Media Talks Back: The World Show with Nicky B
“Rhythm and grooves are being taken from Africa, taken all over the world, and then they refine it, they put it in hip hop, and then we have to go learn from them what started from here.”
The words of Kunle Ayo resonate as strongly as the intensity and passion he puts into every note strummed on his guitar. This Nigerian born South African based Jazz guitarist is just one of the incredibly colourful guests that RJ Nicky B plays host to on The World Show With Nicky B – her weekly radio show on Johannesburg based radio station Kaya FM. Their conversation twists turns and dances with spirit and life, talking about everything under the sun and moon – from Kunle’s South African and Nigerian musical influences, about staying true to his Yoruba roots, his learnings from the alluringly enigmatic Nigerian Afrobeat musician Lagbaja (literally The Masked One). The passion Nicky Blumenfeld has for South African and African music in all its polyrhythmic diversity comes through in the sheer exuberance of her musical tone of voice, bursting with unbridled energy over the airwaves.
“I always say that I was born an artist, but by nature I’m a teacher,” she begins telling me, reminiscing about the beginnings of her inspiring life path. “I studied Fine Arts, and have taught at international schools as well as in disadvantaged areas. By chance or by default I became a DJ also in 1990, when I came back to Johannesburg to live. I became a DJ because I used to go to these great parties that didn’t have great music, and my friend used to say ‘bring along music!’ So I’d take along a mixtape and I’d slip it into the deck, and that would be the music. That’s how I got known. I soon started playing a residency in a small venue, in a cultural area – it was a very dynamic time, the ANC had just been unbanned, Mandela was going to be released, and we were sitting on the brink of a new democracy, a brand new South Africa. I sometimes think that I was divinely guided, because to this day, I am always deeply honoured to be doing what I do, working with music from around the world – and more than that – to have been gifted with a slot on the radio, to have a captive audience every single week of over 100,000 listeners.”
Nirupama: Tell me more about that – how your story with Kaya FM unfolded?
Nicky: I started with Kaya FM in 1997 – it was the first black owned independent radio station to be launched in the new South Africa. I had been recommended to Kaya by someone who used to come and listen to me play my live gigs. And right from the start, I knew that I had to play the kind of music I played. We had lived in Apartheid radio for a really long time – and for me, I believe there was a huge amount of music that had never ever been heard on airwaves. But I knew how people responded to this music because of playing it in clubs, because of seeing their faces, seeing their responses. And right from the start – working at Kaya FM – I had to convince my very first boss that I should be playing this music. I was told that I shouldn’t be playing this music, I should be doing the usual RnB mainstream hits, and I said no. I believe I should play this music because this music has proved in the live gigs, that people want to hear it.
Nirupama: Given the preset formats of the mass media – how did you overcome these challenges placed on your autonomy of expression?
Nicky: Right from the start it wasn’t very easy! I faced a lot of challenges because I didn’t fit the format, I didn’t fit preconceived ideas – but as I said to my first boss and to many who followed thereafter, if you’ve only ever given people oranges how do they know what apples taste like? Possibly they might still want oranges, but possibly they might love the taste of apples – or even both, they might even add strawberries or pears! [laughs] But how could we determine what people wanted if they had only ever heard one kind of music, or a certain commercial sound? And in this country we were dealt over the years, over decades, with severe censorship laws regarding music – so we were exposed to very, very little. And right from the start, from when I started the World Show in 1997 on Kaya, I fiercely fought or defended my right to play music from all over the world, and present it in a way that I knew would be the best way to embrace or absorb or even understand some of the new sounds.
Nirupama: How did listeners respond in the beginning?
Nicky: Well you can’t ever do too much too soon because you can put people off – but it’s been a gradual process and something I have continued to fight for in a world of programmed and formatted radio, and force fed styles of music, and commercialism. And I must say it’s only in the last couple of years – after almost seventeen years of being on air – that I’ve started to see things open up to the extent that I don’t feel I have to fight anymore for this right to do what I believe in. Essentially what I do on radio and at my live gigs, is play what I believe is music that deserves to be heard. You can think of it like this – if you go to any major music store, you will see three storeys of music, but only the shelf at the front by the cash register is the music we are hearing on the radio – and there is so much incredible music out there! That other music is the music I have chosen and wanted to play, on radio.