Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo talks to Stylist about racism, podcasts and making her voice heard

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Helen Bownass
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Impassioned and informed, Clara Amfo has a voice we want to hear. As she hosts backstage at the Brits 2017, the Radio 1 DJ speaks out on the power of women

I’m on a Valentine’s Day date at The Ivy. We’re nestled in leather armchairs. Chic waiters discreetly top up our glasses with sparkling water and present the juiciest of burgers. My date is wearing an appropriate candy pink jumper and Nike hi-tops. Our conversation is passionate and important – taking us through the politics of hair, intersectionality and the power of Adele. If only all relationships could be this meaningful…

But this is no romantic tryst. Rather, I’m getting intimate with Clara Amfo, the Radio 1 presenter who will host the backstage coverage at the Brits on Wednesday night alongside Laura Jackson and Alice Levine. And this is off the back of taking the prestigious guest presenting seat of BBC1’s Film 2017 earlier this month. The 32-year-old is, as they say, having a moment.

A confession: this is not my first date with Amfo. I’ve spent time with her variously since she first got her position on Radio 1’s prestigious Live Lounge show in 2015, taking over from Fearne Cotton. But I’m struck by how confident with herself she seems now. How she has grown into the way she expresses her opinions – not always easy when you’re on the payroll at the BBC, who are bound to be impartial. This was borne out publicly when two weeks before our chat, Amfo posted a comment on Instagram calling out a London braiding salon that had offered to do her hair, terming it “a problematic and prime example of very entitled cultural appropriation”. Plenty more on which later.

Amfo now lives in Hackney, east London, but was born in Kingston, south-west London to Ghanaian parents. She is one of five siblings – the only girl – and from a young age was a self-confessed music geek, making her own radio shows and harbouring a penchant for Lauryn Hill. Really, there was never any other career option and she worked her way up impressively, from interning at Kiss FM to DJing at Radio 1Xtra before the big boys came calling. Amfo has flexed her presenting skills too – most notably with a documentary for Radio 1 called Running With Grief. It was about the death of her father in 2015 – just a couple of months after she landed the Radio 1 slot – which ended with her running the Paris Half Marathon. She’s currently training for another half marathon and experimenting with veganism – with the occasional burger in between. Tinder users of the world take notes, this is how you do dates…

Do you think the Brit Awards 2017 represent the music industry in all its guises?
There’s always work to be done but this year in particular is more reflective. I feel happier [about the diversity] than I did last year. People are always going to talk about it, it’s a conversation-starter and with conversation comes change. Even recently when Adele bigged up Beyoncé at the Grammys, people said she was being tokenistic. She wasn’t, I believe she was coming from a sincere place. She understood the power of what she was saying on that platform: ‘I’m an ally. I know people are marginalised. I’m standing by them, not speaking for them.’

From Adele to JK Rowling on Twitter, we’re seeing more and more women in the public eye asserting their place…
I love JK Rowling! I’ve started getting into Harry Potter because of how great she is on Twitter – which is so millennial of me. She is vocal to men who are thinking, ‘Shut up, stop talking, be obedient’. I love that.

Does it inspire you to make your voice heard more?
Legally, I have to be quite careful with the words I choose, because of my job. I choose my battles carefully. If I were to talk about all the injustices I wanted to, I would never leave my computer.

So why then was it unavoidable for you to write about the braid bar?
When the salon opened I remember thinking, ‘That’s a bit off-key’. They’re using aesthetics inspired by hip-hop and dancehall culture. They’re using vernacular from black British and African-American culture. They’re using black women to do the hair. But I don’t see anyone in their Instagram feed that looks like me. They’re cutting people out of a narrative they created. When they invite me into that space it hurts women who look like me. It’s not just hair – it’s a deep feminist issue, it’s systematic racism.

I rewatched [Hunger Games actress] Amandla Stenberg’s Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows video on YouTube after reading your post, which explains why appropriation is problematic. I couldn’t help feel a sense of guilt as a middle-class white woman…
You’ve never had to think about those things. And that’s what it’s all about: having open conversation and understanding that there are women facing real [adversity] for something quote/unquote ‘as simple as hair’. I’m not saying if you’re white don’t you dare cornrow your hair. I’m saying if you’re going to run a business off the back of the beauty and hard work of black women then reflect them. A lot of people are happy to have their head in the sand about their privilege. People will happily go to a Skepta show or adapt a look but if you mention race they ask why you’ve got a chip on your shoulder. If you’re going to enjoy the culture, respect the people.

Is growing your natural hair out a political statement or just having fun?
It’s both, to be honest. 2015 and 2016 were some really black years, in the best and worst ways. I saw black women being celebrated in the most beautiful way and I found a sisterhood online. If you take the hashtag #blackgirlmagic, there are people who took offence, but the whole point of that hashtag is we’re told we’re not magic every day. I open some magazines and there’s no-one there that looks like me. It’s not saying no-one else isn’t special but we don’t all get celebrated so we’re celebrating each other.

I read a quote by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie saying, “I want us to have a world where black women’s natural hair is an equal option.” Is that an idea you can relate to?
Yes. I’m lucky I work in an industry where people don’t bat an eyelid. But there are women who might work in, say, a law firm where they’ll tell her that her hair’s not professional and that’s not fair.

Do people try to touch your hair?
All the time! But I have no problem telling people not to. I have the confidence to do that because of this sisterhood I’ve found in the last few years. Solange’s record [A Seat At The Table] was so important. When I first heard Don’t Touch My Hair, I was like, ‘Thank god!’ I’ve had artists come into my studio and put their hands right in my hair and I kindly say, ‘Can you not?’ In the same way when friends are pregnant I wouldn’t grab their bellies. It’s making people other and I don’t like that.

Do you find saying no easier now? It seems like you’re finding your voice…
I’ve always had a voice, but it’s the way I’m using it. Saying no can be a hard thing to learn – as a woman you’re expected to be complicit. I hate when people say, “People are so easily offended these days.” No, people have been getting offended by things since the beginning of time, we’re just able to express that more now.

Do you have these sort of conversations with your mum?
Not really. My mum is a very traditional Ghanaian matriarch. She sees the world through Christian eyes. I probably would have done more with my dad, because he was more of a critical thinker.

You’ve spoken about losing your father. Where are you in the grieving process now?
You never get over it but you learn to deal with it. I’m at peace with my father’s death. I talk to him every day. I don’t believe when you die that’s it. You can’t undo a lifetime of knowing someone.

What did you learn about yourself through that experience?
I’m stronger than I thought. My dad was the love of my life. When it happened I’d do radio shows and be sobbing under the desk between songs. But you find a strength you didn’t know you had. I think [the person who dies] gives it to you.

You grew up in London; something I think about a lot is regeneration and if I’m part of the problem by buying a flat in a typically working-class area of east London…
It’s an interesting conversation. I do not support local people being f***ed over by the council just so they can build big flats, it hurts community. It irks me, but I can’t pretend I’m not part of it. I go to the nice pizza place around the corner, but I also try to buy local produce, because I want to support the community. I don’t want to live in a place where the heart of it has been erased.

Who for you is making music that sums up what it is to be young and British now?
There’s two: Raye, and Ray BLK. Ray BLK has that Amy [Winehouse] thing. She sings from her gut and it sums up how you feel as a young British woman. And Raye straddles that line between pop star and artist, like Lady Gaga. She’s writing for Ellie Goulding, I’m sure she’ll be writing for Rihanna soon.

What do you do to switch your brain off?
I run. In school I was a sprinter and hated long-distance running, but now I’m into it. I listen to podcasts when I’m doing it. I love Desert Island Discs – every time I listen to Kirsty Young, I think I’m an amateur – American podcast The Read and 2 Dope Queens by Phoebe Robinson, who wrote You Can’t Touch My Hair, with Jessica Williams from The Daily Show. Sooo Many White Guys is really funny. I’m such a podcast whore.

Finally, you just hosted Film 2017. Which films do you love the most?
I recently saw Hidden Figures, which was so inspiring. It was amazing to see women like me playing these important parts. But the film I love love love is The Color Purple. It ruins me! That and Forrest Gump: they have me on the floor every time.

Clara Amfo, Alice Levine and Laura Jackson host The Brit Awards 2017: Red Carpet and Backstage on ITV2 from 6.30pm on Wednesday 22 February

Photography: Getty Images