This article originally appeared on The Guardian on June 17th, 2020.

‘One of the most lyrical, badman tunes ever!” says dancehall DJ Levels, after Real Badman by Vybz Kartel has just played. “This represents Jamaica – this represents real music!”

“I’m from Nigeria,” laughs his rival selector Joie in retort, who replies to Levels by playing No Lele by Nigerian Afrobeats star Wizkid. “We’re the biggest people.”

This is NS10v10, an uproarious DJ battle that has become the flagship show on No Signal, the British online radio station that has been one of the few success stories amid the difficulties of the Covid-19 lockdown. Labelling themselves #blackradio, they play music from across the African diaspora that folds into the diverse spectrum of black British identity, and are creating a space of community and relief for black Britons at a traumatic yet galvanising historical moment.

“Whether it be R&B, soca, drill or dancehall,” says Joseph, also known as VI, who is head of programming at the station, “we wanted to represent the black diaspora as a whole. That’s what we listen to at home or out in the clubs.”

No Signal was originally conceived and then shelved by brothers Jojo and David Sonubi as an extension to Recess, their string of club nights and day parties that have become a bedrock of black nightlife in London. When the lockdown paused their events, they revived it. “I realised that there was going to be so much free attention available,” says Jojo. “The weekend lockdown was announced we were meant to have a big Recess party in [east London venue] Village Underground, so we threw up a livestream in its place and 300 people locked in.”

Ever since, a revolving roster of No Signal DJs, producers, playlisters and programmers have been broadcasting radio shows from the station’s website, shifting between black music genres like a heptathlete switches disciplines. They have aired everything from Saturday night dancehall party sets to Ghanaian hiplife, 70s Afro-jazz and reggae, and brought their station to listeners in 99 countries.

“We’ve used the tools we could as well as we could,” says Anthony, also known as RBC, one of the station’s producers. “The internet took a radio stream with our bredrin’s to the other side of the world. We’re doing it from our bedrooms and houses with mum’s wifi, and now we’re being played in places like Mauritius.”

“Our culture is rich across the board,” adds Joseph, “Everything you see here is us, is black people. Whether you’re from this place or that place, we’re all represented by the shows on this channel. We wanted people to feel like they have a home here.”

#NS10v10 has been key to their success. The interactive music session is part soundclash – with roots in Jamaican soundsystem culture, where rival systems go back-and-forth with songs for crowd-crowned supremacy – and part gameshow, with inspiration drawn from lockdown Instagram broadcasts such as Canadian rapper Tory Lanez’s Quarantine Radio.

The rules are simple: two rival contestants represent a predetermined artist, then battle over 10 rounds, facing song choices off against one another. The winner is decided by Twitter users, who declare the strongest track in each round. “I love watching football and Love Island, and the online commentary always adds another layer of enjoyment,” says Jojo. “I thought: how can we do that, but with live audio?”

The show’s first season included tracks from rappers Skepta and Giggs being pitched in a UK all-star clash, an Afro-swing standoff with J Hus and Kojo Funds, a 90s rap show between Missy Elliot and Busta Rhymes, and an R&B throwdown with Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. A special 80s v 90s edition between special guest hosts Ian Wright and Julie Adenuga saw the former England footballer use the platform to open up on the tolls of online racism.

With every clash that passed, the show spread through social media, the #NS10v10 hashtag becoming an interactive dancefloor, spilling out from “black Twitter” and into new corners of the internet. The clash between Wizkid and Vybz Kartel was the tipping point. Over 200,000 listeners tuned in that evening, and since then, No Signal’s audience has continued to grow exponentially.

But No Signal is more than a soundclash-slash-gameshow. With the close of the first season, the station expanded its programming. A string of new interactive shows include Ask Oloni, an agony aunt show with sex blogger Dami “Oloni” Oloniskin, and Spot the Sample with writer Jesse Bernard, which explores the samples tying together some of hip-hop’s most iconic eras and songs.

Elsewhere, intermissions spotlight worthy causes for listeners to rally around: community platforms such as the BYP Network connect black professionals with job opportunities and The Black Curriculum is an organisation teaching school students black British history.

“It’s the right thing to do – we’re a resource for people,” says Jojo. “Social media drowns out a lot and it’s hard to pay attention to certain things. But it’s beneficial for everyone to know about these great causes that need to be put out there.” By threading these wider elements into the station, No Signal display the variety in the black British experience, hosting the niche conversations and community-wide issues that, in this country, weave black identities together like willow baskets.

With lockdown edging to a close, thoughts have turned to No Signal in the new world we will eventually inherit. They have already partnered with Spotify, with each #NS10v10 clash available for playback on the streaming platform, and there are plans to further establish themselves as a fully-fledged radio station, picking up the specialist black radio mantle left behind when London-based station Choice FM was absorbed into Capital.

“There’s been a gap in the market for black culture,” says Neil, also known as AAA, who programmes and produces on the station, as well as hosting a show. “There are radio stations that covered grime and alternative music, but the black community had Choice FM and we proper miss that.”

Until then, they continue with a scheduled programming bonding together the many faces of black music, and reviving the spirit of black club nights shuttered by quarantine. Amid isolation, they have become more than radio: a gathering for those seeking out community in lonely times.

The second season of #NS10v10, meanwhile, is under way, and Twitter timelines are once again turning into dancefloors. In the Boy Bands v Girl Bands clash, full of 90s throwbacks and house party gems, selector Nicksy is taunting her rival. “These are connoisseurs, these are uncles, these are OGs in the game!” she laughs as Premier Gaou by Ivorian group Magic System fades in: “African hall party classic!”