The laureates for the 2023 Polar Music Prize have been revealed. They are Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records, one of the U.K.’s most successful independent labels; Angélique Kidjo, dubbed “Africa’s premier diva” by Time; and Arvo Pärt, who created the minimalist compositional style known as tintinnabuli, and is one of the most-performed classical composers in the world. All three will be honored in the presence of the Swedish Royal Family at a ceremony and banquet on May 23 at Stockholm’s Grand Hotel.
The prestigious Polar Music Prize was created by Stig “Stikkan” Anderson, famed Swedish writer/producer/label owner/publisher and manager of ABBA, and first presented in 1992. This year’s laureates, who will all be in attendance, will each receive a cash prize of 600,00 Swedish kronor (approx. $58,000 U.S.).
Blackwell built an impressive roster of artists for Island, including Bob Marley, Cat Stevens, Roxy Music, Steve Winwood, Robert Palmer, Nick Drake, Melissa Etheridge, Tom Waits, Grace Jones, U2 and Marianne Faithfull. Kidjo relocated from her home country of Benin to Paris, where Blackwell heard her sing and signed her to Island. Her life of music and activism was praised by President Bill Clinton, who cited her “passionate call for freedom, dignity, and the rights of people.” Influenced by sacred music, including Gregorian chants, Pärt is known for his laconic, reduced compositions, with his style evolving from neo-classical in his early years to more avant-garde music.
Blackwell has a long history with Sweden, first traveling there in the late 1950s. In 1960, he met with Dag Haeggquist, a beloved figure in the Swedish music industry, who was running the independent Sonet label. “I really liked him,” Blackwell tells Billboard. “So when I was back in Jamaica, I did a record there and thought it sounded okay. I sent it to Dag to see if he might be interested in releasing it, and that’s what happened. It didn’t do well but I worked with Dag for many years after that.”
One of Blackwell’s most memorable times in Sweden was a visit on his 30th birthday in 1967, when he was in Gothenburg, on tour with Traffic. “A few people were smoking what they were not supposed to be smoking and everybody was shocked that I’d never smoked any weed before in my life. ‘You? Coming from Jamaica and you’ve never smoked any weed?’ And I said no. I never had – at that time.”
Kidjo also has many memories of Sweden, though one that stands out is laced with tragedy. “I was on tour and was supposed to play in Stockholm,” Kidjo recalls to Billboard. “The night before, I heard that a discotheque had burned down with all the kids in it.” (On Oct. 29, 1998, an arsonist burned down a discotheque in Gothenburg. There were 63 deaths and 213 people were injured). “I thought, ‘How are we going to do this concert?’ Everybody wanted to cancel, and I said, ‘No. Please, let’s do something. Let’s celebrate the spirit of those kids that are gone. Let’s help heal the wound.’ It was one of the most difficult things that you do as a performer, knowing that the youth [who died] were never going to be there anymore and thinking about the pain of the parents and the loss of the parents. I use music to be the art of healing, building bridges. Music has come to my rescue so many times that I ask myself sometimes, ‘If I was not a singer, how would I live in this world?’”
Kidjo is looking forward to seeing Blackwell for the first time since the pandemic began. “I couldn’t dream of a better person to share this with because he was the one who taught me what it is to be on a major label, to be humble, to keep grounded and focus on the music. The first 10 years of my career brought me to where I am today because Chris won’t lie to you. If it’s not good, Chris is going to tell you. When he would listen to my demos, he would call me right away and say, ‘I like this number and this number, but I didn’t like that.’ And he’s always right.”
The citation that will be read at the ceremony for Blackwell says, in part, “As a record producer and genuine music lover, Chris Blackwell has been one of the key figures in the development of popular music for half a century. When Island Records was founded in Jamaica in 1959, he began his mission to introduce the world to ska and reggae. In folk, rock and disco, he has invested in uncompromising artists and helped them become the best version of themselves. Never focusing on sales figures, but on the songs and albums as works of art, Chris Blackwell has expanded the world and abolished border controls between genres.”
Calling her “unique and unstoppable,” Kidjo’s citation reads, in part, “Angélique grew up in Cotonou, surrounded by the dynamic Beninese culture and listening to music from all over the world: soul, jazz, reggae, Afrobeat, pop, classical. When a communist dictatorship tried to silence her, she moved to Paris and became even more active. Angélique Kidjo invented the word batonga, a response to those who think girls don’t belong in schools, and runs the Batonga Foundation, which seeks out girls and provides them with education. Bono has said of her, ‘In Africa’s new morning, Angélique Kidjo is the warmth of the rising sun.’”
Pärt’s citation says he “has likened his music to white light. It is in the encounter with the prism of the listener’s soul that all colors become visible. Arvo Pärt has created the compositional style tintinnabuli, from the Latin word for ‘bell,’ in which the music moves according to a given structure. In 2006 and 2007, Arvo Pärt dedicated the performances of his works to the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya and other dissidents in Russia. Arvo Pärt’s courageously beautiful music creates depth in every sense.”
Marie Ledin, managing director of the Polar Music Prize, tells Billboard, “It was so great to be back last year staging the Polar Music Prize after two years away due to COVID. And this year I feel that the committee has again risen to the challenge of choosing three laureates that are so well-deserving. It’s a great privilege for the Polar Music Prize to be able to put these three remarkable talents in the spotlight and hopefully introduce new audiences to their music. I’m looking forward to a wonderful evening of great music at the ceremony in Stockholm on May 23.”
Blackwell, Kidjo and Pärt join a long list of laureates that includes Elton John, Ravi Shankar, Metallica, Ennio Morricone, Led Zeppelin, Renée Fleming, Paul McCartney, Grandmaster Flash, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Isaac Stern, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Sonny Rollins, Diane Warren, Gilberto Gil, B.B. King, Emmylou Harris, Yo-Yo Ma, Miriam Makeba, Björk, Wayne Shorter, Patti Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, Iggy Pop, the Kronos Quartet, Youssou N’Dour and Chuck Berry.