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No Signal
The No Signal crewPhotography Stefan Foster

How No Signal is planning to run radio after lockdown

The London station lovingly known as #BlackRadio by fans was born in the time of global crisis – now, the team hope to be a bedrock for Black people in the media landscape

“Vibe is vibe,” bellows British grime MC Ghetts with a smirk, the movement of his lips on-screen drifting out of sync with the audio. It’s the end of June 2020, and I’m locked into #NS10v10, There’s No Signal Radio’s flagship gameshow. The game involves two competitors, who each represent a different artist. Across ten rounds, they play carefully considered song selections, back-to-back, and the audience listening at home indicates their preferred song round-by-round via Twitter polls. At the conclusion of events, one competitor is crowned victorious.

Tonight is a showdown between two UK genres, garage vs. grime, streaming via YouTube as part of a special series of programming in partnership with Jamaican white rum brand Wray & Nephew. Where previous NS10vs10 match-ups were artist-based (from Kano vs. Dizzee Rascal, to Mariah Carey vs. Beyoncé), this second season added themed ‘clashes’ between record labels (Roc-A-Fella vs. Ruff Ryders), eras (2000s vs. 2010s), producers (Pharell vs. Timbaland), and even micro-geographies (south east vs. south west London). It’s a simple format, but one that has proven incredibly effective: a memorable WizKid vs. Vybz Kartel set drew upwards of one million listeners across the world, engaged celebrities like Burna Boy, who live streamed his commentary on the set via Instagram, and had companies like BET chiming in on Twitter.

Despite being a grime figurehead, Ghetts is representing UK garage, while BBC 1Xtra DJ Sian Anderson is the selecta for the genre I grew up on. The set is simple, but effective. DJ equipment rests atop colourful barrels, manned by R&B connoisseur AAA. When the No Signal team tweet seeking verification that the visuals and audio have been successfully aligned, supportive listeners reply affirmatively – a public, collaborative moment highlighting the grassroots nature of the whole endeavour.

Classics like “Little Man” and “Gabriel” play besides others like “Forward Riddim” and “I Can C U”, while new music videos from artists like Digga DUnknown T, and M1llionz stream during the half-time break. Energetic adlibs from host Scully prompts much laughter throughout. Co-host Henrie Kwushue jovially asks the audience to excuse the extent to which he is evidently drunk. Sian leads grime to glory, winning the face-off 7-3. Ghetts is largely unbothered about the outcome, asserting that his ‘obscure’ selections were made deliberately to educate listeners on Black musical heritage. Altogether, the stream is enjoyable and uplifting, at once nostalgic of historic outlets like Channel U and incomparably futuristic: No Signal offers a hopeful insight into the opportunities to galvanise community, platform homegrown talent, and communicate our causes, now seizable through dynamism and modern technology.

Such community cohesion is a deliberate goal of the station’s founders, brothers Jojo and David Sonubi. Before No Signal, the brothers started Recess, a series of renowned London day parties, block parties, and clubnights designed as an alternative to the overpriced mainstream venues that turn Black people away, both as promoters and patrons. “Recess is a party where Black people can exist outside of the white gaze. People can feel free to be themselves,” No Signal’s Scully tells me with the genuine excitement of a frequenting fan. “Enjoyment is one of the foundations. Making sure everyone is having a good time,” adds RBC, a resident at Recess who also produces for and DJs on No Signal.

When the UK government announced a nationwide lockdown as a response to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, it became clear that congregations like Recess would have to cease indefinitely. No Signal – which is sometimes referred to as #BlackRadio by fans, recalling the title of the American jazz pianist Robert Glasper’s fifth album – was officially launched the same month to celebrate the breadth of music from the African diaspora and provide an alternative source of entertainment for a community suddenly made homebound. Its impact, however, has been far deeper.

“We didn’t expect to be loved so much that we broadcast every day. Lots of people kept telling us how important this is to them as something that exists” – Scully, No Signal

The team couldn’t possibly have predicted how timely their launch would prove. An unprecedented lockdown in London, and the accompanying social volatility, were to have differential effects on Black people in particular: the latent threat of violence being perpetrated against us, not to mention the increased susceptibility that Black people have to contract COVID-19. This is all in the context of recent scandals like the deportation of those from the Windrush generation, too, as well as structural ills like police brutality on both sides of the Atlantic. The human need for interconnectedness and self-expression has been all the more essential. An emphatic response from listeners encouraged No Signal to quickly graduate from periodic replays of Recess sets and momentous NS10v10 battles, to a full programme of broadcasting. Unapologetically Black, No Signal no doubt provided much-needed respite during an otherwise dreary time. 

“We didn’t expect to be loved so much that we broadcast every day,” says Scully. “Lots of people kept telling us how important this is to them as something that exists.” The magnetism of No Signal shows has facilitated jovial online interactions which help to mitigate the detrimental effects of isolation. Each show’s respective Twitter hashtags are densely populated and liable to start trending: I personally have found some solace in laughing heartily at the commentary of pundits giving their two-pence on proceedings and unofficially refereeing the competitions. Almost as quickly as it was launched, No Signal became a fundamental fixture within many of our lockdown routines, or lack thereof. 

No Signal crucially concerns itself with social justice and furthering community causes. From early on, it foregrounded movements like Black Lives Matter, hosted segments like ‘Face the Facts’ to grapple with political issues around election time, and contributed to the fundraising efforts of collectives like Women Connect UK. The urgency of work like theirs, which has included collecting sanitary donations to combat period poverty, was increased in the context of the isolation of lockdown worsening risks around domestic violence.

In a recent Instagram caption by Jojo Sonubi called for supporters to help “strengthen the signal”, adding that the station was “born out of lockdown, but (is) here to stay”. So, five months since No Signal launched, what’s next? “The next step is a broadcast studio,” says Scully. No Signal is now raising funds to acquire one, and to be able to pay its team members. “This was an ambitious project that we thought was gonna go on until about September. But people keep telling us how important this is and wanting to visit us. With that in mind, we thought: why don’t we look to go above?”

Given their affiliations with alcohol companies and editorial partnerships with Spotify, you might be misled into thinking there are more resources at No Signa’s small team’s disposal. The reality is that the team is constituted by imaginative and daring friends, all part of a generation of young Black people to whom mainstream creative institutions have been made largely inaccessible. “We’ve been doing so much from our bedrooms,” Scully says. “We’re finding our feet in this broadcasting landscape, so right now we’re focused on being the best,” adds Jojo.

Scully believes that there are “so many (more) ways to serve Black people first and youth culture secondarily” than are being readily engaged with, but when young Black people have managed to find work within established institutions, they’ve been met with “bureaucracy and red tape”. No Signal is trying to provide opportunities and experience for talented, marginalised individuals, from presenters and DJs, to designers and brand strategists. This is aside from (though not unrelated to) the potentially life-changing visibility it can afford artists like IDPizzle, whose Pop Smoke-inspired “Billie Jin” was popularised here by support from the station.

“I’m championing this so much because I want us as Black people to have something we can keep for years to come, not something that we look back at and say we once had” – RBC, No Signal

“No Signal is essential because we are creating, curating, and compiling authentic Black content, in all forms of media,” says Scully. “We want to capture what it means to be Black right now, primarily from (the perspective of and the benefit of us residing here within) the UK,” says Scully, but also, for “the whole diaspora around the world.” He proceeds to describe the success of the endeavour not as a desire but as a need. Citing the common goal of all of his endeavours as being the representation of Black culture, founder Jojo wants for No Signal to “present for as long as possible”. “I don’t want this to be confined to a moment or a period,” he says. “I want No Signal to be a bedrock for Black people in the media landscape.” The team are driven to reach their monetary goal while retaining autonomy – they are selling merch for example, and have started a GoFundMe for supporters to donate.

The same resourcefulness and innovation that has long helped the cultural products of Black British youth thrive in spite of material restriction is what fuels No Signal. From jungle and grime, through to Afroswing and drill; from pirate radio, to cracked software and DIY music videos; for generations we’ve used very little other than raw talent and the most makeshift equipment to influence youth culture in the UK. No Signal ultimately stands as a shining a testament to the imagination and resilience, the responsiveness and adaptability, and the sense of community that endures within the Black British culture that it deserves to become a mainstay within.

“I’m championing this so much because I want us as Black people to have something we can keep for years to come, not something that we look back at and say we once had,” says RBC. “For us, by us.”

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