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Introducing No Signal Radio

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Rahel Aklilu chats to No Signal about their plans for their True Music Fund grant, future plans and going viral over lockdown.

If there’s anything that the past year and a half has taught us, it’s the importance of a reset – physical, emotional, mental and in this case, cultural. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion on the dancefloor through the True Music Fund is pushing that reset. The pandemic has impacted smaller organisations more than anybody – their work is essential to pushing the culture and community of music we know and love. That’s why we’ve teamed up with tastemakers and changemakers from around the world to reset the dance floor and make music equal for all.

One of these tastemakers includes Jamal Edwards MBE, having founded a multimedia platform that originally focussed on the then-less documented and more-marginalised genre of UK Grime, Jamal knows all about shining a light on voices excluded from the mainstream and creating an online platform for equality and inclusivity.

London based radio station No Signal, who he has chosen to receive a 10k grant as part of the fund, does just that – founded by young Black people, run for everybody in the Black diaspora – with sets from DJs and collectives of every corner of the world, from Birmingham to Barbados, all the way to Australia.

Broadcasting for fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, there is no corner of Black music, culture or history that isn’t covered by one of the over fifty shows produced and hosted by a mix of unknown and established Black talent. From discography dissections to form an artist’s ‘Super Album’, to informative segments on major issues affecting the diaspora such as the End SARS movement in Nigeria or the scandal around cobalt mining in the DRC, there isn’t a facet left untouched by the fifteen-strong core team and network of volunteers and freelancers that form the foundation of the No Signal family.

No Signal was originally formed as an extension of the infamous ‘Recess’ parties as a platform to livestream and archive various DJ sets from the parties. Founded in 2016, Recess quickly built a reputation as arguably one of the most popular nights out for Black Londoners in a city where Black music and nightlife has historically been stifled through oppressive instruments such as Form 696 as well as being priced out. The community that had coalesced around Recess however, like the rest of the world, was brought to a halt in February 2021 following the government-mandated lockdown.

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“There was a huge standstill and nothing for any of us to do, as freelancers we were essentially out of a job” explains Jason ‘Scully’ Kavuma, co-head of production and brands at NS, tells me. “As people sought ways of keeping in touch and socialising through apps such as ‘Houseparty’, we wanted to soundtrack those pockets of conviviality where people could find refuge”, so from bedroom broadcasting, NS 10v10 was born. The interactive nature of the game show provided not only entertainment and an opportunity for socialising as well as entertaining, in a year that was undoubtedly exhausting for Black people as political and social issues took forefront elsewhere.

If it was a video camera gifted on his fifteenth birthday that changed the trajectory of Jamal Edwards MBE, the #NS10v10 clash between Wizkid and Vybz Kartel was the defining moment for No Signal. Drawing in over half a million people from across the world, including the artists themselves, engagement was so high that the No Signal servers crashed, forcing the team to put together a YouTube livestream within a matter of minutes. “That moment snowballed and changed all of our lives forever, without a doubt, but if we don’t use that blessing to help others, then we’re essentially pulling the ladder up behind us,” Scully explains.

Today, No Signal has managed to create a physical studio, a hub for young and developing Black creatives to broadcast (the process for pitching a show is as simple as messaging NS on social media) as well as explore.

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“A physical space is so important in helping us realise our collective goal of becoming more than just entertainment, but a resource for young Black people hoping to break into the industry. Although we blew up in DIY fashion, using technology to facilitate No Signal, which is a testament to our creativity and innovation – the importance of a physical space cannot be understated as it gives us something tangible in cementing our position in this new world. It has allowed us to explore new ways of experimenting and enacting disruption, such as video-content, live streaming, and so many other arms of No Signal that will allow us to keep disrupting the status-quo and championing Black sounds and the Black community.” Scully explains.

As London continues to lose over half of its youth clubs in the last decade due to austerity, and opportunities for radio training and development remain few and far between, young people and communities are left bereft of any spaces that have the structure or the physical equipment to what No Signal are doing.

The Ballantine’s True Music grant will help take No Signal to the next level and be able to seriously contend with established media houses. The money will be used to upgrade the studio, as ‘better tech allows for better radio production’ according to producer Mackie, which will in turn ‘elevate our craft’ as one of the station’s presenters Mr Alvin puts it.

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“Community radio is just that, for the community. Looking at radio stations in the past, they served as more than just a space for broadcast, but for creativity and more simply, a place for people who love music to chill. It’s important to have a safe haven of sorts for young Black people to experiment, ask questions and have peers who can help and advise along the way” as Scully explains it.

“If it wasn’t for grants like the Ballantine’s True Music fund, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do, on the scale that we do it. There is no way that we would be able to operate at all, they quite simply keep us running. These grants change the way we are able to work as well as the people we can work with, allowing us to  provide an entry point for young, burgeoning talent. Considering the past year, a serious commitment to diversity and inclusivity needs to be more than shameless lip service and an empty PR exercise, and this grant is a true example of putting money where your mouth is”. Scully explains, highlighting the importance of this allocation.

“Considering the great steps Jamal started when he founded and developed SBTV to the cultural platform it is today, we see our work as a continuation of what he and others have done. We’re not short-sighted to think that we’re the only ones who have tried to disrupt the media landscape, so we look to those before us when we decide on how to shape our future. What SBTV has done as a Black British media institution cannot be understated, it set a pace and it set a standard in the digital world and inspired a lot of us into thinking anything was possible. It feels full circle to be chosen to receive a grant by Jamal considering how much success he’s had, like a passing of the torch to keep up the good fight”. Scully draws on the comparisons between No Signal and SBTV and the trajectory laid ahead by the latter’s success.

So. Boundaries have been broken. Ceilings have been smashed. Ears have pricked up and at last, all eyes are on a group of young Black trailblazers operating from a small studio in Tottenham.

After a triumphant year, what’s next for No Signal?

The mission continues, tapping into the ‘burgeoning tastemakers and bubbling scenes around the world, where No Signal will continue to champion communities, cultures and sounds that are not only true to music, but true to themselves.

Rahel Aklilu is a London based music and culture writer who regularly writes for gal-dem, Dazed, Vice, Crack and Notion amongst many others.

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