Recess is a staple of Black British nightlife and beyond, throwing events from Accra to Ibiza, and for their 100th party they took over Dreamland for #RECESSLAND. Watch it here – plus, read Caleb Femi’s interview with founders Jojo and David Sonubi
This article is taken from the summer 2023 issue of Dazed:
OK, so you’re a young Black person looking for a lit night in London. When you consider your options, Recess should be somewhere high on your list. I attended Recess for the first time in 2016 and it was sick. The vibe was thick with joy, the DJs were impeccable, the flow of the night was dynamic and free of lulls, strangers bonded with strangers – if you stopped and looked around, you could literally spot people forming core memories that would define their youth for years to come. There, I felt empowered and embraced by my community, and knew I’d found a place where I could do the only thing I want to do on a night out: enjoy life with my people.
Since then, Recess has grown to become a staple part of Black London nightlife. The founders, Jojo and David Sonubi, have curated a brand of parties with Black British culture at its core, an approach that sounds straightforward on paper but is difficult to execute in reality. But for Recess to have had around 100 parties in locations around the globe from Accra to Ibiza over an eight-year period is a testament to a successful formula, and a strategy to navigate the social and systemic obstacles that, for decades, have inhibited Black nightlife programming. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been researching and documenting nightlife in the Black British community, paying attention to the design of the spaces, the curation of the events, the people who attend and how these parties foster lasting bonds that serve to strengthen the community. So I linked up with Jojo at Recess HQ to chat about the party and its role in the Black British nightlife community.
You’ve held over 100 parties now, why do you think people go out?
Jojo Sonubi: It’s in our culture. African and Caribbean people, we enjoy music loudly with our people around us. This is just human nature, even if it’s not a party there are christenings, there’s church [events], you know. People want to turn up. But one thing I realised recently is that they don’t always seem like they’re turning up. But I’ve also noticed that people come to see each other. People have their own individual arcs, their work arcs and family and shit. So they come to clubs and venues for parties, to see each other, to be seen, to meet new people and that’s so vital. Over the years I’ve forgotten that because I’m so far away from that stage. Sometimes I feel like I go out just for research.
Don’t you enjoy yourself anymore?
Jojo Sonubi: Yeah man, I do. This Sunday night, it was our own party and I had a great time. I enjoy it because I get to chill with people I don’t get to be around often.
I get it, our lives get so busy and we tend to drift from people in our community. That’s what I appreciate about parties like Recess, you can bump into friends you ain’t seen in time and – even if it’s just for the night – rekindle a bond. Recess and No Signal are pillars of Black British nightlife, in London anyway. What does it mean to you to be one of the architects of Black nightlife culture?
Jojo Sonubi: It’s mad because the whole being an architect wasn’t intentional. I’m a graphic designer at heart but now I look back over the years and realise that I’ve been designing moments and experiences in Black spaces. That’s nice to reflect on. When I was younger I just wanted to throw parties, it was fun to do. But then it became a personal challenge when venues pushed back and weren’t hosting us. I was like, OK, cool, I really want to get that venue on board. Being successful in that challenge made me insatiable. I started to think, where does this end, how far can we go? Then I started to realise that there were things missing [on nights out] and there were opportunities for us to bring something new and to do things differently.
What do you mean?
Jojo Sonubi: Black people have to benefit from Black music and culture. We have to be part of the process, the organisation, from start to finish. [We need] Black people who are in significant roles, who understand the culture and the context of Black British nightlife. There was a period of time in 2016, 2017, when some of the biggest Black music events had no Black people involved in significant roles.
“Black people have to benefit from Black music… We need people in significant roles who understand the culture and the context of Black British nightlife”
Which is crazy.
Jojo Sonubi: That’s where the drive to challenge venues came from; it wasn’t just about hosting parties in certain venues but about using the space again and again because that meant that those venues became accessible for Black people. It normalised it. We started by using small venues in Shoreditch then soon we upped it to XOYO. We continued pushing until we patterned Village Underground, then in 2021 we managed to book Fabric which was huge, culturally. We didn’t make a big song and dance over it but if you were there it was part of a historical moment. We know places like that don’t really want Black people there, and not to say we were the first ’cause we weren’t – grime did it before – but for a Recess party to be there was big.
Speaking of reflection, what are your proudest Recess moments?
Jojo Sonubi: Definitely Ibiza in 2019. Even though that was a joint ting, it was pretty cool. I’m proud of the summer lockdown ‘sit-down’ parties. People needed that; I needed that. But it was a struggle to put on, I almost quit after that. I have a poster that says “Recess forever” and then it says, “Will we ayyy again?” I just felt so much dread at the time. So to make it out that period is something I’m proud of. Then there’s Fabric. Me and DJ RBC planned that out together and when it sold out so quickly even the venue was surprised, despite how hard they made it for us to pattern.
It must be so frustrating to navigate the systemic obstacles that hinder Black events from taking place. I think about the government legislation, Form 696 and all the other, newer versions of red tape.
Jojo Sonubi: I think the most challenging thing for our events right now is the venues either not hosting us or, when they do, they don’t take me and my team seriously, particularly in terms of our technical team. For example, venues undermining our lighting technicians or our door strategy or treating us like we’re amateurs – we’ve done over 100 events and most of the time we have the same experience as them if not more. They act like it’s us versus them like we’re not on the same side, sometimes they charge an arm and a leg for the space or they charge full price on drinks. Even though they’re taking all the bar money.
That sounds infuriating, especially because it’s on you to maintain your composure. There’s a distinctive vibe at Recess events, let’s talk about that. How do you approach curation? I’m talking about spatial curation and experience design. You grew up on house parties, uni coach raves, west African hall parties. How have these parties influenced your approach to putting on a Recess event?
Jojo Sonubi: When we were doing smaller club nights, our approach was influenced by uni raves and the different clubs in Shoreditch during the mid-to-late 2010s. Our day parties were influenced by summer barbecues and the odd block parties I used to go to. And then with the bigger parties, like the Boxparks and Fabrics – I’ll be honest, I’ve always thought that parties with over 1,000 people are very difficult to do well. With a number like that people become harder to control – and when I say control, I mean the vibe. Boxpark is a very square and flat surface and for that amount of people they need a lot of stimuli. Dankie Sounds do that very well, with the glow sticks and whistles.