Clara Amfo has big shoes to fill after succeeding Annie Mac as presenter of BBC Radio 1’s flagship new music show Future Sounds, but she’s more than up to the task. As she prepares to host the returning Music Week Awards at Battersea Evolution next month, Amfo opens up about tastemaking, getting up close with Billie Eilish and why it’s time for the industry’s actions to speak louder than its words on diversity…
Words: Colleen Harris
Clara Amfo is defining success on her own terms, with the simplest of outlooks.
“I just want to enjoy myself,” she says. “One thing I’ve definitely learned is to not limit my lanes. I’ve learned that sometimes your career will take you down a path that you didn’t expect.”
The unexpected path is an impressive one so far. She’s one of Radio 1’s hottest DJs, a Strictly Come Dancing star, podcast host of This City, and an official Barbie doll (“An honour that really served who I am and what I want for little kids who look like me,” says Amfo).
It’s a lot to digest for anyone surpassing dreams they held as a young budding radio presenter, something Amfo tries not to dwell on, “I really try not to overthink things because I think if I did, I would just make myself a bit nuts”, she says.
But the pandemic saw to that. She’s busier than ever but the past 18 months have allowed her to reflect and think, “You know what Clara, you’ve done alright,” says Amfo. “But, you know, there’s always something else to do.”
It’s almost a fortnight since Amfo’s exclusive interview Billie Eilish: Up Close aired on BBC One yet she’s clearly still buzzing from hanging out for six hours with a global pop phenomenon. “To get that time with her was really special,” says Amfo. She’s energised by the experience and says more long form is definitely in her future. “Oh gosh. There are books to write. There are TV formats to work on,” she says. “I'm just open to everything to be honest.”
On September 14, she’ll be hosting the biggest night in the industry calendar, the Music Week Awards. But first she leaves Radio 1’s mid-mornings and Live Lounge to replace Annie Mac as host of the station’s Future Sounds. Aled Haydn Jones, head of Radio 1, says Amfo “has an incredible affinity for discovering new music”, and was the perfect choice. The pair have worked together since Amfo joined the station but Amfo still coyly calls the offer to host, “a beautiful surprise”.
Aware of the inevitable comparisons, Amfo says she will be keeping things fun and won’t be measuring success by RAJAR numbers either (although frozen since the pandemic). “Honestly I don't live my life by them. I understand their purpose,” she says. “But I just think if you pay too much attention to the great ones, then you can set yourself up to feel like a failure if they're not so great.”
So with a firm focus on the horizon, here, she outlines her vision for Future Sounds, what the industry can learn from the Billie Eilish phenomenon, and her excitement to get an industry up on its feet at the Music Week Awards following a testing 18 months indoors…
Let’s talk Future Sounds… What does this role mean to you, taking on the baton from Annie Mac?
“First of all it's just a privilege and honour and it's something that I didn't see coming, so a beautiful surprise. Annie’s my girl, man, that's my pal. To take over from a friend is such a lovely thing to do, and to have her blessing has taken the edge off. She’s just really cool. I think she’s left the show in rude health. I covered the show a few times, and for a whole month last August when she was on holiday. Vibing with the listeners in that time slot and the music selections, it was just a really lovely time. I'm just envisioning this as me continuing from my August cover slot because that way it takes the pressure off me mentally if I trick myself into thinking, ‘Hey, it’s just extended holiday cover’.”
What are your ambitions for it?
“Just to keep doing what it does. I want to have fun with the listeners, get excited about new artists, new groups, but then also celebrate established artists and their new offerings. I think sometimes we can wrongly get caught up on the idea of ‘new’ just meaning plucked from obscurity, brand new people. Of course we're going to serve that in the show, but I also want to continue to support artists who continue to make great music.”
Will there be a working collab with Jack Saunders on Future Artists… taking good acts that he plays?
“Radio 1’s got a thing where we have an artist that we put a spotlight on for the month, so everybody gets involved with that. Recently it was Shygirl and she’s been getting support from across the board. The great thing about working at Radio 1 is I’m a fan of everybody else’s [show] on the station. So if Jack was to message me, ‘Oh this person's wicked’, yeah, I'll check them out. And I would assume the same for him – vice versa. Same with Benji [B], Benji’s been a mate for years, and I’ve discovered some fab people through him.”
Any advice for Rickie, Melvin and Charlie when they take over Live Lounge?
“Oh my god, just have fun! The joy and the gift of being that close to live music and having all those artists come in and grace the show with their talents. I'm definitely going to still have a live music element on Future Sounds – 100%, and I'm excited about what we're gonna do within that space, but oh my gosh, I’m gonna miss the Live Lounge. It's kind of surreal now thinking about the moments that we've had, whether it's Jay-Z at Maida Vale, even now I’ll look at the pictures occasionally and can’t believe that happened. He’s an icon to me. Or the Billie moment we just had. I still get weird sort of goosebumps, or I’ll laugh out loud because I get the tube into work or cycle past posters for artists and think, ‘That's so weird, I’ve had that person on the show.’”
You’re leaving Live Lounge on a high with Billie Eilish: Up Close… how much does Billie mean to music and the business?
“Well first things first, that girl is no one's fool. She’s so smart and I really loved her team and her family. I think she's a great example of sticking to your guns, and not having too many cooks spoiling the broth, especially with talent like that. It’s like she's out here with these belting Whitney-esque vocals, she's got a very particular tone to her voice, which is so gentle but there's so much power in that gentleness and I love the fact that it's just her and Finneas. [For] this second album, she could have had any producer or production team in the world, she's phenomenal, but she didn’t. She just stuck to what she knows [and] made a great second record. I think it's a great example to the industry and especially to anyone signing new artists, discovering artists online, or going to gigs. Some artists require different treatment but, generally speaking, she's a great testament to, ‘Let these people get on with it’. Especially young women, she knows what she's doing.”
Where do you think we are now with diversity and equality in the music industry and radio?
“Problems aren’t going to disappear just because black squares are posted to social media. I'd like to think everybody knows that at the very least. The one thing that I am satisfied about is I think we're now in an era where you can't fake ignorance anymore, and if you’re going to, you're going to get pulled up on it. It's very complicated, but I think now there's more resistance to people saying that there isn't a problem. And I'd like to think there are more active steps to it being tackled; I've seen there's Audio Lab that BBC Sounds has launched, which is looking for more inclusive and diverse podcasts and talent, which I think is really fantastic. I've seen certain labels say, ‘We're going to put money towards x, y, and z’ so let's see if they put their money where their mouths are. I'm seeing a few more people speaking up, and I'm loving seeing professionals I know in the industry, like the twins Alec and Alex [Boateng], I love what 0207 Def Jam is going to do. I think there is a change, but there's always something else to be done.”
We’re excited to have you host the Music Week Awards, it's a huge moment on the calendar for us. How excited are you to be hosting it?
"I'm really excited because I've received a couple of awards from you fine people myself and it's always lovely. And I've seen so many friends and people in the industry who I respect so deeply, receive those awards. I've had friends host awards for you. And it's just always such a fun event. It’s just nice to see people get the applause that they deserve. One of my best friends Radha [Medar], she manages Mabel, we've known each other from when we were just starting out in the industry [when] we had nothing. She won one of the Women In Music Awards one year and I remember just sobbing the whole time, like a proud mum. It's just lovely to attend, so I'm very honoured to host."
What's your message to the music industry now we can finally get back in the same room after 18 months indoors?
"Well I'd say, please have lots of water and Ibruprofen for the day after [laughs]. But also, you’ve been missed! I’d just say thank you because if there's one thing that all of us have been made acutely aware of is the arts – they save us. And music is a tonic, it’s a healer, it’s escapism. I don't know how I would have coped without going to work and playing music every day. I don't know how anybody on the planet would have coped without some form of musical communication since the start of the pandemic, so I just think it's a, ‘Welcome back, glad you guys can all get together and here's to looking forward as well.’ I’m calling this year the hangover year where we're starting to get back to normality. Obviously things aren't 100%, but I'm actually so excited for next year. I'm just so excited to see what people are going to pull together because I think so many people's creativity was tested to the max."
What do you make of platforms like TikTok and its role in the industry? I know from your Insta bio that you’re a fan, it says you're ‘distracted by TikTok'…
“Constantly, I'm addicted. TikTok gave me some restorative healing laughs during lockdown. There’s just brilliant people on there. There was that guy Lubalin – it was a small moment that went viral for about a week or two, we were obsessed with it on radio – he was taking Facebook arguments and turning them into songs. It was so ridiculous but listen, the man has some hooks, I was singing that shit all week. But then there’s Pink Pantheress who I love. I love, love, love Break It Off. I’m excited about her future. I think she's brilliant and I only discovered her through TikTok. How has it affected the industry? The way people have been discovered. There are labels signing people left, right and centre whether it’s for a one single deal or three single deal or maybe more. [But] I don't think people have to be on it in order to stay relevant.”
Radio still plays a big part in the business. What mark do you want to make, is that something you think about?
“Honestly I don't. All broadcasters have got different personalities and you know what, there's some people [who’ve] got big egos, it's part of their shtick, and I love that about them. But I want to be in the moment, I’m not thinking about what people are going to say when I'm done doing it, I just want to be in it. I just want to be enjoying it at the same time as the listeners. That honestly is my ultimate goal.”
Subscribers can click here for our interview with Radio 1 head of station Aled Haydn Jones.
Click here for more information and tickets for the Music Week Awards.
BILLIE EILISH PHOTO CREDIT: BBC/So Television/Daniel Prakopcyk