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“Club culture is essential to music discovery,” says Clara Amfo. “People think about ‘the club’ in genres; it can be a garage rave, a punk event or an ultra-pop night at a gay club. We go to the club to escape,” she tells me. “It’s therapy, it’s meditation. These are communal moments for finding friends and joy.”
I’m talking to the BBC broadcaster about the relationship between radio and nightclubs, which are recovering from two years of Covid-related restrictions, and how young people can once again find their tribe on the dancefloor.
Plastic People, the east London nightclub that incubated UK bass, “was my absolute church. The memories from that place are golden. I often wonder what my life would look like if I hadn’t gone clubbing. It’s essential for young people. Where else can we show off our outfits while going about our business?”
Amfo is speaking to me via video call in front of an orange circle painted on the wall of her office in her London home. She pans the camera across the room. “There are papers and wires everywhere, but my little orange halo keeps me calm.”
The 37-year-old has a quietly confident energy that amplifies the relatability which has made her one of the BBC’s brightest rising stars.
Her championing of emerging musicians, such as homegrown rapper-singer Bree Runway and the Mexican-American musician Omar Apollo, has commanded the attention of studio executives and, even more crucially, young audiences.
The push to reach Generation Z (those born in and after 1997) ramped up when BBC Three was resurrected on television last month, and Ofcom has stipulated that the BBC must dedicate 75 per cent of broadcast hours each year to original programming.
So after joining Radio 1 in 2015 and taking control of some of its much-loved shows, Amfo is at the helm again as the host of BBC Three’s new series, The Drop.
This eight-part streetwear talent competition follows nine young creatives – some of whom are self-taught yet all own emerging streetwear brands – as they compete for the chance to “take their brand global” and have their collection stocked at luxury fashion retailer Flannels.
The entrepreneurship is impressive; the designers harness sustainability, augmented reality and cultural influences to make their garments stand out. Filmed in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, the show attracted designers from across the north of England.
“It shows what BBC Three should be about, that the BBC should be for everyone,” Amfo says. “No one came through with a silver spoon. I loved hearing the creatives’ stories and everybody learnt something from each other.”
In streetwear lexicon, a “drop” describes a brand releasing product in limited quantities, which serves to create desire and drive sales.
Pre-Covid, the global streetwear market was valued at $185bn (£138bn) according to analysts Strategy&. But sportswear-inspired apparel sales in menswear categories slipped by 6 per cent to $77bn (£57bn) in 2020, reported Euromonitor.
“Our creatives depend on streetwear fans shopping, be it online or going into stores, and saying: ‘I would buy that.’ That is the proof of the pudding,” she says.
The show, which explores the intersections of social media, sport, celebrity and business, and features guest judges including UK Drill rapper Headie One and YouTuber DanTDM, is clearly aimed at the Depop-browsing, TikTok-obsessed generation. Doesn’t its position on linear TV feel a little contradictory?
“There’s a history with BBC Three and you can’t ignore its origins,” Amfo says. “Yes, they [Generation Z] are hyper digital, but I think the pandemic changed our viewing habits. People sat down and watched TV because we could not leave the house.”
I ask her how it feels to be at the vanguard of the broadcaster’s efforts to attract the attention of 16–34-year-olds. “Oh gosh…Vanguard? Damn!” she says with a laugh. “Look, we should invest and continue to care about young people and their creativity. It’s not everyday academia, and that is OK.”
Amfo was born to Ghanaian parents in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey. Her father, who died in 2015, was an NHS microbiologist, and her mother a hospital cleaner. Growing up with four brothers – three older, one younger – and a sister, Amfo says she was “obsessed” with popular culture: “The heavens opened the day my parents got Sky. There was stuff I had no business watching but I always wanted to know more.”
Her brothers’ record collections, she says, “shaped my taste in music in a major way”.
Their tastes ranged from rock and “exquisite French house and disco” to garage, jungle and grime. Weekend drives with her father to visit family or buy ingredients for Ghanaian dishes was where Amfo discovered the power of radio.
“Those moments in the car were comforting. That’s the thing about radio, it’s that consistency and reassurance. You switch it on and it’s always there.”
During the pandemic, that became vital – for her audience and for Amfo herself. “It was interesting to see the change in interaction from listeners. People who casually text in began messaging every day. Again, it’s providing reassurance by saying, ‘You alright? Here’s Little Mix.’ I think that’s the effect it had on me.
“I was lucky enough to keep working [and] it kept me sane. But lockdown was lonely for a lot of people – including me. Don’t get me wrong, I have a life filled with love but I live alone. I was in my old flat during the first lockdown and the restrictions meant I was unable to have people over for cheese and wine parties.”
Amfo, a media arts graduate, started her broadcasting career at Kiss FM as a marketing intern in 2009. “I would help out doing anything. We’d play a game of guessing music intros where the catchphrase [became], ‘If you get three in a row, you can get a show.’ Eventually I did,” she has said. Amfo did voice-overs before helming the overnight slot and later the Saturday Breakfast show.
BBC Radio 1Xtra bosses poached her in 2013 to present their Weekend Breakfast Show. After two years she moved to Radio 1, taking charge of The Official Chart and later Live Lounge – helping add 750,000 listeners and interviewing the likes of Harry Styles, Taylor Swift and Stormzy.
Last September, Amfo succeeded Annie Macmanus as the host of Future Sounds, the station’s flagship new music show. She’s a skilled broadcaster who puts interviewees at ease while teasing out insights into their creative process for the benefit of her listeners.
“You might have a new song coming out but I’m going to want to know more,” Amfo says. “Like, tell me about the date you wrote it. What was going through your mind that day? Who are you testing out your songs on? I dunno, I think I’m just nosy!”
Away from the mixing desk Amfo is in-demand as a presenter; recent duties include the red carpet arrivals at last month’s Brit Awards, and the UK premiere of House of Gucci – where she interviewed its stars Lady Gaga and Adam Driver.
In 2020, Amfo launched her podcast This City, and took part in Strictly Come Dancing opposite pro dancer Aljaž Škorjanec: “He’s like Slovenian mandem. I adore that man,” she says. Later this year Amfo will lead the search for BBC Young Dancer 2022.
With more presenting roles and appearances on primetime TV, I ask Amfo how she deals with greater recognition. “I don’t walk around my local supermarket wearing dark glasses and a hat when I buy my wheat-free porridge,” she notes wryly.
“I think you have to be normal with people. It’s only when someone approaches me that I think, ‘Oh yeah, people watch and listen to things I do.’ Strictly fans have been very respectful.”
If you’re one of Amfo’s 288,000 Instagram followers you’ll know she’s a proud ‘Black Star’ (Ghanaian) and frequently lights up the timeline when she posts screenshot texts with her mum, who celebrates her achievements – and criticises her hemlines.
We talk about how creatives of Ghanaian descent are making moves in contemporary music, fashion and visual arts in the UK. Amfo hosted Ghanaian-American musician Moses Sumney’s BBC Proms debut last September and the launch of photographer James Barnor’s retrospective at London’s Serpentine Gallery.
Meanwhile, British Vogue’s editor-in-chief Edward Enninful hailed Amfo as a “Face of Hope” on the cover of the fashion magazine’s September 2020 issue. How does it feel to be embraced in this culture shift?
“It’s inspiring and exciting to see how these generations and the world are marrying together.
“Edward has been so supportive because let’s call a spade a spade; I’m a dark-skinned, broad-nosed, thick-lipped black girl out here. There’s nothing ambiguous about my features so to be seen by my diasporan peers – especially those who were brought up between the UK and Ghana – is special.”
Emerging from the shadow of Covid, during which Amfo delivered one of the most powerful radio broadcasts in recent memory when she spoke a collective truth in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, I ask what she has discovered about herself in that time.
“I’m stronger than I believed. I’ve learnt to have conviction in my word and not back away from my character. I think we all question and interrogate ourselves but, particularly as women, it’s that thing of ‘Are you sure, love?’ I think I’ve become emboldened,” she says, reaching for a water bottle.
“The world is mad, the game is madder and I’m just trying to stay hydrated.”
The Drop is on BBC Three later this month.