Jordan, took the title again, although her win was perhaps overshadowed by her show-opening performance, which included a cover of Dropkick Murphy’s “Shippin’ Up to Boston” converted into a decided country stomp.
2016 Rock/Indie Artist of the Year winner The Devil’s Twins returned to claim Rock Artist of the Year, also delivering a ferocious punk-noir set. The show also supported the community by making space for the latest installment 617Sessions performances, and by highlighting the work of Cambridge organization The Hip-Hop Transformation, which included a previously unannounced (but impressive) performance by program alum Tashawn Taylor.
It’s easy to find reasons to feel cynical about awards shows, especially those that hinge on an internet-wide, social media-spun popular vote, but this year’s Boston Music Awards felt like progress. Sometimes, it’s the smaller moments that make an awards show meaningful, but this year there was plenty to draw from moments big and small.
Boston’s music scene, often described in the singular, gets plenty of lip service for being a small community — but despite relative size, it’s more of a cluster of adjacent scenes gathered around genres, neighborhoods, and social circles. It’s a rare feat to get everyone in a room together to blur the edges between communities, and rarer still to take away a message with the potential to move a community forward. By underscoring hip-hop’s importance and the talent of up-and-comers that have the potential to rival bigger names, the BMAs pulled it off last Wednesday night.
This story was first published on December 13 by WBUR 90.9FM, Boston’s NPR News Station. WBUR and the Reporter have a partnership in which the two news organziations share resources and content.