Revelations, revolutions and radio
It is hot and muggy in the radio booth at CKDU, the palpable weight of the air made heavier by the sheer number of bodies crammed into the space. Behind two large tables arranged in an L, Reed “iZrEAL” Jones queues up tunes on a laptop and fiddles with stacks of blinking electronic equipment. Co-host El Jones (no relation) shifts her chair closer to a microphone and chats with iZrEAL and their guest, Colton. Surrounding them is a standing-room only crowd of people who, over the next 90 minutes, will join the discussion, work the phone lines or simply listen quietly.
As the clock ticks towards 1:30 p.m., the chatter is loose and conversational. A live radio show is about to begin, but the moments leading up to it are characterized by a relaxed anticipation. Though the darkened room, with its fading, cracked floor tiles and walls decorated with Sharpie-scrawled words, is stuffy, the mood is relaxed. It’s reflective of an environment that El will later describe as a “safe space” for people from marginalized communities to make their voices heard amongst each other and over the airwaves.
For CKDU, amplifying perspectives not typically represented in mainstream media is part of its mandate as a campus and community radio station. It’s a mission the station takes seriously, as evidenced by the many past and current programs that use radio as a tool of social justice.
“How does this work? We share the mic?” asks Colton, an Indigenous poet, rapper and clothing designer from Saskatchewan who goes by the stage name Illustrated. El nods her response, with iZrEAL adding a further piece of clarification. “You might get interrupted if a call comes from the inside. We stop the show when a call comes.”
Seconds later, the room goes silent as El and iZrEAL lean into their microphones. Black Power Hour has begun.
The origin of Black Power Hour as a radio show dates back to February of 2016, when iZrEAL produced a 30-segment series about unknown figures in Black history for his own Facebook feed. He discussed the series on CKDU’s Potato Salad Radio Show, and it struck a chord with “Ed,” who was (and still is) incarcerated at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in the Burnside area of Halifax. “Ed called in and said it would be cool if there was a regular show [that delved into Black history and culture]. Within two weeks, we were on the air.”
The fact that Black Power Hour was sparked by an idea from someone living behind bars has guided the mission and structure of the show from the beginning. El, an advocate for prisoners’ rights and prison abolition—the movement towards alternatives, such as restorative justice, and the deconstruction of a system that disproportionately ensnares people of colour—says the show exists primarily to inform and empower prisoners like Ed. “Our main focus is on the needs of incarcerated people,” El explains. “We hope that people in the wider community listen and think about the humanity of prisoners and listen to what people have to say, but ultimately it’s about providing a space to people who don’t have another space to talk about culture, current events and politics and perspectives that educate and uplift.”
The work of educating and uplifting takes different shapes from week to week for Black Power Hour, which airs from 1:30 to 3:00 p.m. every Friday. In the days and hours leading up to the show, El, iZrEAL and other contributors will scour the news for pertinent topics of discussion. iZrEAL also prepares a regular segment dubbed Hip Hop News, which takes a closer look at happenings in the genre that dominates the show’s musical programming.
In addition, Todd McCallum, a professor in Dalhousie’s History Department, regularly prepares and presents segments dealing with historical information about Black history, such as the role of women in the Ku Klux Klan, the campaign to pardon imprisoned members of the Black Panthers and, closer to home, the racist violence of Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis.
It’s a format that allows for maximum flexibility, variation and input from a variety of contributors. Ntombi Nkiwane, a 2017 Bachelor of Management graduate with a minor in Political Science, made regular appearances on the show during the final year of her degree, engaging a love of radio and a passion for social justice cultivated in her home country of South Africa. “The show aims to be a platform for art as a tool of resistance,” says Nkiwane, who recently returned to South Africa, where she says radio played a vital role in organizing opposition to apartheid in the decade before her birth. “Anything that relates to political or cultural content, we’ll speak about.”
Hosts, guests and contributors aren’t the only ones doing the talking on Black Power Hour. Prisoners’ voices are an integral part of the show. When iZrEAL speaks of “calls from the inside,” he’s referring to incarcerated prisoners who call the show to join the conversation, make music requests and even perform their own poetry or rap verses. Regardless of where the on-air discussion is when these calls come in, Black Power Hour gives the airwaves over to the caller—inmates don’t have the luxury of scheduling their phone calls. “Instead of doing one-way programming where we assume the role of teachers and arbitrators of knowledge and power, it’s very two-way,” says Nkiwane. “As much as we’re teaching, people who are incarcerated are teaching us.”
It’s early in the show, but already an inmate from the Burnside facility has called in. Along with a song request, he delivers his own rap verse with compact energy and clarity that resonates even over the phone. He then hands the receiver to a friend, who’s also itching to spit some rhymes. For a few bars, heads in the studio are nodding along.
And then, briefly, things go south. As it becomes more evident that the verse is directed at a specific person, the poker faces in the booth turn to frowns. Finally, El taps a button that cuts the rapper off mid-line. “People need to not spill beef (on the show),” El says. Later, she clarifies that this incident is a rare occurrence. Typically, she says, callers respect Black Power Hour’s stance of not taking sides in person-to-person conflicts, but “it happens once in a blue moon.”
Moving on from the cut-off caller, El and iZrEAL launch into a discussion about the Minnesota police officer acquitted of murdering Philando Castile during a roadside stop. iZrEAL laments the role of majority-white juries in the consistent absence of legal consequences for law enforcement officers who shoot people of colour.
The floor is then given to Colton, aka Illustrated, who details his harrowing upbringing in foster care, where he faced physical and emotional abuse and was cut off from his Indigenous heritage—experiences that have left him with clinical depression and PTSD. After sharing his story, Colton launches into a spoken-word poem called “Hush,” his voice becoming a piercing engine whirr. “Hush! That’s what the money’s for! Hush! That’s what I’m hearing more! Hush! That’s how we’re being ignored! Hush! No more will we be silenced, for the truth holds acts of violence.”
The air in the studio seems to stop circulating entirely. As Colton barrels toward the poem’s climax, it’s not difficult to imagine the weight of his words likewise stopping audiences from campus to the correctional facility in their tracks. “So we found a purpose, to lead the revolution, and I will bleed to lead the revolution!”
It’s almost 2:30, which means that iZrEAL Jones is at the microphone delivering his Hip Hop News segment for Black Power Hour. He eulogizes the late rapper Prodigy, who passed away earlier in the week, before jumping into a spirited defense of LaVar Ball, the outspoken father of recent NBA draft pick Lonzo Ball. The elder Ball has been criticized for hyping himself, his son and their business interests before Lonzo has even played a minute of professional basketball—criticism iZrEAL sees as an attempt to undermine two successful Black men. “Stop hating on Black business,” he instructs listeners.
The discussion business of the show now done, Black Power Hour turns its last 30 minutes over to song requests. iZrEAL winces and mutes the sound in the studio as he starts playing a country ballad, but seems only marginally more pleased with most of the hip hop selections that dominate the requests. “We take some heat over the requests,” says iZrEAL of the songs whose language and subject matter may offend certain listeners—and don’t necessarily reflect his own preferred flavour of hip hop. “But if that’s what [incarcerated listeners] want to hear to get them through their day, we’ll take the heat to make sure they’re centred and what they want to hear is first and foremost.”
As the music plays, the conversation in the studio continues, out of reach of listeners’ ears. It’s no less captivating than the on-air content, a blend of jokes, gossip and gallows humour. Colton shares more of his personal story with his hosts and solves a problem when he’s offered a couch to crash on for the night before returning home. The informal authenticity of both the on- and off-air discussion once again hearkens back to El’s description of the CKDU studio as a safe space.
“CKDU is part of campus space, and we know space isn’t always as inclusive as it should be for Black and Indigenous people,” El says. “It’s also one of the spaces that connects the university to the broader community and a resource that does a lot of the things the campus wants to do better. I think you see that reflected in the way the show unfolds.”
It’s just before 3:00 now, but there’s one final request. Colton’s live performance has earned him a new fan from inside the walls of the prison in Burnside—a fan who wants to hear more from Illustrated. One more song, for one more listener. One more week until the next chapter of Black Power Hour’s radio revolution.
iZrEAL Jones presses “play.”
CKDU’s social justice tradition
A mandate to provide a meaningful alternative to mainstream media