Clara Amfo: “I couldn’t handle Radio 1’s Breakfast show – I know my lane”

Tastemaker, TV presenter, voice of the people. The Beeb's coolest DJ on charting an alternative course for success

It’s hard to describe what makes Clara Amfo such a great broadcaster without resorting to words that have been dimmed through overuse. But, here’s the thing, she really is warm, friendly, funny and authoritative: not in a schoolteacher-y way, but in the sense that you know she knows what she’s talking about, especially with music. Amfo is also self-aware. When NME asks what she wants people to think when they hear her name, she pauses for thought, then gives a flawless answer: “If I met her in the loos, she’d tell me if I had loo paper stuck on my shoe.”

The only real difference between the presenter we hear on Radio 1 and see on TV, and the person NME meets in a Fitzrovia café near the BBC, is the odd C-bomb. After seven years as a Radio 1 mainstay, including six hosting the mid-morning show that’s home to the Live Lounge, Amfo has met pretty much everyone and has a “three strike rule” for A-listers who act up. “You know, it’s tricky,” she says, “because one thing I’ve learned is that everyone has a bad day and you truly do not know what is going on in people’s lives. But if I’m aware of somebody being horrible three times, I’m like: ‘You know what, maybe they are a cunt.'”

Clara Amfo

Though Amfo is due on air in a few hours, this doesn’t stop her giving full and thoughtful answers to NME‘s questions. Last September, she succeeded Annie Mac as presenter of Radio 1’s Future Sounds, which airs every weekday at 6pm. She says the switch from the mid-morning show wasn’t too much of an adjustment, but notes that she now has “a bit more freedom” when it comes to picking tracks. After 6pm, presenters aren’t quite so wedded to the famous Radio 1 playlist.

She says Future Sounds is for “people who like a bit of everything [musically]”, which means she can play a silky-smooth tune by girl-group FLO straight after a punky Fontaines D.C. track. “One thing that has surprised me is the amount of people who text or even ‘@’ me on social media to say: ‘You played this song at this time – what is it?'” Amfo says. “I think there’s an assumption that everyone’s got streaming accounts and whatnot, but not everyone can afford them. And that’s been a really healthy but rude awakening for me.”

Amfo is also enjoying busting the misconception that any post-6pm show on Radio 1 has to be “mega-chinstrokey”. She likes being able to pivot from relatively frothy conversations with artists to much weightier ones. “We had [singer-songwriter] Miraa May on the other day and let me tell you she did not hold back,” Amfo says. “She went straight into what it’s like as a new mother and how female artists are treated when they’re promoting their records. We can have those chats on this show.”

Clara Amfo

Amfo has interviewed everyone from Jay-Z to Lizzo during her seven years on Radio 1. Earlier in her career, she put in stints on BBC Radio 1Xtra and Kiss FM, where she started out as a marketing intern before persuading her boss to put her on air. Her profile has grown so steadily ever since that she now looks like a natural choice for Radio 1’s Breakfast show, one of the most prestigious jobs in broadcasting. Current host Greg James is absolutely smashing it, but it’s still surprising to hear Amfo rule out the possibility further down the line.

“I couldn’t do it,” she says plainly. “I have the utmost respect for Greg and for Grimmy [Nick Grimshaw] who went before him. But it’s one of those ones where you’ve got to really want to do it in order to do it. And I don’t really wanna do it: simple as that.”

“I have a three-strike rule for celebs”

Amfo goes on to explain that when she hosted an early breakfast show on Kiss FM, she ended up feeling “jet-lagged” all the time. “You’ve always got to be ‘on’ [in this job], but for breakfast you’ve got to be a particular kind of ‘on’ and I don’t think I could handle it,” she says. “I’ve done weekend breakfast [shows] before and I could do that again, but every day? Nah, I know my lane.” Intriguingly, Amfo says there is one particular job in radio she’d love a crack at further down the line, but doesn’t want to mention it out of respect for the current presenter. It’s a moment that says a lot about Amfo. Yes, she’s ambitious – but she’s also classy and fundamentally kind.

Amfo’s latest TV project is definitely in her lane. Since March she’s been presenting The Drop, a BBC Three reality show in which nine budding fashion creatives compete to launch a streetwear brand. It’s a zesty, clever blend of Project Runway and The Apprentice for the Instagram generation: one that recognises the synergy between fashion and music by having super-stylish singer Miguel as head judge.

The Drop
Clara Amfo and the judging team on BBC streetwear show ‘The Drop’. CREDIT: BBC

Amfo says she was excited by The Drop when it was first announced last year, but at that point it wasn’t going to have a host, just a judging panel. “Then maybe four or five months later, they were like: ‘Would you like to present it?'” she recalls. “And it was a no-brainer. I worked in streetwear and skate shops before I got into the media, and I’ve always loved streetwear, so I said yes immediately.”

Amfo has always been able to tell “pretty quickly” whether a project is right for her. “I would have watched The Drop even if I wasn’t on it,” she says. “Obviously you can never predict the way people are going to receive things – that’s out of your control. But when it comes to ‘does this feel right for me?’, I think I’ve always been quite intuitive.”

The Drop
Clara and ‘The Drop’ head judge Miguel. CREDIT: BBC

Thirteen years into her broadcasting career, Amfo says she still receives “the most random” job offers that she would never dream of accepting, but doesn’t want this to stop. “I think it’s important to know your lane, but not to necessarily stick in it all of the time. I would never completely dismiss anything,” she says. Amfo is no TV snob and speaks just as enthusiastically about her voiceover work on E4’s Celebrity Coach Trip. “I’ve been doing it for five years now. [Tour guide] Brendan is obviously an icon and it’s just the most comforting show. Do you know what, people can poo-poo reality TV and say it’s a bit asinine or doesn’t engage your brain cells, but ultimately, whether you’re watching Big Brother or Real Housewives, it’s all about studying people’s behaviour.”

Since 2018, Amfo has also hosted Top of the Pops‘ Christmas and New Year specials: fun festive throwbacks to a time when a youth-focused music show was appointment viewing. Does she think there’s space for a new live music show aimed at Gen Z?

“The day I stop being passionate, I shouldn’t be doing my job”

“I think we’re in a really interesting space when it comes to performance telly because artists – as they should – have so much more agency as to when and how we receive what they want to give us,” she says. “We’ve got streaming platforms, we’ve got YouTube, we’ve got TikTok, so in that sense it is tricky. But I do think there’s something so golden about seeing your favourite person perform in an invited way [on TV]. I love watching someone perform on Graham Norton or Jools Holland.”

Equally, Amfo points out that because we’re all such “distracted creatures” now, constantly scrolling even when we’re watching something, any new music show would have to work hard to hold our attention. “The right format could work, I think, with music as its backbone, but it would have to incorporate other elements like comedy as well. That’s what I’d like to see.”

Clara Amfo
In the studio for ‘Future Sounds’ on BBC Radio 1. CREDIT: BBC

Amfo wears the attention that comes with her “public-facing job” lightly. She thinks she’s never been papped and says most people who approach her when she’s out and about are “sweet and respectful”. But she did experience a period of increased scrutiny in June 2020 when she spoke heart-wrenchingly about the effect of George Floyd’s murder on her mental health. “I didn’t have the mental strength to face you guys yesterday,” Amfo told listeners live on air. “I was sat on my sofa crying, angry, confused: stuck at the news of yet another brutalised Black body.”

Amfo, the fifth of six children raised by Ghanaian parents in Kingston upon Thames, went on to correct common misconceptions about the way racism permeates society. “Knowing how the world enjoys Blackness and seeing what happened to George, we – Black people – get the feeling that people want our culture but do not want us. In other words, you want my talent but you don’t want me,” she continued. “There is a false idea that racism and, in this case, anti-Blackness is just name-calling and physical violence when it is so much more insidious than that.”

Clara Amfo
CREDIT: BBC

Amfo’s speech struck such a chord with listeners that it became a national talking point. If difficult conversations are an essential building block of any meaningful social change, Amfo definitely laid down a brick that day.

I’ve never been so overwhelmed by social media and public exposure in my life,” she says now. “I had no idea it was going to be a quote-unquote ‘moment’. I just had to say what was on my mind. I’ve still got DMs in my inbox that I haven’t read for my own mental protection. A lot of people wanted me to answer all these questions that I genuinely don’t have the brain space for. ‘How can I help? What can I read?’ I was like, ‘Use the internet, babes, come on.'”

“In lockdown, Twitter got so fucking toxic”

Amfo says she fully appreciated that speaking about “a contentious issue” that is “outside of some people’s experience” wasn’t necessarily what listeners expect from her. “I’ve spoken about my dad’s death [on air] and I think people probably accepted that more easily because death is something that unifies us regardless of race,” she adds. “But this was risky because I had to trust myself and trust that a lot of people would understand, but also that a lot of people wouldn’t. Most people were supportive but I got some horrendous, vile messages.” For the first time in the interview, words briefly elude her. “Just… unspeakably vile, nasty racism and hatred,” she continues. “But the thing is, I wasn’t surprised by that at all. I just had to trust myself that day. I said what I said and I have zero regrets about it.”

At this point, Amfo has accepted that not everyone will appreciate everything she has to say or even like her, necessarily. Astutely, she points out that the way we respond to a particular presenter – from “I can’t put my finger on why I don’t like them” to “do you know what, I absolutely love them” – depends on our unconscious biases as well as whether the presenter’s “energy and personality” meshes with our own.

“I know for a fact that some people can’t stand me and there’s a really sick part of me that wonders why,” she says. “But I don’t go delving into that to find out. Like, I know people who have their names on fucking Google Alerts but I’m not doing that. It’s none of my business.”

Amfo takes a similarly pragmatic approach to social media: she still posts on Instagram but has quietly left Twitter, a platform she used to light up. “No one was being horrible to me, but I noticed especially in lockdown that it just got so fucking toxic,” she says. “I feel so much lighter now. I had a lot of bants on Twitter [back in the day], but anything that’s really funny [on there] gets into my group chats anyway.”

Looking to the future – which appears brighter than ever – Amfo is focusing on the positive. She wants to pick “relevant” projects that fully reflect her personality. “For me, there’s no such thing as a small job,” Amfo says. “Whether it’s being a talking head, a guest on somebody else’s show or hosting a show myself, I just want to do things I enjoy. I think people can really tell when you’re trying to be somebody that you’re not.”

For Amfo, this “intersection of passion and trust” has become a guiding principle. “If those two things aren’t happening, there’s just no point,” she says. “The day I stop being passionate, I shouldn’t be doing my job.” Fortunately, there seems to be precisely zero chance of this happening any time soon. And if any TV exec wants to launch a new live music show, she should be the first person they call.

‘The Drop’ is streaming now on BBC iPlayer