There wasn’t a week during the first lockdown when I – and seemingly every other Black person I know – wasn’t tuned into No Signal radio.
Founded by brothers Jojo and David Sonubi in March 2020, the online station is unapologetically Black, its pandemic popularity rising exponentially with the growth of the mighty #NS10v10. This on-air gameshow saw two hosts each pick an artist to represent in a clash of tracks, with every round decided live by the audience via a Twitter poll. The most famous clash, in May 2020, was Wizkid vs Vybz Kartel, and it saw the listenership of No Signal go properly global.
“The 10v10s were just incredible,” agrees DJ Henrie Kwushue, one of No Signal’s big names with a growing profile in her own right. “It was great to see how Jojo and his brother David cultivated an audience like that.”
For her part, 26-year-old Henrietta Atinuke Kwushue is also making waves – with her own production company, a podcast with Spotify, and now a resident slot at Kiss FM, too. But it was during lockdown that the Black community first got to know her voice when she hosted her own show on No Signal.
We speak bright and early on a Wednesday morning. She tells me she’s only had four hours of sleep so has decided to keep her camera off. Fair do – but this is not a woman who has to worry about radio face. And despite her lack of sleep, she sounds happy and excited to chat to me. We start, inevitably, with the pandemic and how the past 18 months affected her and her career.
At the start of Covid, Kwushue, like everyone else, found herself questioning her work situation, especially as she was self-employed at the time. The boredom proved short lived. By the end of first lockdown, she’d managed to secure two jobs: the Spotify podcast, Who We Be Talks, co-hosted with Harry Pinero and celebrating hip-hop, Afrobeats, dancehall and RnB, and the Kiss gig.
“The pandemic kind of affected me two-fold,” she tells me. “In the beginning, I was like: ‘What I’m going to do with my life?’ I started to become one of those people who would take pictures and upload them for the sake of it because I didn’t have much to do. But by God’s grace, I was able to get two jobs that I have now – and it’s been the first time I got proper employment in a job I actually wanted to do. Spotify came first, then Kiss came a little bit after that.”
Before the pandemic, she was presenting and DJing for four years at Reprezent Radio, the youth-led station based out of Brixton and known for starting the careers of many big names, including Snoochie Shy and Reece Parkinson of BBC1Xtra. “During the pandemic I was still at Reprezent and doing my shows from home,” explains Kwushue, who grew up in south London where she still lives with her family today.
“It’s funny because I did work experience at Reprezent when I was 14-years-old,” she laughs. “Over the years, I just stayed friends with everyone, especially since everyone in south London knows everyone. After I graduated I asked them if I could have a show and that’s how I started.
“It was really nerve-wracking at first because I wanted to take it seriously. But when I was at Reprezent, I was able to learn and grow and see what makes good content. I discovered what kind of presenter I wanted to be and the audience I wanted to reach out to. It was a great learning experience.”
Kwushue always knew she wanted to present, “something that God put in my heart”, she says. But when she was starting out, she found the process quite intimidating.
“I saw myself as someone that was quite shy,” she says. “I’d look at all the other TV personalities that existed and I started comparing myself and, well, we all know comparison is the thief of joy. My first shows were terrible but through prayer and hard work I got better. Even when I did mess up, it didn’t matter because that’s life and it’s my personality.”
Though presenting is her first love, in 2020 she created her own production company, HTK productions, birthed after she made a three-part docu-series, Is Your Area Changing? exploring gentrification in her patch of south London.
“I remember after I graduated, I was going through Peckham one day and I noticed things had changed,” she says. “There was suddenly a new Costa and new venues blasting music with queues of people. I was so confused and I asked myself: ‘Since when did this happen?’ I could see this through a camera lens, so that’s how my docu-series was birthed.”
She thought about taking it to some production companies but her manager at the time advised her to release it through her own. So she set one up.
Everything she’s done creatively since that isn’t about music, she’s made this way. Her latest, a collaboration with Dazed and Converse, called Untold Stories, covers parenthood, sport, work and relationships, all through the eyes of Black Brits. She sees the company as a means of facilitating “really good ideas” and producing content that audiences don’t get to watch on mainstream TV.
“Black joy, to me, is anything that makes a Black person smile, while being Black.”
Push her on what subjects she’s passionate about and she will say: God, her faith, and race and gender inequality. But she enjoys the lighter parts of life, too. “I’d love to have a YouTube series and I’d like to get into something that’s quite funny,” she admits. “Everything I’ve been doing recently has been quite hard hitting. I’d love to do something that makes people smile.”
Kwushue says hosting her No Signal show during lockdown highlighted how much she enjoys being Black. “No Signal is one of the best things I’ve ever done,” she says unequivocally. “It was birthed out of lockdown. Before, they hosted intimate parties and shows, but lockdown gave everyone a kick up the bum. Everyone took it a bit more seriously and that’s when I got involved.”
And this, for her, is joy: being in spaces where being recognised as Black carries with it positive connotations as opposed to negatives one.
“I like being in places or doing things where my Blackness is accentuated and where I’m more aware of the fact that I’m Black,” she says. “Black joy, to me, is anything that makes a Black person smile, while being Black. It’s when [I] can look around at what I’m doing or where I’m at or who I’m with and I can turn around and say, ‘Rah, I love being Black’. That to me is Black joy.”
The theme means so much to her, she has contributed an essay to the brilliant anthology book, Black Joy, edited by writers Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and Timi Sotire, rhapsodising about her love for Black radio.
Asked what it feels like to be a Black woman in her field, Kwushue says it’s “empowering” – but sometimes difficult. “To put it bluntly, you definitely see the sexism everywhere but I have to try and live and enjoy my life,” she says.
“I remember when I was quite young – I was probably still in uni – I was working in a media company and I would be the only Black person in the room and it would weigh heavy on me, but now I try to be as empowered as I can.”
Ultimately, she wants to live in the moment – legacy is not her main focus. “What I do while I’m here actually means a lot more to me then creating a legacy, even though I know it’s important to have a story to tell when you’re gone. What’s more important to me is: what did I do while I’m actually here?”
Black Joy is published by Penguin Books (£14.99)