On 2nd June 2020, BBC Radio 1 presenter Clara Amfo made one of the most important broadcasts in the history of British radio.
She started her mid-morning slot like any other day, introducing the show in her husky, buoyant voice. A voice that has become so familiar to the millions of listeners who tune in across the UK and beyond.
“Well, good morning, guys. I hope that you are all well. It is Clara Amfo here. It is about 10 past 11 on Tuesday morning. So, as you would have noted, I wasn’t in work yesterday, and I want to talk to you directly about why that was.”
It was at that point that the 36-year-old broadcaster shattered the fourth wall into a thousand tiny pieces. What followed was a powerful and emotional discussion about the recent death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May, sparking major protests worldwide.
“I didn’t have the mental strength to face you guys yesterday, to ask, ‘Hi, how was your weekend?’ like I usually do with my happy intention,” Amfo explained. “Because I know that my weekend was terrible. I was sat on my sofa, crying, angry, confused, and also knowing, stuck at the news...”
There is no other medium that rivals radio in its intimacy and immediacy, and Amfo’s voice, which had lost its signature joy, wobbled and cracked as she struggled to hold back tears.
She managed to continue: “...Stuck at the news of yet another brutalised Black body. Knowing how the world enjoys Blackness, and seeing what happened to George, we Black people get the feeling that people want our culture but they do not want us. In other words, you want my talent but you don’t want me.”
Hearing her speak in such a raw, vulnerable and honest way about racism sparked a huge reaction. Her colleague Chris Stark called it“one of the most incredible, powerful, moving bits of radio ever”.
DJ Gemma Cairney said, “So hard, so powerful. I’m in awe.” Today, on a Zoom call from her flat in Hackney, Amfo reflects, “It was a culmination of all those weeks. [The death of] Ahmaud Arbery, then Breonna Taylor, and then, obviously, George Floyd, the list goes on. And years before that, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland...”
Arbery, Taylor and Floyd were all unarmed Black citizens who were killed in the US.Castile was fatally shot by US police during a traffic stop. Bland was a 28-year-old Black woman who died while in police custody. Amfo adds, “You just carry it. You carry it with you and it just comes to that point where I was like,‘You know what? I’ve just got to come with the realness.’ That’s why I said what I said.”
To host a breakfast show is a strange paradox. Most of Amfo’s listeners are strangers to her, but through her warm, playful – and, crucially, honest – broadcasting style she has become a best-friend figure to many.
“I knew I wanted to speak about [George Floyd] because, at that point, I’d just had enough of not sharing that side of who I am,” she says. “If I was going through anything else – God forbid, if I had an illness or if I was going through a painful break- up – honestly, I’d tell my listeners because they’re cool like that.”
Amfo says the response was overwhelming.“That day definitely made me feel my purpose in my job, more than anything I’ve done, but I don’t want my professional legacy to be ‘That girl who cried on the radio’. I’m so much more than that; we’re all so much more than these moments.
“It’s not that I’m not grateful for what people are saying, but I think, for my own brain space, I know what I said in that moment and now those words are out there, they’ve travelled to people. NowI want the truth of those words, for the people who felt affected by them, to pay it forward, to do the work.”
Doing the work, as Amfo discussed in her speech, is about being actively anti-racist; opposing racism and fighting for equality, rather than accepting a status quo that is built on inequality. She says it’s something she is doing too. “I’ve had to reflect on myself and my own privileges. Because within Black Lives Matter, there’s Black Trans Lives Matter. I’ve had to look at myself as a straight person. ›
I’ve had to look at [myself] in the very same way that I’ve been asking white people to look at themselves. It’s important for all of us to take accountability for how we move through the world.”
Amfo has shared a wealth of information on Instagram, but the events of the last few months have also taught her the importance of taking time off social media.
“I’ve definitely had days when I’ve deleted the apps off my phone or said, ‘OK, it’s 8pm now. Don’t check anything, don’t look at emails.’ For my own sanity.Overstimulation can really mess with you, so I’ve been trying to find that balance.”
Switching off isn’t always easy. In between presenting her Radio 1 show, she has also launched her own podcast, This City, which explores London through famous faces. It has featured the likes of Jade Thirlwall and even LouisTheroux. She’s also writing a memoir, and has just been confirmed as a contestant on this year’s Strictly Come Dancing.
But then Amfo has been running at full speed ever since she started her career a decade ago. She grew up in London listening to both commercial and local pirate stations, before landing her dream first job in 2007, a marketing internship at Kiss FM.
She made herself indispensable. Kiss started giving her voiceover work and soon she was made host of the overnight show. Later, the Saturday Breakfast and Drivetime shows.
She wasn’t going unnoticed. The BBC caught wind and in 2013 they poached her as the host of the Weekend Breakfast show on Radio 1Xtra.
In 2015, she moved to Radio 1 as the host of the station’s Official Chart Show, before taking over from Fearne Cotton as host of the weekday mid-morning show, home of the Live Lounge –the slot she still holds today. Her guests have included everyone from Harry Styles to Lizzo.
At the time of going to press there were rumours that she would be gracing our screens as a contestant on the 18th series of Strictly Come Dancing, which have now been confirmed – perhaps not something she expected to add to her CV when she was first starting out...
A coy smile spreads across her face at the mention of the programme.“Look, Strictly is an amazing show. It’s so sweet-spirited; nobody ever watches it with a bad intention and that’s what I’ve always loved about it.” It’s hard to imagine a better-suited contestant.
Not only does Amfo love to dance, but she embodies the same joyful spirit she witnesses on the show. “I went to watch it[live] last season! The magic of it is so overwhelming.”
It’s hard not to be sucked into the relentless optimism and tornado of energy that is Clara Amfo. We speak the evening after her Cosmopolitan cover shoot, and if she’s remotely tired from a day in front of the camera, she doesn’t show it. Instead, from her purple-lit, art-filled flat that I glimpse on Zoom, she regales me with stories of the fun she had.
“At one point I stopped everyone mid-shoot,” she says. “I was like, ‘Guys, we’re really bloody lucky we get to do this.’ Do you know that Koffee song, Toast? There’s a lyric in it, ‘Gratitude is a must.’ I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.”
So much of her own sense of gratitude and confidence was instilled by her immigrant parents who arrived in the UK from Ghana in the ’70s. They moved to Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, where she and her five siblings grew up.
Her father, an NHS microbiologist, passed away in 2016, the day Amfo was set to run the Paris marathon. She pulled out of the race and came home immediately.
In the year following his death, she made a brilliant BBC radio documentary called Running With Grief, tackling how young people learn to cope with the loss of a parent. Four years on, she says she’s moving forward with her grieving process, but it’s something she will always carry.
“The thing about my parents, particularly my dad,” she muses, “is that he had this cheekiness, a dry sarcasm about him that I picked up and it gave me so much confidence.”
Her dad’s passing has brought Amfo even closer to her mother, Grace – a mother who Amfo fans will know well, through the Instagram account @Whatsappmama that Amfo setup to share her mum’s hilariously honest critiques of her outfits.
The account is now archived due to “a few Chatty Pattys in her church”, but contains cusses like “The dress is OK but I think your legs are too exposed”. When she’s not on air (and when we’re not in the middle of a global pandemic), Amfo can also be found meeting her heroes, such as Oprah and Beyoncé, at London premieres, as well as hosting backstage coverage at the likes of the BRIT Awards.
“That’s what I mean about gratitude,” she says.“2019 was a really golden year for me work-wise. And I remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell, Clara.’”
Amfo has also interviewed Taylor Swift, spoken to Jay-Z about mental health and played basketball with Justin Bieber – but she’s rarely ever star struck. “In this line of work, you quickly learn that people are doing their jobs, but I do have moments where I’m like, ‘Rarr, Beyoncé!’”
But in the past year, things have started to change. Whereas once she was just the person interviewing the celebrities, now the spotlight is on her too. How does she navigate this newfound fame?
“I feel like I’m in this new phase of my career where I’m very aware of the new attention that’s on me,” she says. “But I’m still quite a low-key person. I don’t view myself as acting particularly like a celebrity.
"I understand it’s a public- facing job – I appear on television and I do radio – so people are going to recognise me. But I don’t live a particularly starry existence.”
She describes herself as a “tourist” to celebrity life. So while she might “dip her toe in for a treat” with a meal at Sexy Fish or the odd night out in the West End, these occasions are rare. “I love a party, don’t get me wrong, but I only go to the sort of faceless places on the regular.”
Amfo says she’s met many of her best friends on the sweaty dance floors of nightclubs –one of the things she’s missed most since lockdown.“It’s the sense of community. It’s bonding. I remember I was seeing this guy and he said, ‘Ugh, I hate it when girls sing the lyrics to each other across the dance floor.’ Shut up, bruv!”
Which leads us onto her current relationship status. With said guy safely out of the picture, is she dating anyone else? “I’m entertaining conversations,” she says with a grin. “I’m really open about dating because I know so many women in a similar position to me where they’re really coming to know what they’re worth. Some of the shit that I put up with in my late teens and early twenties, it wouldn’t ever fly now!” she says.
The conversation turns to her favourite reality show, Love Island. At times she’s related to situations played out on screen – especially last year when contestant Michael Griffiths was blasted by charity Women’s Aid and accused of manipulative behaviour towards Amber Gill.
“I remember watching Amber and Michael and that was so triggering because I’ve experienced that kind of manipulation before.
“It was so interesting watching the discourse on Twitter and seeing girls, especially young girls, understand what gaslighting is. I think we’ve all experienced it, whoever you date, men, women... How you value yourself is so important. I had to learn that the hard way, several times over, before it truly clicked.”
But it did click. And today, with a smile, Amfo tells me that she has a fire in her belly and a renewed excitement for the future.“I know that this is exactly where I’m supposed to be. My work, where I am now, I feel ready for it. I’m aware of whoI want to fight for and what I want to lend my voice to. I feel supercharged, I feel ready.”
Catch Clara on BBC Radio 1, Monday - Thursday, 11am-3pm. This City is available on all podcast apps.
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