No Signal and the rise of the UK’s new Black radio
A station born out of a global crisis, No Signal began its life as a live stream of a night cancelled due to the lockdown. Now, a raft of young DJs and presenters brought together by JoJo Sonubi are serving a diversity of sounds while raising funds to facilitate a proper studio to call home.
This year May Day fell on a Friday. The entire nation was very hot and very locked down; a party was bubbling and no amount of restrictions were going to stop it. Confined to virtual shenanigans, you could almost smell the pre-party preen up, aftershave and sweet rum cocktails emanating from online. “Everyone was putting their flags in their Twitter names,” remembers Jojo Sonubi, founder of No Signal radio. “It felt like people putting flags out their windows and getting ready for carnival.”
The flags were either Jamaican or Nigerian; and the virtual carnival was NS10v10, a soundclash radio show that had begun its life just one month previously and was now tipping 25k listeners per show. Mayday’s momentous fight was Burna Boy versus Popcaan – Burna was live-streaming his reactions from his living room with his mum, the likes of Ovie and John Boyega were flooding the Twitter feed. And it was the precursor to Sunday’s Vybz Kartel and Wizkid showdown. The site crashed at 89k listeners; but Sonubi was ready, moving in swift pirate radio-style, and shifting the whole operation to YouTube, where over 200k instantly locked in.
Lockdown – particularly the early days before the novelty had worn off – was littered with Moments. From Thursday night claps to Tiger King and I May Destroy You, we all scrambled towards any opportunity for togetherness. Nobody could have predicted that one of the most successful, well-documented and fully unifying moments would come courtesy of a small online radio station, just a few weeks old and broadcasting out of presenters’ London bedrooms.
No Signal may have found fame via the 10v10 show, but it is now a fully programmed radio station, broadcasting from 10am – 1am seven days a week; all achieved in the wake of and to capitalise on the massive success of the clash show.
Describing themselves as New Black Radio, a raft of young DJs and presenters brought together by Sonubi offer a diversity of sounds that allow it to occupy a space somewhere between the chat radio elements of BBC Radio 1Xtra and niche-friendly internet stations like NTS. Most importantly, it is by and for Black people. “No Signal is what we never knew we needed but the answer to a lot of our prayers,” says Bisola Otun, who presents the Wednesday to Friday lunchtime show. “It caters to the needs of its audience to the fullest. It’s the only place you can be unapologetically Black.”
Sonubi explains that he has lost count of the number of times that he’s gotten into the back of a cab and the driver has switched to Kiss FM: “I’m a Black man, that’s what he thinks I wanna hear.” But he doesn’t feel that Kiss really represents him or his community. “At No Signal we’re able to give people stuff that they grew up on; stuff that they hear in the mainstream; stuff from the diaspora,” he explains. “ All of our personal identities.” You’ll hear RnB sub-genres, edits and instrumentals on #VibesWithVells, pure South African house on Sef Kombo Radio Hour, or Francophone tunes on DJ EDOTT’s show.
Prior to quarantine, Jojo and his brother David were best known amongst their peers as the guys behind the Recess parties. “There was a whole censorship thing around 2010: no hats no hoods,” recalls Sonubi. “A lot of policing of Black parties in the city.” So Jojo and David set about changing the script. They sought out spaces where they would be welcomed, respected and free to play a gamut of Black music without fear. The first party happened in 2015 in Miranda at London’s Ace Hotel and from there they’ve thrown roadblock events at well-established spots like Village Underground, Mick’s Garage and STYX in Tottenham.
The focus of Recess was never on bagging the big-name DJs. The core crew – AAA, RBC, Donch, Mervella and Ney Neyy – played together and on rotation. People came for the night and its rep. A community approach to promoting saw Recess come up with other black-run events; Sonubi shouts out DLT and Pitch Sundays as examples. “If one party does well then the others do well too. Venues started to look at the parties and say, ‘ok we need that in our space’,” he explains. “That was our foundation in terms of impacting our culture.”
No Signal began its life as a live stream of a Recess cancelled by Covid-19. When 300 people tuned in (“That’s a good party. We were gassed by that!”) Sonubi realised that he and his crew might have something to offer during lockdown. He is clearly an ideas guy. “I didn’t like the fact that DJs were using Instagram Live,” he explains. “You can’t be on your phone if you’re watching Instagram because it stops.” He describes a “eureka moment” when he realised that he could use Google Hangouts to do shows, allowing for the sort of chat that awakens Twitter.
In the ‘90s we all tuned in for Friends, the football or Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush; academics called it “appointment viewing”. Now we only really do that for Love Island. “I just wanted to harness that whole energy of people watching stuff together,” Sonubi explains. And that’s exactly what he did. NS10v10 didn’t reinvent the wheel; two artists are pitted against each other; ten carefully selected tunes go nose to nose in a battle to the death; the dog-eat-dog world of Twitter plays judge and jury.
Much has been talked of the show’s ability to capture the imagination of Black Twitter. But it also achieved a crossover that saw it take the discourse to new spaces. In a Guardian article last year, Professor Andre Block said of Black Twitter: “It was one of the first spaces that white people could see how creative Black people are with our discourse, and how we used a technology that wasn’t originally designed for us.” With NS10v10 we were all invited to the Black party and the fun levels were magnetic.
”This Bisola girl is actually tooooo buff to be getting pammed like this and with Hus too ☹️ #NS10v10,” said @jefe_the1st of one of the first shows, Kojo Funds v JHus. “Never give Bisola the aux. She will play bangers after you already reached the destination & parked up,” chimed @sbtvonline.
Sonubi’s community-focussed modus continues from his club days right through to the heart of No Signal. Each of the core Recess crew now plays a role at the station, bringing their rave sensibility to the airwaves. But they are also joined by the likes of Scully and Henrie Kwushue who have radio experience and are in charge of programming.
A station born out of a global crisis came into existence just before another one. The murder of George Floyd has triggered what could be a very promising revolution and Sonubi and his crew have a keen sense for a galvanising moment and what to do with it. The station has dealt with the opportunity for change with a calm and steady hand; they were having these conversations long before the rest of the world was willing to listen. “No Signal is a platform where presenters and DJs can be themselves,” says Mervella, presenter of #VibesWithVells. “This means that topics and issues that directly affect us such as the BLM movement are brought up, discussed and promoted.”
Sonubi speaks on the topic with cautious optimism. He points to the sudden press interest in the Madeleine McCann case at the precise moment that the Black Lives Matter protests gathered pace. “Black people do have a voice on social media. But I’ve seen the mainstream media drown out that voice.” And so, he says, “We have to be prepared for the long fight; to disrupt certain parts of the industry. We’re always talking about needing to be represented. But I don’t even think that’s enough. We don’t want to be accommodated or shoe-horned into white spaces in the media. If you wanna have control you need to have your own voice in your own space”.
The next step for No Signal is the Strengthen the Signal campaign. They are looking to raise enough funds to facilitate a proper studio that the station can call home. There is something poetic in Sonubi and his crew’s return to a fight to occupy places with Black bodies, just as they did with the Recess parties.
The plan is to use their new home as a studio, headquarters and a place to host NS Academy where young Black people can get lessons on how to navigate white-dominated industries by elders who have first-hand experience. “One thing that Black people here rarely have is a space for our ideas to grow. We just do things ourselves in our cribs,” says Sonubi. “If we’re actually given our own physical space – who knows what we might achieve.”
THE SHOWS: Jojo Sonubi’s guide to some of the best
SUPER ALBUM: “An artist is chosen and two people go through all of their studio albums and pick out songs to make a ‘super album’. It really brings some of the purest fans. They’ll talk about the intricacies – production, flows, cadence, samples.”
SOUL SURGE: “This is our Saturday morning show and it’s proper Saturday morning vibes. Growing up, music on Saturday was always a thing in my house.”
SLOWJAMS WITH A: “After NS10v10, this is our most popular show.”
#LIKEDBY: “This is our most slept on show. The host, Tinyman, knows how to get the best out of his guests. It’s one for the music nerds.”
THE TOOP SHOW: “You have to check out this show. The conversations go everywhere and the guys are really funny.”
SWOOSH LIVE, KAL‑I AND GROOVE THEORY: “This is our most party show, alongside RECESS Live of course. They are a litty trio on Saturday afternoons.”
Tune in to tonight’s Buju Banton vs Sizzla NS10v10 and donate to No Signal’s broadcast studio fund here: gofundme.com/f/no-signal-broadcast-studio