Giving a Tedx talk is hard enough; giving a TEDx talk when you’ve only just realised you have to give a TEDx talk is very much ‘going to school in your underwear’ territory.
The former happened to Yinka Bokinni last year when she rolled up at Peckham Arts Centre, underdressed and unprepared, only to discover she should have read her emails more carefully: her “little talk” was quite a big deal.
Fortunately, a career on the radio offers the ultimate grounding for winging it, and Bokinni duly took flight. ‘The Myth of Escaping the Ghetto’ drew upon her childhood – she grew up in Gloucester Grove Estate, a stone’s throw from where the talk took place – and won a standing ovation from the audience.
Energetic, eloquent, and fiercely intelligent, Bokinni is a great interviewer, as every guest on her Capital Xtra radio show – from Steflon Don to Stormzy – has discovered. She also makes a brilliant interviewee, overflowing with opinions and anecdotes. We met the week after Bokinni DJ’d at Wireless Festival – which seems as good a starting point as any…
So, how was Wireless?
It was incredible! There was a moment before I went on the stage when I thought, ‘oh my God I could fail’. And I didn’t. Nothing went wrong, it was really, really good, and my friends got to come with me as well. Everyone was super lovely, and the crowd were like 30k strong, and it was just wicked. You know how everyone’s got one book in them? Maybe everyone’s got one Wireless in them – but I’m hoping to go back and smash it again next year.
You did a law degree, right? Then decided to move into radio when you heard Boots’ in-house radio station?
Superdrug! Yeah. I knew that I wanted to work in music, but I didn’t feel qualified to work in music. I didn’t know if I had an authoritative voice. I love talking to people, I love finding things out, I love the interaction and the story and the connection with people, and I love music – but I didn’t know how I was going to put that together. I didn’t even believe it was a career until I was in Superdrug and I heard that woman saying that you can get 2-for-1 on shampoo. I thought, this is fun! That planted a seed: ‘I really want to broadcast’.
Was it hard leaving law behind?
I did an LLB. I graduated and then I didn’t pursue it. It was harder continuing with something that I knew I didn’t want to do. I was bouncing around jobs: I worked as a hostess in a bar and I worked as a bartender and I worked as a waitress, I was doing random things. I knew that law wasn’t for me because it’s just so boring – well, it’s not always boring but it’s pretty difficult. I knew if I continued with it I would be super unhappy, and I’m a firm believer in doing what’s right for you, even if it’s difficult at the time.
My dad was like, ‘what are you doing? You’ve got this degree, you could pursue it, but you’re working at Proud dancing on tables.’ Yeah, but this is fun for me. Even when I was studying, I just wanted to finish. I didn’t want the monstrous loan to be in vain; I just wanted to make sure I completed something so that I could close the door, close the chapter and move on with my life.
I think Rinse were mad to give me a chance, cos I listened to a show the other day and it was rubbish!
There are many people who would be scared to take that leap of faith…
Yeah but I struggled for such a long time. I don’t think that you need to struggle to be a success, I don’t think they come part and parcel – it just happens to be the most common story. I’ve always known that I’m capable of using my voice and speaking coherently. But making the leap between being fully employed to being freelance was the most nerve-wracking thing – and I was hungry for ages, man, I did not get paid for a long time.
I look back and I think, ‘who is that brave person?’ Maybe the older you get, the more the fear sets in and the more you want to be stable. I’m glad that 23-year-old me made the leap. Today? I don’t think I’d have the guts to do it, but I’m happy that I did.
What was Rinse FM like?
It was like a family, it was incredible. When I moved to Capital Xtra I thought they would all be these suit people who were like robots and no one would talk – because of how relaxed Rinse FM was. I can’t even claim to be the most successful person from Rinse: you’ve got Julie Adenuga, you’ve got Maya Jama, $noochie Shy, Sian Anderson as well. Loads of us came from there at the same time, so big up them for recognising talent because nobody else would put us on the radio.
At Rinse, we used to go to dinner together and go on holiday together. We went to Ibiza a couple of times, stayed in this big house. We weren’t working, we were chilling. To go into Capital Xtra…I thought, ‘oh my God I’ve just sold my soul!’ I haven’t, they’re really lovely and it’s just like a family as well.
I look back and think Rinse were mad to give me a chance, cos I listened back to a show the other day and it was rubbish! But also, I have love and gratitude in my heart, because without that platform that everyone was speaking about, I wouldn’t have a job today.
Can you remember your first show?
I thought it was amazing at the time but I spoke about a million miles a minute. I did it with Julie Adenuga and she kind of coached me; she coached all of us, really. I told a story in my first show about Beyonce and it went on for about 20 minutes. I wouldn’t do that now.
My first show at Capital Xtra I spoke so fast I couldn’t even hear what I was saying. My sister texted me, ‘relax, just breathe, it’s OK.’ I’ve got such a big family, we’ve almost got our own language. If you don’t finish your food or speak fast, it’ll get eaten and you’ll be interrupted. It makes sense why I’m a presenter because no one at home listens to me! I’m super-lucky to have six people who are readymade best mates. I genuinely like all of them as well. At times some of them annoy me but they’re all pretty boss.
Best thing about being a presenter?
Getting to be myself for a living. One of my life mottos is ‘read the room’, so I would never offend people or be too brash or whatever. But the fact that my personality – Yinka as the kid, the adolescent, the adult who is a product of all the people around me – the fact this personality is my currency is a life hack I don’t even know how I did. I go to work, be myself for a couple of hours and then go home!
Are there any bad points?
Being myself for a living! When you are on all the time, it can be quite difficult to switch off. You’re constantly thinking about work and you’re constantly accessible. What can I do, what’s next? This isn’t even being a presenter: when you’re obsessed with what you do, it’s very difficult to switch off. A lot of people who have ‘job passion’ find it very difficult to not be available at 9pm for a phone call.
Especially in the age of smartphones… I try to be accessible on email and WhatsApp but leave everything else. Otherwise you end up getting pulled from different angles. But I don’t think it’s a symptom of being a presenter, it’s a symptom of being alive today.
Favourite person you’ve interviewed?
Well, my favourite type of interview is when they don’t necessarily have anything to say. For instance, Steflon Don – I’m a Stan for a queen – she comes in quite a lot to Capital Xtra. So it’s now like, ‘yeah, you’ve got a new song, we’ll play it – but how are you?’ That’s the best type of conversation for me. As an interviewer, as a broadcaster, I’m not very good at following a script because I think it’s boring. I like to have a free conversation and listen to what people have to say.
So Stef, definitely. Sean Paul, because I want him to be my uncle. Stormzy, of course, as I just think he’s incredible. J Hus, because I believe that I was one of the first interviews where he actually said something! He’s notoriously terrible and we had a really, really lovely chat.
Do you ever get starstruck?
I have in the past, I learned my lesson really quickly. Nowadays I don’t; which is good because you tend to meet super-famous people. I’m doing my job, and you’re doing your job, and that’s kind of the way I have to see it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always a fan, but I also come from a point of ‘welcome to my show’. It takes the star element away from it.
However Lil Nas X, the other day, I was smiling the entire time. He’s so cute and so adorable, and obviously he’s got the biggest song in the world. [‘Old Town Road’ ft Billy Ray Cyrus.] He’s an amazing guy. I almost got starstruck – then I had to G-check myself, and I was like, ‘hey, whose name is on the wall?’
Your TEDxPeckham talk was great…
Thank you! My bum almost fell out on that one.
‘The Myth of Escaping the Ghetto’ – what made you speak on that theme?
I didn’t realise it was a TED talk. I misheard it on the phone. There was an email with the TEDx logo but I wasn’t really paying attention to it. I rock up on the Saturday, no makeup, my hair wet, wearing the worst outfit in the world. I think I had hay fever and the flu. I was like, ‘I’ll do this little talk and then I’ll go home and sleep.’ As I opened the door, it all suddenly hit me – and I hadn’t prepared a thing!
As somebody who uses personality as a currency, imposter syndrome rears its head all the time. I thought, ‘I’m actually a fraud,’ but then I proved it wrong the same day. I’m standing there; everyone’s skyping in their parents, people are doing their speeches in the mirror, they’ve got cue cards. One girl was holding an egg timer. Someone else had a PowerPoint presentation. The theme was ‘think again’. I thought I’d watch a couple of talks, work out the vibe – then I found out that I was first up. When I walked out, I had no idea what I was going to say.
I decided to tell my story, what I thought was the truth. Everyone seemed to love it, and it went down really well. Hopefully it came across honest, and the jokes didn’t sound planned. I had to reach eight minutes, and I didn’t want to repeat myself or stutter – it was an exercise in speaking slowly! I got off the stage, people were clapping, ‘you pulled it out the bag!’ I don’t even know if they knew! I can’t believe I did that.
How was growing up in Peckham? You lived near Damilola Taylor…
And Giggs. It’s hard to answer that question as it’s the only childhood that I had. For me and my siblings, it was amazing. I remember playing outside from dawn till dusk, going on adventures. Don’t get me wrong, it definitely wasn’t idyllic, and we completely grew up ‘in the hood’; sometimes I’ll look at certain memories and think, ‘that wasn’t OK.’ My mum was a young, single mum of seven, and three of us were under ten. She protected us as much as she could. We lived in Gloucester Grove Estate, up until I was about 11, and when we moved, I missed it.
But when I look back at the way the people in my estate were treated: the lack of resources, the fact they were knocking down the estate while we were living there – my sister caught really bad asthma – ‘squalor’ is the only way that I can describe it. But as a kid, you have these rose-tinted goggles. I don’t want to be that cringe person: ‘I came from nothing, blah blah blah.’ I didn’t come from nothing: I’ve come from love and a wicked family. But it’s really nice to know that I didn’t have the silver spoon; this all came from a core belief in myself. It makes me feel more proud.
When you meet people from privileged backgrounds do you notice a difference?
I’m there and I’m like, ‘can my brother wear a tracksuit?’ I have weird fears when it comes to work, and funnily enough none of them are about the actual technical ability of the job. Like, my accent: if I’m talking to you it’s fine, but sometimes I’m like, ‘oh gosh, you can hear the hood! You can hear it!’ And then I wonder, ‘am I playing up to it? Being that token person who’s made it?’ I get nervous. That’s why I’m grateful for having really good friends, partner, family, because without that I don’t know if I’d have the guts to put myself in situations where maybe I’d feel a little bit uncomfortable. I don’t know if anyone else thinks this – I’m thinking it about myself.
It’s only natural…
Yeah. I think it comes from being a woman, too. We’re always like, ‘are they gonna tell me to get in the kitchen?’ Of course they’re not, but you still think it. I’ve got four big sisters, and it’s good to have those women who are like, ‘you can do it!’ Because it’s like a little niggling voice in your head sometimes.
It’s hard to realise it’s a thing if it doesn’t affect you. Being a woman is who I am, it’s my truth in this world; being a woman of colour is another thing that I am. Being a woman, you can see certain… I wouldn’t say obstacles, I would say challenges. Also, being of colour, I can see other challenges, and when they marry themselves together I’m like, ‘oh my God, this is exhausting – and I gotta go work at seven!’ But it does build you to be stronger. I wouldn’t have it any other way; I quite like who I am.
Also, it’s nice knowing that you’ve got something because you’re the best, rather than you know someone, or you’re a dude. Getting a job because you deserve it, or getting rebooked, is the best feeling ever.
You made a documentary that examined revenge porn – although apparently that’s not the correct term…
Yeah, I didn’t know that initially. It’s ‘online sexual assault’ and now in the assault bracket in terms of the law. I went to Bristol and learned a lot about the #MeToo movement and #IamJada – about the girl who was assaulted in America. She was passed out, someone took a picture and it went viral on Twitter. You had all these kids around the world pose as somebody who’d just been assaulted. It blew my mind.
That documentary was about social responsibility. Somebody’s posted a photo online: you Googling the person’s name, retweeting the image, screenshotting and putting it in your WhatsApp group, laughing at it – this is also part of the problem.
Do you remember the Jennifer Lawrence nude photo leak? She was like, ‘if you have searched my name, you’re part of it.’ That was the moment when I realised, ‘oh my God, this is so true.’ People need to understand. You’re not an innocent witness if you are actively involved in the sharing of these images; because the more people who share it, the more people think, ‘oh, if I create an image like this then it’s gonna be shared, too.’ Clout is a hell of a drug.
Why is it predominantly men who upload these photographs?
I couldn’t tell you. The vast majority of sexual assaults are carried out by men, and this is sexual assault. You know how back in the day, you had to wait by the phone box for your friend to call, and now you can just send your location? It’s just technology; whether you’re meeting a mate or abusing somebody, technology is advancing. This is one of the newest forms of extortion and control of women, but if you boil it all down, it’s the same as when women had to wear super-long socks and weren’t allowed to show their ankles. It’s just evolving, and this is the latest manifestation of that.
You also made a documentary that focused on using music to improve mental health...
It was like going to school. I learned about musical therapy, and how classical music has been proven to calm people down. I went with the mindset, ‘artist, mental health, let’s have a chat.’ We did, but it was so much more. It’s something I’d love to do again, more in-depth.
Why is mental health such a big issue?
Part of it is us being a little bit more honest with ourselves. Yes, it is a bit of a buzzword at the moment, but I’m not mad at that. You have to be oversaturated by something before it becomes normal. You know a few years ago, there was all this outrage about the plus-size mannequins? Slowly that’s becoming more normal, and people of all body shapes are being more visible and represented.
The explosion with mental health – it might become a bit oversaturated, but that’s when it becomes normal to talk about, and then your mate can tell you what’s wrong with them. Maybe it will make you look inside and wonder, ‘am I OK?’ Maybe you’ll check on your friends. Yeah, your timeline might be full, but if it makes you check on your friend, isn’t that a good thing? Whenever something becomes a popular topic there is always a danger of it being used as an advertising tool, but I will take that con if it means people are getting the help that they need.
Like with Pride – the commercialisation can be infuriating but, bigger picture, it’s a positive sign…
Completely. Pride’s not a festival, it’s a protest. I’m an ally, completely and utterly, in Pride and my day-to-day life. I know companies are using the rainbow to sell more burgers or coffees or sweets. I get that. But even though it’s annoying, the more you see it, the less somebody holding hands with their boyfriend, or being trans, will a) offend you,b) alert you, and c) they just blend like they should do.
Everyone having a platform means the people who chat shit also have a platform; they’re also able to be hateful, racist, homophobic. We have to scream louder – and if that means that Tesco is selling Pride bananas, if that means you’ve got plus-size women in underwear running the marathon, that’s what I want; I want to see that stuff rather than nonsense posts on Facebook.
Now, I’m seeing so many people of colour in adverts all the time. You’ve got all the big supermarkets suddenly using black people to sell groceries. Of course I think, ‘you’re only doing it because diversity is An Issue at the moment’, but hopefully in the next year, five years, this is now the norm, and I’ll be used to seeing people like myself – or me! – in those adverts, on those TV shows. If it doesn’t become A Thing, it will never be normal.
It’s the Overton Window – what ideas will be accepted in mainstream discourse…
I don’t think it’s the most effective way, I don’t think it’s the most pleasant way, because it can trivialise issues – but it’s better than pretending people aren’t suffering. It’s better than pretending that social media doesn’t make people want to hurt themselves. It’s better than pretending trans people don’t exist. It’s better than pretending that black people aren’t marginalised. Pretending doesn’t make the problems go away; I’d rather have people screaming and shouting about it.
Final questions. Dream interviewees?
Rihanna, obviously. Kanye West. Michelle Obama – Barack, he can come, but Michelle. Malorie Blackman, JK Rowling – I’m a Harry Potter person. I was gonna say her first but I thought it would be obvious.
And your future ambitions?
One of my ambitions is to do more TV. I was a little bit scared at first, because on radio you can just make funny faces and nobody can see you; on telly, they can see you, they can pause it and look at your face. But I’m getting over that now. I want to be Trisha! And I want to do more of what I love. I didn’t fall into radio: it’s unfair to say that considering how hard I worked. But do more at Capital Xtra, build my show. Be more of me – not to be cringe but I feel I’ve got a lot to offer. ■