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This Year's Boston Music Award Winners Reflect Hip-Hop's Revival

Cousin Stizz performs at Boston Calling in 2018. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Cousin Stizz performs at Boston Calling in 2018. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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 take home the Boston Music Awards’ biggest honor, Artist of the Year. (He also claimed Hip-Hop Artist of the Year for the second time in a row.) The genre’s renaissance in the city was echoed with 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 ceremony that’s previously heavily reflected rock- and pop-leaning trends.

The 31st installment and third time at the House of Blues, this year's Boston Music Awards was, in a literal sense, the biggest yet with a newly expanded pool that increased to 10 nominees in each of 36 categories. With such a large group of nominees, getting a grasp on the depth of talent every category can feel near-impossible. But if the goal is to stir up conversation about the best of Boston’s musical talents, more inclusion is helpful: There was more thorough representation, more powerful recognition and a wider understanding of what it means to make art here.

This year’s nominee 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 regionally championed rising talents. The BMAs often face criticism for this uneven keel, pitting national acts against locals with vastly different resources, but this year’s outcomes were mostly refreshing. The results suggested 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 10 Artist of the Year nominees staked out different corners of the genre — and the awards effectively measured it 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,” also a current 2019 Grammy nominee for Best Music Video. This marked his second consecutive win in the category, following last year’s win for “Just Like You,” though it’s worth acknowledging that in a category where production resources and promotional abilities matter, major-label backing seems likely to give nominees a significant edge.

Still, 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 artists’ 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 can be 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. As a ceremony dictated by the popular 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: Could that attention bring along more opportunities for artists?

This year's winners also emphasized 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, though 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 made space to further support the community with 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 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. Wednesday night, 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.


Here are the winners:

Artist of the Year
Cousin Stizz

New Artist of the Year
Cliff Notez

Unsigned Artist of the Year
Oompa

Album of the Year
Sidney Gish: "No Dogs Allowed"

Song of the Year
Latrell James: "Okay"

Music Video of the Year
Joyner Lucas: "I'm Not Racist"

Live Artist of the Year 
STL GLD

Alternative/Indie Artist of the Year
Weakened Friends

Americana Artist of the Year
Twisted Pine

Blues Artist of the Year
Ali McGuirk

Country Artist of the Year
Ashley Jordan

DJ of the Year
SuperSmashBroz

Electronic Artist of the Year
Party Bois

Folk Artist of the Year
Honeysuckle

Hip-Hop Artist of the Year
Cousin Stizz

International Artist of the Year
Soul Rebel Project

Jazz Artist of the Year
Gretchen & The Pickpockets

Metal Artist of the Year
Scissorfight

Pop Artist of the Year
Clairo

Punk/Hardcore Artist of the Year
Street Dogs

R&B Artist of the Year
Bad Rabbits

Rock Artist of the Year
The Devil's Twins

Singer Songwriter of the Year
Aubrey Haddard

Vocalist of the Year
Aubrey Haddard

Session Musician of the Year
Jonathan Ulman

Live Production Engineer of the Year
Grace Reader

Studio Producer of the Year
Janos Fulop (The Arcitype)

Music Promoter of the Year
Christine Varriale: Allston Pudding

Live Music Venue of the Year
House of Blues

Intimate Live Music Venue of the Year
Great Scott

Music Night of the Year
Emo Night at The Sinclair

Live Ongoing Residency of the Year
Ali McGuirk First Fridays at Bull McCabe's

Live Music Photographer of the Year
Emily Gardner

Music Journalist of the Year
Nina Corcoran

Music Publication of the Year
Vanyaland

617Session Winner
Oompa


Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Oompa as being part of a music collection. We've updated the story.

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Karen Muller Twitter Music Writer
Karen Muller writes about music and culture for The ARTery.

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