When you talk about Black British culture, it’s impossible to have a conversation that doesn’t in some way include Julie Adenuga.
The 32-year-old radio host and DJ’s presence in the space usually referred to more simply as “the culture” is in part cemented by the fact that she belongs to one of the nation’s most creative families, but more importantly by her own career, which has been defined by breaking artists and pioneering sounds the “Julie Adenuga” way.
Adenuga sees her role as championing the underdog, a style that she honed as a lead presenter on Apple's Beats 1 (now called Apple Music 1) since its inception. Adenuga told BuzzFeed News she always considered her place in the ecosystem as playing a supporting role, a trait she attributes to her status as the “middle child.”
“My whole career has been about: How do I live the life that I want comfortably? My own personal life, but at the same time, find a balance in making sure that I'm talking about the things that I'm passionate about and championing the underdogs, the misfits, the people that aren't in the mainstream, the niches — how do I find a balance between that?” said Adenuga.
To the surprise of many, she announced in May of this year that she would be leaving her flagship show after five years. She told BuzzFeed News her decision “felt like the right thing to do,” but she hasn’t slowed down.
“I don't like to monkey-bar swing, you get what I'm saying? I'm not like a ‘hold on to something until something else comes along’ person. I'm available and I'm ready for whatever that next thing is, and when it's ready to present itself to me, it will, and I'm going to go and give it 110%, like I've done with all the other places I've been at,” said Adenuga.
The presenter is now harnessing her creative energy into her online content with her latest season of Top 5, her YouTube series. She is joined by two guests to debate and discuss the discographies of a specific artist or group, with the goal of narrowing down the five best tracks from their entire body of work.
“The idea just came from anyone that's a music lover or has had an argument about an artist’s catalog,” she said.
Musical debates are normal to Adenuga, as are arguments, “I love to argue. I'm Nigerian. I love to argue. I love to shout,” she joked.
But the power of platforms like Top 5 is in more than just facilitating a healthy argument, something Adenuga quickly learned off the back of the first season when it launched last year.
“When I started to realize that people listen to the music of the artists that they've just watched the episode on, I thought, Imagine if this was on a big massive platform? Imagine how many people would go and listen to the music after, which was why I really wanted to push that energy toward UK music, and then Verzuz came along I was like, Oh, this is proof.”
The impact Adenuga describes is now referred to as the Verzuz effect, from the online battle series created by producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz that was launched during the earliest part of the COVID-19 lockdown.
It describes the effect of these head-to-heads, where artists have experienced a significant boost in streaming figures and overall attention for their entire body of work. Adenuga’s series was ahead of the curve of this trend.
The forum-style debate has become its own marketing machinery and in Adenuga’s case, it’s one that is powered by fans. The series recently returned for its third season along with a podcast to accompany it. This time, Adenuga has opened the conversation to include international artists, such as Missy Elliott, Destiny’s Child, and Drake.
Adenuga’s expanding creative portfolio is all being hosted on her channel, called Don’t Trust the Internet, a name that captures her personal philosophy around online culture, something that she admits to having a “love-and-hate relationship” with.
“I guess when I say the internet I'm talking more about social media,” she said. “I think the internet is a wonderful tool. I absolutely love using the internet, but I think the way people treat the internet, what's on there, what they see and how algorithms put information in front of them, the value that people give to that, I think it’s really dangerous.”
With a combined 200,000 followers across her social media, Adenuga is aware of her influence, but it isn’t a title that she would wear loudly or gives too much authority. She treats the internet as a “school playground” and encourages others to do so.
“You go outside, you have a bit of fun, and you get back to class. You go back to the stuff that matters,” she said.
What matters most to Adenuga is creating a space for content that speaks directly to her values, which she often feels are at odds with internet culture. More importantly, she wants to encourage viewers to shift their values.
"When I thought about all the things I wanted to work on going forward, the main words that came to me were integrity, innovation, creativity, and freedom," she said. "I want people to really be invested in those things over anything else.
“For us to be able to achieve these things that we want to achieve going forward, we're going to have to not trust the internet. We're gonna have to trust ourselves, we're going to have to look to people that we respect and trust them over the internet because the internet ain't really serving us. It's cool, but it's not serving us well, and I don't think it's taking us forward.”