Nova Scotia: The Truth, and the rise of a New Scotland

Robert Kilpatrick from the Scottish Music Industry Association (SMIA) discusses The SAY Award 2020 in his role as Campaign Director.

Photo of the 2020 SAY Award

Photos by Rory Barnes

"On Friday 23 October, I gave Sofya at VAJ Power a call that they’ll likely never forget. Sofya is Nova’s manager, and I phoned to say that, confidentially, ‘Re-Up’ had won the Scottish Album of the Year Award, following the judges having met remotely that afternoon.

This was the first time in SAY Award history where we knew the winner ahead of the official announcement. Due to the current situation, and with health and safety at the forefront, we had to deliver The SAY Award Ceremony as a digital programme this year, which we shot over three days at Edinburgh’s Summerhall. Rather than our Judging Panel being confined to a room on the night of the Ceremony and debating for hours over the winner, this year’s Judges instead met remotely, almost a week in advance of our Ceremony being broadcast, to decide on 2020’s winner.

Nova was the only Shortlisted artist who couldn’t make it to Summerhall for our filming days. She had Coronavirus, and whilst she was generally feeling ok, she was obviously having to self-isolate. This meant another first for The SAY Award this year, as we had to inform Sof (Nova’s manager) that ‘Re-Up’ had won in advance, and we then had to construct a plan for capturing Nova’s initial reaction remotely upon being told.

I knew when I was on the phone to Sof how big a deal it was that Nova had won. I knew how big a deal it was, with this having been the sixth SAY Award campaign I’ve worked on since joining the SMIA as an intern back in 2014. As Campaign Director now in 2020, it’s interesting to reflect on this year’s win set against the context of the Coronavirus crisis, Scotland’s current social and political landscape and the 9 previous years’ of SAY Award history.

In 2014 I watched Young Fathers claim the prize for what is now regarded as a modern Scottish classic, ‘Tape Two’. It was technically put out as an EP, but it qualified as an album based upon The SAY Award’s criteria of being at least 30 minutes in length and/or a minimum of six tracks. Although generally their win was well received at the time, and led to the band gaining significant profile as well as a £20,000 cash prize, it was also met with some gruntles from a minority few regarding its length.

‘Tape Two’ is 23 minutes long, but it’s made up of 9 tracks, so it met the eligibility criteria to be classed as an album. Later that same year, Young Fathers won the Mercury Prize – the UK’s album prize – for their debut album ‘Dead’. The qualifying periods for albums to be eligible for The SAY Award and The Mercury run at different points in the calendar year, and this meant that Young Fathers scooped a total of £40,000 in prize money, and both coveted titles, for two separate releases in that same year.

Young Fathers are now widely regarded as one of the most impressive, exciting and innovative acts in Scotland – and the wider UK. Their live shows provide nothing short of a powerful and visceral intensity, and their records continue to showcase a band, creative vision and voice that consistently pushes boundaries and turns heads for all the right reasons. Their career trajectory since their 2014 SAY win has been nothing short of inspiring, having released a further three critically acclaimed albums and gaining syncs including an incredible six tracks on the T2 Trainspotting soundtrack.

Their last record – ‘Cocoa Sugar’ – saw them become the first artist in SAY history to win the award twice; claiming the £20,000 prize and coveted title at 2018’s Ceremony in Paisley Town Hall. This was a well-deserved win, and an incredible achievement from a band who continually produce outstanding and progressive work. The SAY Award has played a key part in the development of this band’s career – both in terms of profile and financial support – and I’m incredibly proud of that. They deserve to be heard, and they deserve to be recognised for their invaluable contribution to our scene.

In 2015, The SAY Award Ceremony made its home at the 02 ABC in Glasgow; a much loved, 1,300-cap venue which we sadly lost in June 2018 as a result of a fire which started at the adjacent Glasgow School of Art. As artists, industry professionals, press and music fans gathered under the biggest disco ball in Europe, all there to celebrate the 10 outstanding Scottish albums making up 2015’s SAY Award Shortlist, Kathryn Joseph’s devastatingly beautiful ‘Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled’ was announced as the winner; the debut album from the Aberdeen-based singer, songwriter and pianist.

There’s not been a SAY Award Ceremony – or winner announcement – that I can remember more vividly than 2015’s, perhaps up until now. The O2 ABC literally erupted with joy and applause as ‘Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled’ was announced as Scottish Album of the Year, and while Kathryn was relatively unheard of by the wider public at this point, for those who had their ear to the ground, she was already one of the most impressive musical talents in Scotland, and this album was just the beginning.

Prior to the winner announcement, fellow Shortlist nominee Paolo Nutini introduced himself to Kathryn back-stage, and told her that ‘Bones You have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled’ would be his choice for the winner, describing the record as “spellbinding”. I could write for ages about what I think of this incredibly special album, and what I think of Kathryn as an artist. I’ll sum it up succinctly by saying this – the impact of this album and Kathryn’s work as an artist has enriched Scotland’s music scene for the benefit of all of us, and it’s been incredible to see Kathryn continue to go from strength to strength since her 2015 win. She’s Scotland’s answer to Kate Bush.

Kathryn’s win is often cited as a key example of the impact of The SAY Award on an artist’s career. £20,000 prize money is significant to an artist at any career level, but to an emerging artist like Kathryn was at the time, it allowed her to pursue a career in music full-time. She signed to Mogwai’s Rock Action Records, and she released her second album ‘From When I Wake The Want Is’ in 2018: again to mass critical acclaim, and it was Shortlisted for The SAY Award last year.

She also worked with both James Graham (The Twilight Sad) and Marcus MacKay on their collaborative project Out Lines, which saw the release of ‘Conflats’; another record that was Shortlisted for The SAY Award, which explored stories from people living in Easterhouse in Glasgow.  In a recent interview with The List, Kathryn was asked to reflect back on her 2015 win and said “I basically didn't have a career before The SAY Award … And then that happened. It completely changed my life. I feel like I owe everything to that happening. I feel really, really proud of having won it, and proud of our country for having it. It's something that should get more recognition, I think”.

Back when Kathryn won, I was still an intern at the SMIA, and Stewart Henderson (former Chair of the SMIA) was Campaign Director. Stewart’s approach to delivering the project and the integrity he ensured was continually at the heart of it is something that has and continues to inspire and guide me on a daily basis.

There’s never been a time where I’ve not recognised the importance or significance of The SAY Award, and what it means for not only the artists who are eligible, nominated or win, but what it means for Scotland’s music scene, Scottish culture and Scotland’s identity in a much wider sense; what it says about who we are as a nation in any given year, and what it helps drive and inspire in terms of future creative work and industry opportunities. Never has that been more true than this year, or mattered more than this year.

Photo of the stage at the 2020 SAY Awards

2020 has been set against the backdrop of a global health crisis, as well as social, cultural, political and economic upheaval. It’s a year that’s felt out of control, and a year that has challenged each of us in multiple ways. The Coronavirus crisis, Brexit, social justice, equality and climate change have been only some of the key themes, and it’s very much felt like everything has collided at once this year. 2020 has seen a range of important and essential conversations rise to the surface, and I think it’s fair to say that perhaps these conversations, largely driven online, wouldn’t have had the same focus in a covid-free world. I’m sure I speak for many of us when I say that this year really has held a mirror up against both ourselves and our wider society. Things that for some were once hidden are now in plain sight, and they’re staring each of us straight in the face.

Whilst at points this has and can be uncomfortable, as a society, it’s essential for our journey towards being kinder, fairer and more human to each other. With so much at stake this year, never have we recognised the importance of community more than now. Community is about all of us, and it’s the responsibility of each of us to help shape it.

And for Scotland’s music scene, that’s ultimately what The SAY Award is all about – supporting, inspiring, encouraging and bringing together our music community. Rather than a competition, The SAY Award should always first be seen as a celebration, with each campaign presenting a bold and unifying platform for Scottish albums – across all genres – to be celebrated, discovered and championed.

Whilst The SAY Award Judging Panel ultimately picked ‘Re-Up’ as 2020’s winner, it’s important to remember how it got there. The win came following a 4-month campaign, which saw 362 Eligible Albums submitted, subsequently reduced to a 20-strong Longlist – chosen by 100 impartial industry Nominators – then whittled down to a Shortlist of 10 albums – 1 chosen by the public and 9 chosen by The SAY Award Judging Panel, before finally the winner was chosen. The final Judges meeting intrinsically features passionate debate, and this year’s was no different, with multiple heartfelt statements of support for Shortlisted albums to convince fellow Judges to back their favourite. Nova’s ‘Re-Up’ was deemed the strongest body of work, and I know this year’s Judging Panel left our remote meeting feeling both happy and proud of their collective decision.

Photo of Nova Scotia virtually receiving her SAY Award

As a 24 year-old from Edinburgh, Nova – aka Shaheeda Sinckler – is the youngest ever winner of The SAY Award. ‘Re-Up’ sees poignant social commentary and unfiltered truth set against the backdrop of bassy trap, lo-fi hip hop and heavy grime, resulting in a record which is well-crafted, authentic and necessary. The fact it was delivered with the support of a range of local producers from across Scotland only goes to show the passion, strength and innovation of Scotland’s growing hip-hop/rap/grime scene, which I’m delighted that The SAY Award is shining a bright and well-deserved spotlight on through Nova’s win. ‘Re-Up’ is the first rap/grime title to win the prize since it was established in 2012, making 2020 a significant and special year in SAY history.

At 18 minutes long, ‘Re-Up’ – like ‘Tape Two’ back in 2014 – is less than 30 minutes in length, although met The SAY Award’s album definition by containing 6 tracks. Despite being the shortest body of work on the Shortlist, The SAY Award Judging Panel felt it was the strongest, and in my opinion, their choice was an excellent one. It’s a well-deserved win. ‘Re-Up’ presents an exciting, inspiring and bold body of work from one of Scotland’s most exciting rising talents. Having moved to Edinburgh when she was 8 years old, then moving to Glasgow, and now back living in Edinburgh, Nova’s social commentary reflects her life and experiences of living in Scotland’s central belt, with a particular focus on Glasgow nightlife. It’s incredible to see an artist at such an early stage of their career – our youngest ever winner – already creating such ground-breaking work, and for this work to present such a dynamic, fresh and modern vision of Scotland in 2020.

When Nova’s Manager Sof (VAJ Power) came to Summerhall for filming our ceremony, I can genuinely say I made a pal that day. I actually felt like I made a good few pals that day – seeing people in real life just now feels more meaningful than ever, and I guess more special too. We were all there for the same reason; celebrating Scottish music. We were all there knowing what’s at stake for our industry, and you could genuinely feel such a strong sense of solidarity and community from all involved over the filming days. Sof is a Russian DJ, 3D Artist, Promoter and Artist Manager living in Glasgow. We chatted for ages that day, about music, life and culture, and at one point when talking about Nova’s win, we ended up chatting about the length of ‘Re-Up’. Sof educated me on something that made me look at this year’s win – and The SAY Award eligibility criteria – in a different way than I had before.

Sof told me how genuinely happy they were that an award like SAY was able to recognise a body of work like ‘Re-Up’. They explained to me that The SAY Award’s album definition meant accessibility for a genre that, until recently, has sat on the outskirts of Scotland’s well established music scene, which is often proudly presented as being rooted in tradition and more popular genres. Sof explained that not only does rap/grime music generally tend to be released in shorter form due to the culture of that specific scene, but in many cases, also due to the fact that a lot of artists – and industry professionals – in the scene come from working class backgrounds.

As a scene that’s traditionally received little support compared to its genre counterparts in trad/folk, jazz, classical and pop/rock (although Creative Scotland have been doing fantastic, targeted work recently to support Scottish Hip-hop, I might add), it’s strongly rooted in DIY culture. Financial barriers are often more significant than that of artists creating music in more well-established and well-supported genres, and this ultimately impacts and informs the creative output of that scene. When you have less resources and less support, creating longer-form bodies of work will undoubtedly be more difficult.

Speaking to Sof was another one of those moments in 2020 where I really felt I could see something so clearly that I hadn’t quite grasped before, and I felt lucky to have had that conversation.
So many external factors can, will and do influence the recorded output of an artist, and the bodies of work that they make, or aspire to make. Not only does an artist’s personal resources come into play here (including those of the team around them), but so too does the wider support available for the genre of music they’re creating, as well as the culture that has evolved as part of those specific scenes. How much do these external factors influence the work an artist creates? How has the way our society, culture, tastes and traditions over time impacted the idea of what an album actually is? Does an album in 2020 mean different things to different people, genres and scenes? How level is the playing field? And how can we really tell when we don’t have a full understanding of the challenges faced by some?

For me, this win has brought to the forefront even more questions that tie in to the wider conversations that have dominated this year. When we start to realise that the way each of us see the world is based upon our own lived experience, we recognise that until we open our minds to the experience of others, we don’t have the full picture.

With regard to The SAY Award’s eligibility criteria, I now truly recognise the importance and value of our album definition being “at least 6 tracks and/or over 30 minutes in length”. This definition, I feel, means that any release submitted for The SAY Award can be seen as a body of work. And bodies of work are versatile – they take different shapes and forms due to multiple factors,  and in an age where streaming dominates music consumption, artists and labels are met with new pressures around what they should release and how they should release it. These external factors are continually moving, and they vary from genre to genre, where consumer tastes and behaviour have developed in different ways.

It feels almost symbolic that Nova also goes under the name of Nova Scotia the Truth. Nova Scotia translates to “New Scotland” in Latin. This year’s SAY Award win, and Scotland’s current social and political landscape, really does feel like the rise of a new Scotland – one that is more socially conscious, diverse and proud, and one which celebrates an artist and genre of music that arguably hasn’t had the recognition or praise it should have had to date. With regard to the truth – well, I think for me this was about recognising more of the hidden barriers that exist in music in Scotland, and recognising that much more has to be done to level the playing field for all of us that call Scotland our home. I hope Nova’s SAY Award win plays a key part in helping redress the balance, and like with both Young Fathers and Kathryn Joseph, as well as our other former winners, I hope this result sees Nova continue to create outstanding work, and plays a key part in the development of what deserves to be a well-distinguished and successful career.

Nova’s SAY Award win for ‘Re-Up’ sends a powerful message of hope and ambition to Scotland’s music scene at a time it’s never been needed more. Our industry is currently facing catastrophic challenges, and the live sector in particular is in urgent need of financial support. Artists are struggling to sustain themselves, music businesses are closing, jobs are being lost, and with those losses, skill-sets are leaving the industry too. The very infrastructure of what generated £5.2 billion for the UK economy in 2018 is crumbling, and if it’s not saved now, it will vanish, and the impact will be sorely felt for decades to come – not just by the music industry, but by all of us who benefit from having music in our lives.

Music is about so much more than just money, but money is absolutely essential to keep the artists we love and the industry which supports them afloat. Music’s about connecting; understanding both ourselves and each other better, and ultimately discovering more about the world around us. It’s fitting that ‘Re-Up’ explores tales of a young artist in modern day Scotland struggling to keep financially afloat. These challenges poignantly mirror challenges that many of us in music face today. In the articulation of these challenges through the creation of ‘Re-Up’, Nova now finds herself in a position where the future presents opportunity, recognition and ultimately hope. This is something that can and should inspire us all."