The No Signal co-founder tells Vanessa Maria the station's origin story and offers tips on curating your creative career.
Throughout 2021, RA will host a series of interviews in partnership with Black Minds Matter UK, an organisation whose mission is to connect Black individuals and families with free mental health services by professional Black therapists.
The interviews, which will be published as written features and audio RA Exchanges, focus on Black creatives working in electronic music at all levels. These conversations will touch on issues surrounding mental health, in keeping with Black Minds Matter UK's mission to "make mental health topics more relevant and accessible for all Black people in the UK, removing the stigma and remodelling the services to be relevant for the Black community."
Up next, Vanessa Maria speaks to Jojo Sonubi, co-founder of online radio station No Signal, London's RECESS party series and the submission-based photo archive Black in the Day.
This is a full transcript of this week's edition of the RA Exchange, edited slightly for length and clarity.
There's one question I ask all my guests, which is: what made you smile today?
I was watching a film with my family and the film was just so funny in so many different ways, and I thought, "I'm having a great time." So that's what made me smile today. How about yourself?
Before I answer, what film were you watching?
It was called The Ghost and the Tout. It's a Nollywood film, but it's on Netflix.
Oh, Nollywood. I need to get into that. My friend's been talking to me about it for ages.
What made me smile today is probably that the clocks went forwards. I feel we're almost at the end of the tunnel, that we can see the light, that things are starting to feel like they're getting back to some form of normality.
Where were you at this time last year? How did you feel, and what were you working on?
I think we just literally started the first week of doing DJ sets and audio streams on No Signal. I was doing like two hours a day, I think maybe even kind of discovered the idea of 10v10, but it hadn't been done. It was a lot of ideas. A lot of time being in my room on the phone. You know what I mean? Yeah, very... What's the word? Planning.
You were strategizing? Is that the word?
Yeah, strategizing. There we go.
When I was looking at your journey and stuff, I realized you're a serial entrepreneur. You're a creative strategist. You haven't worked a full-time job since you were sacked from Topshop in 2014, is that correct?
So, you're like a strategist and a hustler. How has lockdown affected the grind for you, in that sense?
Before lockdown, we were thick in the events game, and we was looking to expand and do big things or bigger things. And it was kind of like crushing a little bit, but at the same time, it was like, "Damn. We can still keep in contact with the people and keep entertaining because we really know how to livestream sets and stuff," but how was I going to make money?
My family were like, "Keep your head up," kind of thing, you know? 'cause you're a street, you know what I mean? I remember my dad was telling me, "Yeah, just jump on YouTube, man."
He's like, "You can make money using that." And I was like, "Well, but it takes a while for you to get that moment of making bread off visual content on YouTube." So we started the No Signal thing and 10v10 and that's when we really started getting attention. I told my dad, "Yeah, I feel like I'm getting closer to a breakthrough that I can make some income again." And he's like, "Yeah, cool." I was telling him the progress, and they were happy, you know.
It sounds like it started organically, and you had the idea. There was pressure because you didn't know where you were going to make your money from, you couldn't sign on, and then it popped off because No Signal became the place for Black British people. It's a cultural hub now. It's a space where we come together, and it's a community. And yeah, massive congratulations on everything that you have achieved because you had... I don't even know where to start from. Your recent Dazed feature, Vibes. Obviously, Wizkid was a moment. Class of 2020. Jorja Smith. But I think more impressively, it is just the consistent quality of programming. Has it been difficult to schedule that in?
Yeah, most definitely because when we did parties, we didn't have to do much because our parties are kind of in the center. So you kind of play to everything, but you're not in a particular lane. We're not a strictly house party or a strict bashment party. We'll play all of those things in one night. So it means that we can be a little bit creative, but at the same time, we can't go deep into the bags, do you know what I mean?
For example, before lockdown, people knew AAA for just being a great DJ, but they didn't know that he loves reggae and has a deep knowledge of reggae. He has a deep knowledge of R&B, and that manifested through him having his reggae show on Sunday and slow jams on Sunday evening. Stuff like that is why we really enjoyed programming the first early shows of No Signal, because we reached out to people we knew. All of the people that are on the station are people that we knew already. It's like finally, we can finally work together, you know?
For example, Tony Supreme, I've known him for about five years. You know, he never said, "I'd like to work at RECESS," but it was more of a thing where I've always liked what he did with Soul Surge. I was like, "Tony, man. Like, I'd love to have you on a Saturday morning. You know, just run this. Wake up vibes, you know what I mean?" And that's been a show that's been there for a year now. Yesterday he celebrated his one-year anniversary. A couple people celebrated one-year anniversaries.
I think the hardest part about programming is finding the flow. You want to create a flow for the day, you know, and each day you want a DJ to have his own thing. You want people to know what to expect when they log onto the website or open the app.
As a programmer, you decide how you want people to interact. How you want people to feel throughout a certain period, within the hours that you have. Whether it's an hour, if it's three hours or 15 hours, you're in control. You find a flow you want for weekdays, you find a flow you want for weekends, find a flow for weeknights and weekend nights. You know?
Yeah, 100%. And it's very eclectic, the music that gets played on No Signal. I saw a little graphic that you made, which was like a tube map. It reminded me that you get on [the station] and get off where you want to stop because you find your space. So, where do you get off?
To be fair, I always get on mornings, obviously, which you know I'm getting ready, I have it on in the shower all the time. Usually, I find myself doing the lunchtime show, the mid-afternoon mix show. And around 3:00-5:00, 6:00, that's when I probably got more meetings, so I'm just sticking to work, but most times in the office, we'll have it on for the whole day. But I love especially all the weeknights. Monday through Thursday, it's the R&B and jazz from 11:00, and that's nice in the car, home, or just chilling downstairs in the living room, you know what I'm saying? I love that. I'm always there on that line.
So music is obviously the center of a lot of the work that you do, and it's managed to bring a lot of people together. Why do you think that music creates that sense of togetherness?
I think it's one of those languages a lot of people speak, common languages. Yeah, we speak English and that, but at the same time, music can spark a conversation. Obviously, not all of us speak English, but me, you right now, you know what I mean? Music can spark conversations that will last a long time, but music will also allow people that might not speak the same language, you know, verbal language. It can start a connection with music, you know what I mean?
And music is obviously our healer, it's our entertainer, it's the form of expression, form of freedom. It's so many things, especially Black music. There are so many strands of it, and it goes way back. Some of us can feel that journey in certain sounds and resonate with it so much. If we're more in touch with our ancestral cultures, you can really feel it in song. And if we're just well learned when it comes to other cultures, you can still appreciate that as well.
Music can, in a way, be like film. They're two things that bring people together consistently. It brings us together, for example, on social media, you know? "Do you watch this?" All of that stuff.
Yeah, definitely. What music shaped your upbringing? And have you grown up in a musical family? Is that why you took this path? Or was it something that you've done more as an individual?
Growing up, I saw my dad playing drums in the church. You know what I'm saying? And it's been really gassy.
We did like, you know, performing arts at school, primary school, secondary school.
Oh, you were an actor?
I wasn't an actor. I just enjoyed doing it. I was good at it, but it wasn't my dream to be an actor. As we grew older in church, you know, my dad obviously started his own parish. You know you take on more responsibilities. I always wanted to learn how to drum, so I learned how to.
Really?! Like a drum kit?
Yeah, like a drum set.
No way! I grew up playing Repinque, like Brazilian drums in school.
Yeah, I loved it. So the drums got you?
Yeah. My brother used to play keys. My two sisters sing, so obviously being around music. That was the music we listened to growing up. We saw the stuff on TV because the radio was really for me, not my parents. They would play just like, Nigerian gospel tapes, so I grew up with a lot of Nigerian gospel and obviously Nigerian secular music.
You know how a lot of '90s babies are like, R&B from the '90s and 2000s, they know everything? It's like a personality trait. The song's sung, but I'm like, "Yeah, I don't really have a connection to this song like you guys do." Because truly, I didn't listen to a lot of radio because my parents always listened to Nigerian radio. So I just know Nigerian songs or the gospel tapes.
So, from the drumming, did you ever have a rock phase? Like any Linkin Park kind of thing going on?
My entry to rock was American teen movies, that's in the early 2000s. And then crossovers, so when Diddy did one with Sum 41, I think it was. And then even Gym Class Heroes and that stuff like that.
Then obviously some of the UK stuff, Friendly Fires, the Klaxons, Mike Snow. Even I went to live in Essex as well, being in college, so I was chilling with emos.
You were chilling with emos? No way.
Yeah, yeah. But because I actually chose that, the popular kids I didn't like them because they were mean innit. Being the only Black person around them, you're like, "Nah, man. I'm not a victim." Do you know what I'm saying? They weren't racist or anything, or maybe overtly racist. Maybe racism was making them be mean or something, but I never liked being around them.
I was in higher sets, not even higher sets, like set three and four. Not the top two elite ones innit. Sets three and four had some of the emos and the scene kids, so I was like, "You know what? I be chilling with them for a bit," and they were telling me some songs, like Fall Out Boy and that.
Drumming really put me on the rock phase. Because drumming is massive in Nigerian culture. It's massive, so I was definitely inspired by the scene, the sick drummers in church and the sick drummers in music videos. Just hearing them, you know what I mean? Sick, sick, sick drummers.
I've realized with No Signal, it's not just about the music. You host a lot of political discussions. For example EndSARS, you had Seun Kuti on and you have a Face The Facts feature. So was that intentional? Did you always want to branch out into culture as well?
Yeah, for sure. Back in 2017, I did a panel event and just had people talking about what it could mean if we had a Labour or a Tory government, blah, blah, blah, it was cool. So then again, in the second general election in 2019, we did another Face The Facts. It was a radio version. And then obviously, ENDSars happened, and we thought there's a space for this on No Signal, to turn it into a proper long-running show. And it was just needed innit. You know what I'm saying? There's obviously a lot of platforms already, a lot of YouTube channels and that, but just for our community of listeners on No Signal, it would be nice to offer to them as well.
Because I'm not here to change the game, just here to serve a group of people innit. And then obviously grow that group of people and then see how we can change the game.
I love the fact that you have those kinds of conversations because it fosters more of a community, we can come together and talk about the things that maybe we're discussing on Twitter anyway. We talked a lot about the music side of No Signal, but I really want to touch on the importance of community. Because I feel like No Signal has kept Black people in the UK sane during this lockdown. I think in a time where we've been more isolated than ever, you've managed to make us feel that we all belong. And thank you for basically saving our mental health.
Thank you as well.
Did you ever expect to have such a big impact on the Black community? And when did you really realize that, "Whoa. This is important. This is bigger than just a station. This is actually vital. This is keeping people alive"?
We didn't really expect it. We just wanted to entertain the people that we already interacted with via RECESS. I always wanted to have a piece of content that would be like, you know, people could enjoy in real-time and talk about in real-time.
But never expected the magnitude innit. It was only recently where I realized what we really are in this space and how important it is. What we're doing isn't brand new, in terms of what we're doing today and what we've been doing for the past six months, just radio and producing content. You know what I mean? And 10v10 and lockdown together was the catalyst for that. We had to make the right decisions in order for us to be where we are today. Because we could've had the success of 10v10, but then also might've made the wrong decision and then would've been forgotten. But you know, the fact that we made the right decisions and we're still here today, it's because the mission isn't 10v10, you know what I mean? The mission is just having this creative space.
But we're in the middle of two groups of people. People that work in the creative space and people that are consumers of the creative content. So, by working with people in the creative space, we're able to give something to people that will consume the creative content. And our space is ours, where it's mostly Black people or fully Black people working in that space. But it's not enough in the grand scheme of things. Many of the firms or bodies in the Black space are run by white people: those agencies, production companies, channels. Obviously, we're in the West, so we're going to have to operate around this construct. We have to work with the resources that we have that are owned by non-Black people.
But at the same time, still need to have spaces that are protecting. But at the same time, we still need to have spaces that are safe for Black people to work with, you know what I'm saying? And not just safe from maybe the white gaze, or just micro-aggressions. Also safe for people as human beings as well. Like, safe for women, all of that.
It's definitely difficult because a lot of Black initiatives aren't funded like non-Black initiatives, you know? That's why many Black people work for free, work for less, or do stuff they don't want to do in the creative space just to get by. So I'm glad we can add another brick to that infrastructure of Black-owned spaces because they DO exist, but we need more innit. We're happy that we can be another brick in that foundation but also want to grow and build.
Definitely. You touched on the importance of space and spaces for black people, which is so, so important. That's something that keeps coming up as well in discussions around Black mental health and well-being. I wanted to ask you, what specifically does Black mental health mean to you?
For me, it's kind of understanding where you come from and the kind of pressure you have. Some of us are first-generation Black children of immigrants that came [to the UK] in the '80s. Some of us are three generations deep, where our great-grandparents or grandparents have been here since the '40s, '50s, '60s. So everyone has their own path, and alongside that path, their own kind of shortcomings, shortfalls, trauma, all them things. You know what I'm saying? What affects one black person might not affect another black person.
So, I think for me, Black mental health is case-by-case. Honestly, I had a friend. She only got her residency a few years ago. She wasn't able to work, but she's 25. So imagine all your friends are flying out for Afro Nation, or they're going to Ibiza and you can't go? Obviously, that can affect your mental health. Because it's like, "Yo. I'm chained down. I can't move." But then, as me, someone who's had my residency since I was a kid, it's like, "Yo. That wouldn't affect me."
But what would affect my mental health could be something totally different where it's like, my parents are just going through it. You know what I mean? There's just so many strains, and people like to lump what Black people go through together. It's like, "All of you guys go through it," And it's not true. But yeah, those are two extreme examples, but I just feel like, for me, it's a case-by-case thing. There are so many things that determine what could really hamper our mental health or what could really aid our mental health as well.
No, I hear you. We're not monolithic. You can't just block it into one. It's so true.
You talked a lot about it's case-by-case, and it's on individual terms. How have you, as an individual, managed to maintain your own mental health during this time, this lockdown? It's been long. It's been hard.
To be fair, with the radio stream and No Signal, at first, I did it for myself, so I could just wake up in the morning and play music to whoever wanted to listen. I found it very soothing because I was able to wake up at 10:00 am, and then basically, it was two of my friends listening. We're vibing, you know what I'm saying? That was really nice.
I can't lie. With the attention that it garnered, especially 10v10, it became quite difficult, and it was hard to escape because you're locked in. It was hard. Usually, my normal forms of escape are playing football, being outdoors, just being with people, and it was hard to do that. I had to develop new skills. I invested in a game where it's like, it's a high focus game where I'm building a city and managing a city. So, I have to use my brain strategically, you know?
Oh, wow. Is that on PlayStation?
It was on my Mac. So it was a bit like Sims, but yeah, it's a city-building game. It really helped me because it meant that I could just be chill and disconnect from whatever's happening on the internet for a good three, four hours. And I'm just making sure the water pipes are built, and the electrical lines are built. There's enough electricity going to the city, the roads are well planned. There's so many small details in trying to grow this city.
What's it called?
It's called City Skyline.
I might need to check that out. It sounds very therapeutic and like, it sounds like you're in control, which is sometimes when you feel most stressed because you feel like you're losing control of things in your life.
Exactly that. So, that was really good for me during the lockdown. When we was able to go out, my brother had a bike, so I'd take the bike sometimes, but whenever I came to London, I would use a bike to cycle to certain places, just to go from A to B. A short one because cycling is just better than walking, especially if music is in your ears or you just start dancing with the bike. It's just nice, man.
I hear you. I remember, I think I talked about it before as well, like on a different podcast, but the first lockdown, I went on a bike ride. I borrowed my flatmate's bike, and it was a sunny day, and I started crying. I was fully cycling to some park, and I started bawling my eyes out, but it was tears of joy. And I remember calling my sister, and I was like, "Oh my God. I am so overwhelmed because this is the first time in two years where I've actually gone somewhere because I wanted to go there. Not because it was a work thing or because I'm going to the studio or to meet someone. This is the first time I've thought, 'Let me cycle somewhere because I just have some time to do something fun.'" And I fully started crying.
Yeah, that's definitely emotional.
It was just like, that moment I was like, "Yeah, I need to start going on bike rides more and just enjoying life and having balance."
Do you find that your relationship with social media has changed as well during this time?
100%. There was a period where I felt like I was really spying people online. When that whole 10v10 blew up, you're reading thousands of opinions, you know what I'm saying? But it's at 11:30 pm, and you're seeing all these mad opinions sometimes. And when they're good, they're great, but when they're bad, they're really bad. And it's something you're not used to. I've never really been cooked heavy. I've had people laugh, whatever, but never been cooked. When you're seeing all these things, people cooking what you made, you're like, "Damn. Doesn't need to be like this." It's crazy. You just start replying to people, and you're getting vexed and stuff.
I remember even certain decisions you make, people criticizing you, and then you're like, "You don't understand. Why don't you understand?" Like when we dropped the GoFundMe, I felt like I was fighting. I had to fight people back, you know? I had to write like, a 20 tweet thread. But I don't know, I think it was good that I canceled my Twitter account because, in July, my account just got suspended for a month.
Yeah, and I can't lie, I was at peace man. That month. Oh my gosh. No negativity, and I thought, "I don't need this app no more." You know?
You were like, "Why?"
Yeah, exactly. I was just like, I'm not going to take what people say on here as gospel because people are fickle. I'm not a masochist, so I'm not just going to read bad opinions or look at bad opinions no more. It took a while, but today it doesn't affect me. But it just took such a long while for me to adjust to that. I definitely use it less, and I don't try to engage with any mess that happens online if there's a controversial topic because, man, I really protect mental health. I don't know how people can commit themselves to doing that.
For example, even Clubhouse. People get mad at Clubhouse. I just don't know how you can do that, man. You love pain.
You've got to protect your peace at the end of the day. I really want to know the process of actually, I guess, letting go of the perceptions people have of you or the need to care about what people think. How does that look? Because I know many artists, many people in the public eye talk about just actually not caring, but how does that work? It sounds easier than is done.
100% and I'd be lying if I said I 100% don't care. It took almost a year for me to be like, "You know, I'm just not going to read this." But at the same time, I might read a certain thing wrong and want to react. You hear me? It's difficult, and I pity artists because, like, I wonder how they do it. Musicians and even footballers, you know? It is a lot. It's not healthy. Many people use social media. It's not healthy right now. It's scary.
It is scary.
People forget. People see just a static image and the person's name and a bio. You know what I'm saying? They think it's not a real human being behind it, but it is. The person has to read that, you know? The other day, the person handling our social was like, "Yo, can I just take a day off? Because the abuse has been too much today." And what's the abuse for? The abuse is never about, "Okay, the songs on the show are selected wrong," or whatever.
So, I think it's really difficult to not care, but you have to force yourself. Unfortunately, the only way you get stronger is by being hurt. You're being hit in the head, and you're just kind of taking it and eventually just becoming stronger from that. Pain, boy. No pain, no gain, you know?
No pain, no gain. I hear you, and I think a lot of that's true. When I've read books and looked into the art of confidence and stuff, it talks a lot about people's perceptions and strength being... The true form of strength being self-knowledge and self-power. I wonder if knowing yourself better kind of makes you not oblivious; you don't really care what people think because you're so comfortable in who you are. You know the vision, and you know the process, and what people say doesn't really affect you because you're so self-aware and confident in who you are and what you're bringing to the table, and your values and principles as a person.
Yeah, for sure. Even that itself is a process.
Knowing yourself, yeah. That's a process.
And imposter syndrome be kicking asses these days, man.
Even for you?
Yeah, sometimes. When I started radio, I had no experience in radio. You know? So I'm coming to this radio game, I feel like an imposter. I don't want to feel like I'm taking someone's space. I don't want to cause a fight, but I know how to curate and program, you know what I mean? All that stuff. We'll get the right people we know by radio to handle that technical radio side. We're not arrogant enough to know not to do that.
I hear what you're saying. And how do you overcome that imposter syndrome then? Because as you said, you feel like you don't want to be taking someone's space, but I guess it's not like you're taking anyone's space because you're creating a space for yourself, right?
Mm-hmm. I think rinse and repeat, you know like, for example, with photography. I'm probably not a go-to person for say, there's an artist that needs to be shot for a magazine. But I found my niche. My niche was just documenting the mundane stuff, the everyday stuff. I know, even though I'm a tall person, I still know how to make myself discrete. You know what I'm saying? It took me a while to understand that and that there's actually power in not having to post for now or to create for now. There's also scope to create for later. You know what I'm saying? That helped overcome the imposter syndrome with photography. But obviously, it's very specific to that thing.
Generally speaking, I think it's just kind of like you have to keep doing the thing until you believe that you are doing this thing. Until you believe that you are what you say you are.
You can't do something one time and be like, "Yo, I am this." Okay, do it again. Do you still feel like it? And keep doing it until you feel like you are. Until you can talk eloquently or in detail about your whole process, your decision making, your inspiration, everything. Because if you can't do any of those, then you're just regurgitating someone's content or making shit up. But that's my opinion, you know what I mean? That's how I see it.
Self-belief. No, I think that is definitely the common denominator amongst all successful people. When you believe in yourself, you don't give up because you just know that something else will happen, even if a door closes.
It just sounds like you are someone who's very well versed in believing in themselves. I know even in your career as a graphic designer, you were self-taught at 13, right? So, you didn't take a professional course. You went and taught yourself, and you believed in yourself, you know?
Yeah, that's right.
For someone who might be listening in and wants to start their own creative career, what advice would you have for them as someone who's obviously taken that initiative themselves? What would you say are the steps in curating your own creative career?
I think you have to understand your why. Why you're doing it. And it's important to be as honest as possible if you're aware that you want to be famous, then so be it bro. I think we're probably getting into a time if we're not there already where people are rarely saying, "I want this for the Black community, blah, blah, blah." Which is obviously noble, but it's not a vehicle for stardom or becoming famous and what not. Because there's loads of people doing that shit for free. There's loads of people doing that stuff, and they don't even see them. They're not making a song and dance, but they're in the field for real. You know what I'm saying?
So it's like, you got to know your why; why you want to do this. And be honest with your why, but don't kind of like, put a façade to strengthen your why or embellish why you're doing this. You have to be honest with yourself. Because honesty and sincerity will get you far. If you're honest, you know everything like the back of your hand. It will show through your practice. You won't need to cap, you know what I mean?
So I feel like that. Don't cap. That is my advice. Just don't cap it, you know what I mean?
Capping, no capping.
Don't be a capper. Obviously, know why you're doing it.
It's true because when you're honest, your authenticity speaks for itself.
What is your why?
My why is creating a space for myself, for my friends, and other people I like around me. Because there are certain things that are missing, and why are they missing? They should be here the whole time, but I guess maybe they were there, and they've gone. Or maybe they are there and they’re not for us, or maybe not there at all.
But my why is also to have fun and to bring my ideas to life. As a kid, I had so many ideas, you know. I used to like, just do lots of random stuff as a kid. Fake record labels and fake football teams, fake cartoons. All of them things, you know? Just bringing them to life because it's going to be fun. So, right now, my why is just being able to bring my ideas to life so they can have some kind of impact on our world or the community. My world, whether it's my team close to me or people privy to me, all them things, you know what I mean?
I absolutely love that for you and I hope that you can bring all your ideas to life. And I have no doubt, God willing, that that will happen. So I just want to thank you for your time and for joining me.
Thank you very much, Vanessa.