As No Signal Radio continues to go from strength to strength, Andy wants to remind every Black person that gatekeeping restricts talent
For me and many other Black Brits, No Signal Radio has been a significant source of joy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its inception at the start of the March lockdown, the online radio station has filled a gap which has existed in Black radio for the best part of the last decade. The catalyst for the platform’s success has been popular flagship show, #NS10v10, which, like Love Island or the World Cup, never fails to get the Twitter timeline rocking as contestants go head-to-head and pit their favourite artists’ discographies against each other in a sound clash. Back at the start of May, #NS10v10 saw its most popular clash to date – the infamous Season 1 Wizkid vs. Vybz Kartel clash (for which DJ Levels still needs to answer for his crimes, but I digress…). In what proved to be a masterful stroke of genius, the clash quickly went viral by engaging two of the more boisterous factions of the Black diaspora in friendly competition, with Nigerians representing Wizkid FC and Jamaicans naturally supporting Vybz. This catapulted No Signal to new heights and, with Season 3 of #NS10v10 now well underway, the station hasn’t looked back since. Its unique ability to speak to and connect with a demographic which represents a growing generation of diverse millennials with their finger on the pulse of all things relevant in today’s popular culture has enabled No Signal to transcend its primary audience of young Black Londoners and attract a truly global following of millions of listeners worldwide in just a few short months.
David and Jojo Sonubi, the brothers behind the launch of No Signal, deserve a shout out for carrying the ethos of RECESS – the monthly party space (and London’s best night out, in my humble opinion) for which they were previously best known – through to their radio station. No Signal’s success is testament to the DIY nature which is inherent to and deeply embedded within Black British culture. A contrast exists when considering normative Britishness and juxtaposing that with Black British culture; this goes some way to explaining this country’s historically negative approach to and perception of Black music, art and creative output. However, one fact remains: Black British culture will continue to thrive and flourish regardless! No Signal is just the latest in a recent spate of Black creatives providing content primarily targeted at Black consumption. Through creating for ourselves the content we want to watch, read and hear when we are underserved by mainstream media, Black people have been able to experience the transformative power which exists in remaining authentically “For Us By Us” (FUBU).
“These gatekeepers are pricks”– Stormzy | ‘Bronze’
I can’t heap praise enough on the whole No Signal team – particularly the charismatic and personable hosts, DJ Henrie and Scully – and I can continue to wax lyrical about how sick the platform they have built is. However, the rapid success of No Signal begs a deeper question… what have radio producers and executives in the UK been doing for the past ten years? It is no secret that, in the streaming era, radio has arguably been seen as archaic amongst young Black people. The fact that, in a matter of months, two brothers and their network of friends have managed to revive radio for the demographic which ultimately drives popular culture, is an embarrassing indictment on the gatekeepers restricting talent, and hoarding opportunities, spaces and connections.
No Signal’s success has demonstrated the power of brands authentically tuning in to Black culture. In British media, Black people and their culture have often been misrepresented by non-Black people who are not qualified to comment. I would go as far as saying these gatekeepers are complicit in the whitewashing of Black talent by taking up space and elevating themselves into positions for which Black creatives would be better placed. I have nothing against the likes of Tim Westwood, for example, but I fail to believe the man responsible for this laughably bad Cardi B interview – unprofessional at its best, problematic with palpable misogynoir at its worst – remains the most eligible candidate for a hip-hop slot on Capital Xtra or BBC Radio 1Xtra. Whilst gatekeepers of Westwood’s ilk should be commended for what they’ve achieved in bringing Black genres to the point of mainstream recognition, it is important to also recognise that they are guests in Black culture who were necessary for these genres to reach a certain point due to the unfortunate reality that, for too long in this country, Black artistic output has too often required a white co-sign in order for it to be legitimised. This is not limited to radio production and broadcasting, as No Signal’s success highlights; it is also the case for the music and creative industries in general. When Black-oriented spaces, movements and genres are commodified into industries by non-Black people, there is rarely any analysis of who even has the resources to do so in the first place or why it is often demonised, villainised and illegalised when Black people attempt to do the same. The result is a weird Stockholm syndrome-like dynamic in which gatekeepers are made to feel they now hold a stake in Black culture by Black people who feel forever indebted to them.
The non-Black people that fail to understand they will forever be a guest whilst participating in Black culture always get too comfortable, overstep their boundaries and overstay their welcome. Predominantly speaking, it is Black men in the music and creative industries who enable these guests in Black culture to feel comfortable enough to confidently navigate Black spaces and speak on Black issues. In the case of Tim Westwood, with allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour with student fans, this has deeper implications and could also be perceived as another case of Black men failing to protect Black women.
“Don’t comment on my culture, you ain’t qualified”– Stormzy | ‘Crown’
The Harlem Renaissance of 1918-37 helped to establish the authority of Black writers and artists over the representation of Black culture and experience in America. Establishing authority over Black representation in contemporary British media doesn’t require “a distinctive ‘Negro’ art combating the ‘urge within the race toward whiteness’”, as was famously announced by American poet Langston Hughes in his 1926 manifesto, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain; instead Black people must take ownership and be fiercely protective of Black culture, thus reducing the stake of white and non-Black people to that of consumers. In the streaming era, there’s no longer a need to rely on radio and other traditional gatekeepers to the music and creative industries – collectively as consumers, Black people can be the tastemakers, the keepers and the gate! However, this requires us to value cultural integrity over monetary gain, since there is of course more capital in appealing to the white masses. This also means the gatekeepers and “influencers” we do promote must have this ethos at heart, and support for those who don’t must be rescinded. We can no longer afford to fling out invitations to the proverbial cookout; as Dr Umar Johnson hilariously puts it, “this is an African peoples only livestream!”
Grime, modern Black Britain’s major musical and cultural export, was forced underground for a number of years and didn’t see a resurgence until a majority of non-Black fans rediscovered the genre in 2014; and despite the online Black British community repeatedly calling for its return, Top Boy required Canadian rapper Drake’s intervention before its 2019 Netflix reboot eventually became a reality, ending the drama series’ six year hiatus. The need for external influence in these cases is telling and suggests a disconnect between the powers that be and the Black British community. Paramount amongst the structural and institutional changes necessary for a Black British cultural and creative renaissance to become a reality, is the need to build an infrastructure in which Black media can thrive. In this country, Black media is largely not taken seriously and, therefore, remains at a relatively grassroots level. As consumers, we must read and engage with Black media and journalism, such as Black Ballad, gal-dem and The Voice Newspaper, to such an extent that whatever is written in the mainstream media rags which make up the UK’s dying print media industry, like The Sun and Daily Mail, is no longer of any concern to us. It is imperative that we see the intrinsic value in our shaping the narrative of Black culture, without the need for it to be polished with the white seal of approval.
We also should not understate the important role Black celebrity has to play in further legitimising Black media institutions. Celebrities tend to interact with the media for promotional purposes and, hence, will choose to interact with those platforms which have the largest reach nationwide and beyond. Therefore, despite often having more engaged audiences, many Black media outlets are merely an afterthought or, given that much of the Black talent often has white management who may even be oblivious to these outlets’ existence, are not considered at all. For the season 1 finale, Arsenal legend Ian Wright took on presenter Julie Adenuga in a celebrity special 80’s vs 90’s edition of #NS10v10. During the clash, Ian Wright expressed his joy at being “amongst the culture”, stating:
“I’ve had a lot of agents, a lot of people that’s kept me away from the culture and now I’ve got a really cultured Black guy, knows his stuff, he’s just brought me back to the culture and I miss people. Miss being amongst the community, I miss everything. I miss all of that and I’m never gonna be away!”
Although touching, Wrighty’s comments also highlight the almost Faustian bargain of Black celebrity. That is, generally speaking, for Black celebrities to be successful and remain marketable to the wider, white audience, there is a certain “acceptable Blackness” to which they must conform. This often involves distancing themselves, to some degree, from Black culture (in the public eye at least). Rio Ferdinand has previously alluded to this particularly being the case for Black footballers, and the racialised mainstream media scrutiny of players like Raheem Sterling is further proof. Following the reaction from some members of the public to Marcus Rashford’s recent campaign to end child food poverty in the UK, it is evident that, unlike artists, footballers are rarely given license to provide social commentary and are more likely to be met with the response of “stick to football!” Mainstream British public consciousness is unfortunately plagued by the absurdity of wanting Black celebrities to appear apolitical, despite Black existence being inherently political.
In turn, one could cynically argue that, to an extent, some Black celebrities are all too happy to play into the respectability politics. With the current climate of cancellation, many celebrities fear “rocking the boat” too much, which is more likely to happen if they engage in uncomfortable conversations, such as speaking candidly about race for instance, or do anything which could force white consumers to acknowledge or confront their whiteness. In capitalist industries, Black artists must constantly sacrifice social and cultural capital for monetary gain. Once they see mainstream success, many are often accused of abandoning their core fan base, turning their backs on and only interacting with the Black community when it is perceived as “cool” and, hence, profitable for them. Whether or not this criticism is warranted, those Black celebrities could go some way to combating it by expanding on their limited engagement with Black media outlets. Giving these outlets exclusive content, such as interviews or track premieres for example, would allow them to better communicate directly with the Black community, whilst also having the added mutual benefit of giving further credence to Black media institutions.
It is refreshing to see a platform like No Signal come out of nowhere, unrestricted by gatekeepers, to disrupt the industry and create a new home for Black radio in the UK. The next step in No Signal’s journey is securing a studio space, for which the founders are currently crowdfunding. It is important that, as consumers who see the value in building a new generation of Black-owned media and entertainment, we continue to support in any way possible, whether that be through listening, interacting online or donating.