Photos by Anita McAndrew
Throughout June we’re working with the Mayor of London’s Sounds Like London campaign to bring you profiles on the most interesting and exciting women in London music. We’re super excited to chat to Clara Amfo about finding her voice on the radio and becoming one of the most recognised presenters around.
After a weekend spent at the BBC’s Biggest Weekend festival, Radio 1 DJ and presenter Clara Amfo is persevering, but her voice is threatening to leave her. “I got stood down for my show on Monday because I literally sounded like Patty and Selma from The Simpsons,” she laughs. Soldiering on, Amfo chats away to me about her journey to become one of the most recognisable voices in UK radio.
Her enviable position as the host of Radio 1’s prestigious mid-morning slot is the fruit of Amfo’s dedication to broadcast. She started out as an intern at KISS FM, taking on menial tasks like peeling promotional stickers from club walls so she could practice presenting and eventually land her own show at the station.
Amfo’s infectious girl next door personality and husky tones did not go unnoticed and after a steady rise through the ranks at KISS FM, Amfo found her way to BBC’s 1Xtra and then to Radio 1. She found fame presenting the Official Chart Show and later the mid-morning show but her first time on the channel was to help out a friend. “The first time I was on Radio 1 was because one of my presenter mates, my friend Matt Edmonson, had food poisoning so they were like ‘do you want to come in and do a show on Sunday morning on Radio 1’ and I was like ok. I was a bit nervous,” she says.
“There are people that have made you part of their life and it’s such a lovely feeling”
Amfo jokes that the start of her career was fueled by “people taking holidays and being ill” but her love of presenting started at an early age. She grew up in Kingston Upon Thames where her brothers introduced her to grime and pirate radio. Amfo says she listened to every genre going but became “obsessed” with Lauryn Hill, a rare example at the time of a dark-skinned black woman whose talent was able to reach a large audience.
Her teen years were spent sneaking off to Camden to party at the Underworld, watching endless talk shows and listening to the radio. All the usual traits of an average teenager but Amfo’s love for conversation and music were preparing her for the “subtle inkling” she had to make a career in broadcast.
Her parents, her father was a microbiologist and parasitologist and her mum still works as a janitor, instilled a strong work ethic. She relays the Amfo family story of her dad, who came over to London from Ghana with only £25 in his pocket and made a life for himself. She insists she is driven a need to make her parents proud, saying, “They came over here for a reason, I can’t just be out here doing nothing.”
She is rarely doing nothing. Between her presenting gigs, festival coverage, voiceover work and DJ slots it’s hard to pin her down. Amfo admits she was nervous to take over Fearne’s slot but over the years has built up a loyal following, who tune in every morning. “I think that’s where my excitement comes from because you know there are people there that have made you part of their life and it’s such a lovely feeling,” she says.
“My hope is that people continue to enjoy the art of conversation and intimacy with their favourite broadcasters”
As well as her love for conversation, what is clear through talking to Amfo is that she has a passion for music and club culture. Nostalgia sets in as she fondly remembers London’s long lost venues; Plastic People in East London or Benji B’s legendary Deviation night at Gramophone on Commercial Road. Her connection to the underground club scene and love for new music led to her winning the Women in Music Award for Music Champion in 2017. Rather than rely solely on radio pluggers, Amfo finds new artists at gigs or via the internet. “It’s not always just someone from a label coming and going ‘hey I’ve got this kid they’re a star’, twiddling their cigar,” she laughs, “It’s not that easy.”
Since her takeover of the mid-morning slot, Amfo has interviewed a wealth of stars including Jay-Z, Pharrell and the Foo Fighters. “I think it’s those moments when I’ve got to meet people who’ve genuinely shaped my life and to talk to them in a professional setting, I’m still just like ‘wow ok, I do that’,” says Amfo.
She does do that and plans to continue to keep doing it though she insists she has no set plans for her next steps, preferring to see where the moment takes her. Her love for radio remains; a love she hopes listeners still have as well. “My only hope for it, is that people continue to enjoy the art of conversation and routine and intimacy with their favourite broadcasters to go with the music that they love,” she says. If Amfo’s listeners are anything to go by then I think they will.