Many have tried, but you cannot silence the voice of black culture. It’s just too stubborn.
Not even the coronavirus pandemic could manage it.
During the early days of the lockdown, while we had virtual raves on the House Party app and we all agreed that Carole Baskin did kill her husband, a black online radio station began to capture our ears. Its name: No Signal.
It started with the now infamous NS10V10 show. The idea of one Jojo Sonubi, these radio sound clashes pitted African and Jamaican music artists against each other using songs from their musician's library. First was Burna Boy VS Popcaan, and then Vybz Kartel VS Wizkid and these sound clashes sent a wave across Britain's black youth culture. Reactions from the likes of John Boyega flooded black twitter. Burna Boy was live streaming his response from the comfort of his living room. At its peak, these musical clashes on No Signal's website managed to attract 89K listeners before the entire site crashed.
Sure enough, No Signal went from being an online radio station broadcasted from someone's bedroom to a fully-fledged radio station run by black people and for black people.
The success of No Signal is a reminder that radio has always played a hugely important role in spreading black music and black culture to the masses in Britain.
And it all began with pirate radio.
Pirate radio and the resilience of creative black youth
It must have been in the early 2000s. I was 15 years old and addicted to the sound of grime music. Back then, grime was not mainstream so the established and commercially focused black radio stations like Kiss FM and Choice FM did not play it. The only way you could listen to a grime MCs latest tracks or clashes was tuning into pirate radio stations. During this period, the most famous pirate radio station for grime music was Deja vu. It gave voices to the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Ghetts and Kano – all household names now. I have fond memories listening to Deja vu after school with my cousin and his friends in a park in Stratford.
Deja vu and the many black pirate radio stations that preceded it represented the counterculture – a middle finger to the radio-friendly, mainstream culture. It was all about having an edge and being truly authentic to the street sounds of black music.
90’s prolific British rapper Rodney P’s YouTube documentary ‘The Last Pirates’ brilliantly takes us through the rise, fall and commercialisation of Britain's pirate radio stations which illegally dominated the airwaves throughout the 80s and 90s. By transmitting their signals from tower blocks and high-rise estates across London and other British cities, black pirate radio stations played popular black music at the time, mainly soul and rap, to the growing multicultural population sprouting across the UK's major cities.
As is always the case with anything that is black and garners significant attention, black pirate radio stations were continuously shut down by government enforcers. But, as we say now, we move. And the DJs during that era did that. Literally. They stayed one step ahead of regulators by finding new ways to hide their broadcasting signals or changing the location of their transmitters to avoid detection.
But this cat-and-mouse chase between black pirate stations and government regulators could not continue. Soon, many of these pirate radio stations such as KISS FM were finally granted a license and allowed to operate as official radio stations. However, Trevor Nelson, who was a DJ during KISS FM's pirate days, explains in the documentary that as soon as these black-owned radio stations became commercial, they lost their original flavour and voice. Gradually, these once authentic and boundary-pushing black radio stations began to bow to commercial and stakeholder pressures.
A new era of independent black creative enterprises without the suits
Unlike the era of the 80s and 90s, we now live in a time where black entrepreneurs don't need gatekeepers. We don't need huge corporatIons or white men in suits to control what we create. Black creatives can create content and distribute it to millions with a click of a button.
No Signal represents this new era of black-owned creative enterprises that can remain authentic, attract a vast audience and without the endorsement or backing of big money. We see this play out with the proliferation of black podcasts and black chat shows like '3 Shots Of Tequila,' 'BckChat' and the 'ZeZe Millz show' to name a few.
As we have seen with the recent racial protests, black suffering and black voices cannot be silenced. The same goes for our sound and our culture.
So don’t try and fight it. Just tune in.