Bustle’s “Without This Woman” is a series of essays honouring the women who change and challenge us every day. This time we hear from Kanya King, founder of the MOBO Awards (Music of Black Origin) which marks its 25th Anniversary on Nov. 30. Below, she reflects on the woman whose caring nature knew no bounds — her mother, Mary Folan.
We all have people in our lives that inspire us and help us go the extra mile. In my case, although my mother is no longer alive, her values of determination, drive, empathy, and grit spur me on. She’s always been one of my biggest influences, an incredible role model.
My mum worked in caring professions her whole life — she was an NHS nurse in home health, and she looked after my father who was sick for many years. Despite coming from a large family of nine children (I’m the youngest girl), with five of us cramped in a council house, she would often take in my brother’s homeless friends.
My father came from Ghana and my mother from Ireland. She came to London at the age of about 18, when there were those photos on windows that said no Irish, no blacks, no dogs. She was ostracised from her family because her partner was black, and she had no support network — we had no grandparents, cousins or aunts. She set her roots in Kilburn, which was predominantly an Irish area.
My circumstances are what shaped me — witnessing from a young age the struggle my mother had on a daily basis, trying to bring up children, her lack of freedom and independence. She had constant worry about whether she could pay the rent, the bills, keep a roof over our heads. All of this pressure and stress provided me with my motivation and drive to succeed.
When you come from a large family, it’s important to create some space. I used to spend a lot of time in my local park — it was almost like a babysitter for me. Especially when the weather was lovely, my siblings and I would be out there playing rounders. I can still see my mum walking at a hurried pace because we’d lost track of time. She’d be rushing along the dewy grass towards us. Your smile lifted when you saw her. She just wanted to know everyone was okay.
I share my overwhelming drive not to quit, not to give up, and to make sacrifices with my mum. From a young age, I realised that only I could change my circumstances. I had a lot of determination. I had dreams, but I knew I needed to be disciplined and focused turn them into reality. I wasn’t out partying — I was out looking for how could contribute to the household finances. I had many jobs, from selling whistles at carnival to taking empty bottles back to the café in the park for 5p in return.
My mother worked tirelessly to provide for her family and those disadvantaged around her. She taught me to think beyond yourself, to have that community spirit. From a young age, I wanted to help those around me. I was surrounded by very talented, creative people, but sometimes I would see them go by the wayside. They couldn’t access the creative industry sectors — getting into the music industry, television, or film was very much about who you knew. These opportunities were often not available to people who come from backgrounds like mine. I wanted to make a change.
My mother wanted to me be a teacher — a safe, secure job. I remember as a young girl, her telling anyone who would listen that Kanya was going to be a teacher. I left school early, so I failed in that regard. I felt that I disappointed my parents. Whenever I had an entrepreneurial idea, she’d give me many reasons why I shouldn’t do it, because she was worried. In the end, I stopped telling her about my ideas. I thought, if you do the same things, you’re always gonna get the same results, so how can I change things? What risks do I need to take?
At the very first MOBO awards, Tony and Cherie Blair attended. He was leader of the opposition at the time and his office rearranged his schedule so he could be there. When he arrived, my mother couldn’t resist jumping on him and telling him what hard working daughter she had — basically trying to get me a job. It was only when I got my MBE that she thought I was doing okay.
When she was alive, she attended every MOBO Awards show. It was lovely to have her rallying around, getting the family together. Any important part of my career, she was always there. She was like that with all of our family members. And she’ll be with us this year for the 25th anniversary of the MOBO Awards.
At the young age of 70, my mother set up her own business — a bed and breakfast. Once her kids had grown up and left the nest, she was able to do what she wanted and fulfil her own dreams. Recently, I was at an event and a woman came up to me. She said, “I met your mother over 17 years ago, when I was on my last legs. I didn’t know who to turn to, I had no money and nowhere to live. Your mother gave me a place to stay and didn’t charge me anything for months.” I thought wow, that’s my mother — a guardian angel. Caring for others was her superpower.
As told to Aimée Grant-Cumberbatch. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.