LONDON – Soulful London rapper Dave brought a political edge to the U.K. music industry’s Brit Awards, giving a performance alleging racism in Britain's government and in media coverage of the royal family before he won the coveted album of the year prize.
Previously an unpredictable and sometimes ramshackle event, the Brits have been refashioned into a slick showcase for British talent in recent years. Organizers of this year's show culled several award categories to make more room for performances by U.K. and international stars.
Billie Eilish gave the first public performance of her James Bond theme song “No Time to Die.” Lizzo got the audience worked up with her Grammy-winning anthem “Truth Hurts." Stormzy brought on Nigerian singer Burna Boy and scores of extras for a medley of hits.
During his turn in the talent parade, Dave held the audience rapt with a piano-accompanied rendition of “Black," a song about the experience of black people in Britain.
The performance featured new lyrics that accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of racism and contrasted “how the news treats Kate versus how they treated Meghan,” a reference to the wives of Prince William and Prince Harry.
Dave also paid homage to Jack Merritt, a young prisoner-rehabilitation worker who was killed in a knife attack last year by a radicalized ex-inmate he had been helping.
The prime ministers office declined to comment on Dave's criticism of Johnson.
Accepting the album of the year trophy for for his self-reflective “Psychodrama,” the 21-year-old rap artist gave a shout out to other young people with big aspirations living in British cities.
“All my young kings and queens that are chasing their dreams, I’m no different from you,” he said.
Scottish singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi also took top prizes during the Tuesday night ceremony at London's O2 Arena. Capaldi's U.K. and U.S. chart-topper “Someone You Loved” was named song of the year, and Capaldi also won the best new artist prize
Billie Eilish and Tyler the Creator were among the international winners at the awards. The Brits have been criticized for a dearth of female nominees. Eilish took the award for best international female artist.
The 18-year-old superstar, who won five Grammy Awards last month and has spoken about mental health struggles, told the audience: "I have felt very hated recently.”
"When I was on the stage and I saw you guys all smiling at me it genuinely made me want to cry and I want to cry now,” she said.
Eilish performed “No Time to Die," the theme to the next Bond thriller, alongside her brother and co-writer, Finneas O'Connell, composer Hans Zimmer and Johnny Marr, former guitarist for The Smiths.
Comedian Jack Whitehall, the evening's host, quipped that Eilish was “the only teenager in the world who makes Greta Thunberg look lazy,” a reference to the teen climate activist from Sweden.
Grime artist Stormzy was named British male artist of the year, the second time he has won the award. Singer-songwriter Mabel, daughter of musician Neneh Cherry, was named U.K. female solo artist of the year.
On the red carpet, Mabel said the invitation to perform at the Brits 30 years after he mother did was “such a lovely sort of full-circle moment.”
Singer Celeste was named rising star, Foals was declared band of the year, and the award for international male solo artist went to Tyler the Creator. He sardonically thanked former Prime Minister Theresa May for banning him from entering Britain five years ago.
Septuagenarian rocker-turned-crooner Rod Stewart closed the show, accompanied by former Faces band mates Ronnie Wood and Kenney Jones.
The awards have been criticized over the years for failing to reflect the diversity of British music and being slow to embrace the emergence of genres including home-grown British grime and hip-hop.
In 2017, the academy of more than 1,000 music industry professionals that chooses Brits winners was expanded in an attempt to make it more gender balanced and diverse. Last year female nominees outnumbered men for only the second time in the event’s 40-year history.
But this year only four nominations out of a possible 25 in categories that are not gender-specific feature women. No female performers were included on the shortlists for best group or album of the year.