Pin It
Nabihah Iqbal NTS
via Instagram (@nabihahiqbal)

Making waves: The women of colour who dominated radio in 2020

From well-curated shows that were all about comforting listeners in lockdown, to fundraising and mutual programmes, here’s how women of colour radio hosts across the UK kept us locked

In almost a year of extended social isolation, radio has been a crucial means for communities to connect with one another. The regular transmission of voices and music has offered an intimacy that has otherwise been prohibited, for hosts and listeners alike. Despite remaining underrepresented on mainstream channels, women of colour have been at the helm of the renewed radio momentum. From sharing calming sounds to stimulating social and political change, they have provided some reassurance amid the chaos and uncertainty of this year.

For London-based DJ and musician Nabihah Iqbal, lockdown and its accompanying travel restrictions meant that a two-week trip to see family in Pakistan became a month-long visit. With just a laptop and her iTunes collection to hand, Nabihah continued to prepare her eponymous NTS show each fortnight, to be played on Tuesdays during her usual slot. This continuity while far away from the city she calls home, she says, restored a sense of balance. “You feel a bit lost, but having radio as an outlet and a way to connect with people despite being really far away definitely helped”, Nabihah tells me, “it kept things going”.

While Nabihah usually shares music through her live gigs and festival appearances around the world, broadcasting online has become a way of filling that gap this year. In turn, her already close relationship with radio has been strengthened, in both a practical and an emotional sense. “Music is the best thing in the world. Even when you’re feeling rubbish about something, if you listen to music that you like for a little while, it’ll make you feel better. It’s not gonna fix the problem but it always makes you feel better”. 

Zakia’s selections on her weekly NTS show Questing have a similarly soothing function. Every Saturday morning, listeners can delve into a bit of the London DJ’s headspace, transported by her intuitive picks of ambient textures, folk ditties, and “spicy Latin”. It’s sometimes melancholic, sometimes uplifting. Zakia’s show, which debuted three years ago, has always presented a journey through mood as well as sound. That feels particularly pertinent in our current times. Zakia says it felt important “to shift the energy through music” when thinking about her listeners in lockdown, curating a show that would acknowledge feelings of grief but keep spirits high. Throughout the year, Zakia continued to record live, but from her bedroom instead of the Dalston, east London studio. That came with some technical difficulties, but the more personal spirit from recording at home felt significant.

Shows like Questing offer listeners a sense of familiarity and consistency, something that feels vital in a world that’s in a constant state of uncertainty. Zakia also highlights the significance of structure. “It’s a really important moment of connecting to the wider community, which we’ve lost through the various lockdowns,” she says. “It sets a rhythm to my week.”

“Black and Brown people continue to be underrepresented and ignored in creative industries. It felt necessary to create a platform which aims to support and showcase them” – Ora, Sable Radio

The period of suspended activity also provided the context for Zakia to write My Albion, her recent audio series for BBC Radio 4. The series, which explores British national identity and its complexities, was “born out of the atmosphere of the first lockdown”, as a response to the Black Lives Matter revival in the summer, and the swathes of reflection time Zakia found herself with. “I was thinking a lot about my position as a mixed race person and the platforms I have access to,” she explains. “I wanted to use my privilege”.

Further north, Ora has also facilitated important expressions of identity through her role as co-founder of Sable Radio, the independent not-for-profit station created by and for people of colour in Leeds. With specialist music shows exploring sounds from Latin America to the Middle East, alongside discussion-led formats and spoken word, the station boasts an exciting and diverse schedule. “Black and Brown people continue to be underrepresented and ignored in creative industries,” she says. “It felt necessary to create a platform which aims to support and showcase them.” This year, Ora continued to organise regular online broadcasts, delivering equipment round the city in order for people to record at home. 

Mutual aid has become a developing dimension of radio this year, spearheaded by women of colour. On the other side of the pennines, Manchester-based DJ Abena recently streamed a 12 hour live set on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers, raising over £3,000 for the cause with her selections from jazz to jungle. NTS resident Anu too explored radio as a force for fundraising in the summer, curating a weekend of programming in support of Sistah Space. Alongside her usual picks of funk, hip hop, and guitar music, Anu collaborated with Bryce’s Brother, Lil C and Shy One for a more dancefloor-focused session. Working with the charity, which assists African heritage survivors of domestic abuse in Hackney, was particularly close to Anu’s heart. “The council’s lack of care for vulnerable Black women filled me with so much rage. I’ve personally experienced and witnessed domestic violence, so I felt like the healthiest way to get through that anger was to help out in whatever way I could.” 

“It’s become incredibly apparent this year that the people with power in this country don’t give a shit about vulnerable or marginalised people,” Anu says. From the £2950.41 raised to the number of people who got involved, the outcome of the fundraiser was bigger than she had expected. The interactive nature of radio has also been instrumental for Anu’s own wellbeing, giving her the drive to create and connect in an otherwise bleak time. “It truly feels like a support system”. 

As the pandemic lurches on, radio and its offshoots continue to serve a major purpose for community interaction, as well as for welfare, culture, and expressions of identity. As listenership grows and grassroots stations thrive, it is clear that the medium has become a more layered and salient part of our everyday lives in 2020, and it has been women of colour leading the way.