Dave, Little Simz and Jamie Cullum win at 2020 Ivor Novello awards

Dave, Little Simz and Jamie Cullum are major winners at 2020’s Ivor Novello awards, which honour the best in British songwriting and screen composition.

Dave was awarded best contemporary song alongside producer Fraser T Smith for Black, his track that charts the struggles of black people from slavery to today’s racial inequality and stereotyping. Dave memorably included a free-styled accusation that Boris Johnson is a “real racist” in a performance of the song at this year’s Brit awards. The seven judges for this category, including musicians Ghetts, Nao and the Selecter’s Pauline Black, described it as “important, eloquent and a song that not only empowers but is borderless in its musicality”.

Cullum’s award was in the “best song musically and lyrically” category, for The Age of Anxiety, a power ballad that crams in reflections on immigration, self-worth, Brexit, social media, child-rearing and, ultimately, love. Judges for this award included Lily Allen and Joan Armatrading, and they praised it as “beautifully emotive, with an exceptionally crafted melody”.

Cullum told the Guardian he was “extremely honoured … as someone who’s had a long journey as a songwriter, I’m particularly proud of this one.” He said The Age of Anxiety began in a work meeting about his social media presence. “Someone was talking about me not sharing enough of my personal life, and I was feeling as if I wanted to jump out of the window. This line came to me: ‘I just want to live inside sometimes’.”

He said it became a “free association [of] all the things that make me feel anxious”, and acknowledged the resonances of the lyrics about asylum seekers with recent news. “We have a duty to show compassion, to people who are in the greatest kind of need,” he said. “But there are no simple answers, and I hope this song isn’t heavy-handedly saying there are. Songs are uniquely positioned to hold the opposites perhaps more than some other mediums can.”

Album of the year was awarded to London rapper Little Simz, AKA Simbiatu Ajikawo, for Grey Area. Using a skilful, emotionally rich flow to explore topics of self-definition, violence, ambition and anger, the album was widely critically acclaimed, and nominated for the 2019 Mercury prize. The award, voted for by judges including Jessie Ware, Nitin Sawhney and Idles frontman Joe Talbot, was shared with producer Inflo, earning his second Ivor Novello following his 2017 win with Michael Kiwanuka for the song Black Man in a White World.

Simz told the Guardian: “This award is really special, because it’s about the power of the pen, and to know that my pen is being respected and acknowledged is a good feeling.”

Songwriter of the year was won by Steve Mac, who has long been a force behind the scenes in British pop with songwriting credits stretching back to 1991, for artists including Ed Sheeran, Westlife and Pink. His hits over the last year include Don’t Call Me Up by Mabel and Harder by Jax Jones and Bebe Rexha.

The Academy Fellowship, a lifetime-achievement award, was presented to Joan Armatrading. The 69-year-old was heralded by Annie Lennox, who has previously won the award, as “born to create beautiful music … with her definitive voice and unique guitar playing style, her songs are masterful classics”.

The award for most performed work, drawn from performance data collated by royalties organisation PRS for Music, went to Calvin Harris and Rag’n’Bone Man for their track Giant, alongside co-writers Jamie Hartman and Troy Miller.

The rising star award was given to south London singer Mysie, who will also be mentored by Fraser T Smith. The producer recently described her as “an absolutely wonderful talent, the same as Dave and Stormzy”.

The awards for scoring were won by Bobby Krlic for the film Midsommar; Simon Poole for the video game Draugen; and Labrinth for the television series Euphoria.

The Ivor Novello nominees, announced in July, were markedly weighted towards men, with only four female or non-binary performers out of 35 overall. Simz told the Guardian it was reflective of an ongoing imbalance in the industry. “I’ve been going through that my whole life. That is not new to me, at all,” she said, recalling rap sessions as a teenager with “me, one girl and then about 14 boys … but I’ve never let that affect my way of thinking.”

She addressed the male-dominated industry, saying: “Don’t be so close-minded. I don’t know how these people think! I’ve met some bad gyal songwriters who will pen the craziest stuff; some of the best songwriters have been women. It depends on what your intention is as well – if you genuinely want to see a change and see more women coming through, you will make the space for it.

“There’s so much more room and space for women to exist. There’s always this thing of ‘there can only be one [successful female artist] at a time’, especially among black women. For me, I’m trying to show we can always exist in this space together.”

Cullum expanded on The Age of Anxiety, saying of its climactic image of two people holding on to each other: “More than anything, things feel very fractured. I have amazing connections with people over the internet, but they lack body language. Connection is perhaps what we are lacking in the current climate … with the pandemic as well. I don’t think people need reminding that love is out there, but sometimes what we want is to be connected to the people around us, and that gets harder as civilisation and progress marches on in its unstoppable way.”

He said the passages about immigration were also inspired by his parents. “My mother came on a boat from Burma; my dad’s mum was Jewish and escaped Nazi Germany. They came to this country brand new as children, and it’s not something that was talked about when I was a kid, because that journey was so traumatic. It came up in this song because it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about as an adult and a parent – you start to think about that history.”