Mercury Prize: Ezra Collective become first jazz act to win in award’s 31-year history

Ezra Collective have been named winners of the 2023 Mercury Prize for their album Where I’m Meant to Be, making them the first jazz act to win the Mercury Prize.

For years the award has been mocked for its annual inclusion of a “token jazz album”, which makes the win for Where I’m Meant to Be – a record that blends jazz, dub, funk and Afrobeat – all the more surprising.

On hearing their name called out, the five bandmates looked ecstatic as they celebrated in their seats before taking the stage in a whirlwind of red confetti.

“Let me thank God because if a jazz band winning the Mercury Prize doesn’t make you believe in God I don’t know what will,” joked frontman Femi Koleoso.

“We met in a youth club,” he continued. “This moment that we’re celebrating right here is testament to good, special people putting time and effort into young people to play music.”

Speaking about the importance of supporting young musical acts, he added: “Let me tell you something serious, something real, we have something special in the UK by way of young musicians so let’s continue to support that.”

Presenting the prize, DJ Jamz Supernova called the London band’s second album an “uplifting and timely record that represents the very best of where we are now in 2023”.

Released in November 2022, Where I’m Meant to Be won adoration from fans and critics. The album, which debuted at No 1 on the UK Jazz and Blues chart, invited guest stars including Kojey Radical, Emeli Sandé, Nao, and Sampa the Great to lend their mellifluous vocals on several tracks.

Ezra Collective on the red carpet at the 2023 Mercury Prize ceremony (PA)
Ezra Collective on the red carpet at the 2023 Mercury Prize ceremony (PA)

Last month, Ezra Collective performed at Dorset’s We Out Here festival. The Independent’s Isobel Lewis praised their “epic, fiery set”, writing that the “bolshy bangers demonstrate the phenomenal musical prowess of all five members”.

As first-time nominees, the jazz outfit were up against stiff competition but ultimately triumphed over alternative electro-pop duo Jockstrap and south London hip-hop artist Loyle Carner, who were pegged as favourites to win the illustrious award, which is given to the best British or Irish album of the year and comes with a £25,000 cash price.

The band – comprising frontman and drummer Femi Koleoso, bassist TJ Koleoso, keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi, and tenor saxophonist James Mollison – were all in attendance at the ceremony.

London hip-hop artist Loyle Carner was among the favourites to win for his album ‘hugo’ (PA)
London hip-hop artist Loyle Carner was among the favourites to win for his album ‘hugo’ (PA)

After being announced as the winners, Ezra Collective performed for a second time on Thursday night, delivering a joyous rendition of their aptly titled song “Victory Dance”.

Other acts to be shortlisted for the award included pop singer RAYE for her triumphant and long-awaited debut, My 21st Century Blues, afro-swing rapper J Hus, and Scotland’s psychedelic hip-hop trio Young Fathers.

The consensus among the critics in attendance at the event was that this year’s Mercury Prize was one of the hardest to call in recent history.

Jazz-pop artist, BBC Radio 2 DJ, and regular judge Jamie Cullum told The Independent that this was “a wide open year of beautiful complex and extraordinary albums”.

Similarly, RAYE – who was seen in the audience grinning ear-to-ear when Ezra Collective’s name was announced – echoed Cullum’s sentiment, praising the quality of each entry and suggesting that, in a way, it felt as though “every shortlisted artist was a winner”.

The annual ceremony returned to the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith, London, on Thursday night. It was a starry occasion attended by the shortlisted artists along with judges such as jazz-pop artist Jamie Cullum and musician Anna Calvi.

Many of the nominated acts performed live during the event, including pop singer Jessie Ware, soul singer Olivia Dean, rapper and singer Shygirl, who delivered a mesmerising performance of a track from her 2022 album Nymph, and Irish folk group Lankum.

Fellow first-time nominee RAYE was seen grinning in the audience as Ezra Collective accepted their award (PA)
Fellow first-time nominee RAYE was seen grinning in the audience as Ezra Collective accepted their award (PA)

Of the 12 acts to be shortlisted, only three were not in attendance. J Hus pulled out at the last minute due to illness, while both Sheffield rockers Arctic Monkeys and dance artist-producer Fred Again are currently away on tour.

Closing the ceremony, Carner offered a poignant and typically flawless performance of his song “HG” to a rousing reception. The 28-year-old was among the favourites to win this evening’s prize with his third album, Hugo, an exceptional and deeply personal work that tackles everything from parenthood to race.

Tracks such as “Hate” and “Nobody Knows” delve into his conflicting feelings about his identity as a mixed-race man of Guyanese and British heritage, while “Homerton” is a languidly delivered but lyrically piercing study of legacy.

Speaking on the red carpet ahead of the ceremony, Carner said that he found it “scary” to share his album with the world, which explores his reconciliation with his estranged father as he became a father to his first child in 2020.

Several of the shortlisted albums this year came from previous nominees, including Arctic Monkeys, who were nominated for a fourth time with their 2022 album, The Car, and Carner, who was last shortlisted in 2017 with his debut, Yesterday’s Gone.

In addition to Ezra Collective, Jockstrap were fellow first-time Mercury Prize nominees. Comprising Cornwall-born vocalist/violist Georgia Ellery and London-based producer Taylor Skye. Jockstrap formed while its members were studying at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

Jockstrap received their first Mercury nod for ‘I Love You Jennifer B’ (PA)
Jockstrap received their first Mercury nod for ‘I Love You Jennifer B’ (PA)

Their Mercury-nominated debut album, I Love You Jennifer B, was released last year and spans multiple genres and influences, from classical to dance and techno.

In an interview with The Independent earlier this year, Ellery said that making music with Skye has been an affirming experience when it comes to her identity: “Who I am, how I want to perceive myself and how I want others to perceive me.”

Both the shortlist and winner of the annual award are selected by an independent judging panel of critics, DJs, fellow musicians and industry experts. The prize was founded in 1992 by Jon Webster and Robert Chandler, as an alternative to the more populist-leaning Brit Awards.

Former Mercury Prize winners include Arlo Parks, who won for her debut Collapsed in Sunbeams in 2021, and rapper Little Simz, who emerged victorious last year with her critically adored fourth record, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert.

Last year’s ceremony was rescheduled following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, moving from its original date of 9 September to 18 October.

The full list of this year’s shortlisted artists:

Arctic Monkeys, The Car

Ezra Collective, Where I’m Meant to Be(Winner)

Fred again.., Actual Life 3 (January 1 - September 9 2022)

J Hus, Beautiful And Brutal Yard

Jessie Ware, That! Feels Good!

Jockstrap, I Love You Jennifer B

Lankum, False Lankum

Loyle Carner, hugo

Olivia Dean, Messy

RAYE, My 21st Century Blues

Shygirl, Nymph

Young Fathers, Heavy Heavy