An Interview with Pepper Coast of Black Obsidian Soundsystem (B.O.S.S)

Earlier last year, we spoke with Pepper Coast from Black Obsidian Soundsystem (B.O.S.S), “a community of queer, trans and non binary people of colour involved in art, sound and radical activism; following in the legacies of sound system culture[…] to learn, build and sustain a resource for our collective struggles”, to touch base with our network of techno diaspora. Included is a mix made by Pepper Coast, “I miss the fucking club”

Dweller: Tell me a bit about yourself, Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S), and how both came to be.

Pepper Coast: I’m an artist and DJ from Croydon, South London. My work explores a variety of issues to do with being Black & working class in Britain, Black womxnhood, queerness through film, video and poetry. I use a lot of found footage, collage techniques, lo-fi media, soundscaping and voiceover, creating alternative polyphonic narratives. There’s definitely a connection in how I approach film/video editing and then mixing as a DJ. Under the moniker Pepper Coast I play drum, electronic and bass centric sounds from across the African diaspora. I’m Liberian and Jamaican myself so naturally interested in the links between the Black Atlantic. I like soulful smoother shit as well as tougher, harder riddims and blending them all together.

Recently I’ve been referring to myself with the West African term ‘griot‘, a person who would be a community historian (I have a History and Film undergrad degree), oral storyteller, poet and musician. Tracing it back to say that being an artist working across these different disciplines is inherent to my heritage. People are like ‘wow you do a lot’ then ‘wow you’re actually good at a lot’ and now I’ve realised like yeah that’s my ancestral inheritance right there! 

B.O.S.S. came about in 2018 after artist and energy worker Evan Ifekoya had it built for their exhibition ‘Ritual without Belief’ with the system forming the centre piece of it, hosting an immersive durational soundscape. They wanted it to have a life beyond the show and feed back into the QTIBPOC community here in London. Soundsystem culture both in the UK and in the Caribbean has been a notoriously cishet male  space, we are of course amending that building upon the legacy of Black women led soundsystems like Nzinga Soundz. We’ve been having parties, giving technical workshops, using it for performances and hiring it out ever since. 

D: Sound can often be thought of as one of the most threatening radical forms of media considering its power to move bodies actively (dancing) and passively (ear drums)— sometimes aggressively to force reaction. How has this understanding cultivated progress via collective struggle for B.O.S.S? 

P: Sound, music and gathering has sustained Black folks and people of colour in London amidst all the strife. As someone born in 1992 jungle, drum & bass, garage, grime, dubstep, UK funky, broken beat have all been created in just my life span, that’s actually magical. Black creativity really vibrates on another level. With things moving so fast and gentrification eroding a lot of our culture, it’s so easy to forget your centre and lose your grounding. It’s also easy to get swamped under by the sheer terror of things. Dub and reggae which originates with soundsystem culture gave space to ‘chant down Babylon,’ to get all this righteous anger off your chest and physically move through it. Focusing on Black sonic innovation all which has been done in stifling conditions gives us pointers towards liberation. If we can take those feelings we generate when we’re in that state of surrender and let them overflow then change is inevitable. 

Then in queer spaces like I love to turn a look but when image gets all important and overrides music, it becomes too elitist & exclusionary. There is so much freedom & release in moving and becoming truly lost in music, you can’t really do that if you’re videoing yourself all night. 

I had some great formative experiences in the dance as a teen – sweat patches abound, heels come off, your hair ain’t as laid as it was before – things get a bit ratchet but you feel so purged and aligned after.

We all wanted to return sound as the crux. Also for it to be high quality after experiencing quite bad sound at different club nights & events because that knowledge has been closed off for people like us. 

D: Your collective often speaks of a “collective hum” that promotes via audio/video pleasure. This makes me think of a form of collective mediation that can only be achieved in dialog alongside people. Since this mix was crafted, seasons have come and gone with most of us separated from the centering force of the rave-trance. The more I hear this mix, I grapple with a parallel universe where this summer, fall, and winter were all so different + more in communion. How does a sound system collective which sits firmly in the collective physical space move into a whole other with zooms and streams? How are you still hearing this collective hum and how is it kept grounded?

P: Being estranged from our soundsystem and each other irl like so many we’ve turned inward and used this time to reflect and hopefully carve out a better future. We’ve been focusing on our internal structure through visioning sessions, making sure it’s solid and sustainable. We’ve drawn attention to how labour is distributed, often unfairly and the unhealthy relationship we may have with work particularly as mostly Black women and gender variant folk in light of our social & historical labour based oppression.

I think being flexible and present has helped us maintain that ‘Collective Hum.’ Asking what are the immediate needs at hand and what it requires from us. Whether that’s been organising a hardship fund which some collective members and others from the community were involved in or putting together a 24 hour fundraising rave for it.

Taking on online commissions for sound pieces and DJ mixes Remotely eating together! Ensuring that we’re doing things that are pleasurable between us alongside work. Also resting a heap. 

D: What’s the background behind the namesake of your collective? Where do you see the power in blackness, as a color but also as a concept?

P: The name comes from Evan who’s also at the moment doing some amazing thinking and work around Blackness as abundance, countering the idea Black as a colour occurs because of an absence of light when in actuality it’s the presence of everything. I’m definitely with them on that and pointing back to the metaphysical nature of it all. Remembering what darkness represents, how all life is formed in it. For me Black is not necessarily an absolute but a concept which doesn’t make it any less real or powerful. I think when people make it into a material thing you’re engaging with it on a solely aesthetic and superficial level. It’s about how we look for sure but also how we are, how we move, how we live across our various cultures in similarity and difference. Black Obsidian as a stone operates as a protective, healing and grounding force, clearing negative energy. All properties we need as QTIBPOC. It’s formed from lava, literally born in flames. We’re formed in the direct wake of Grenfell in 2017 and prior to that the New Cross fire of 1981. Figuring out to make our way in a city and a land that is often hostile to us.  

D: B.O.S.S also works in the world of film. Any black British films we should be on the look out here at dweller (feel free to gush as much as you want we’re into films a lot over here!)?

P: I’m going to plug some of our own shorts here: 

My film ‘Small Axes’:  https://youtu.be/UgKySHuLG70

Onyeka Igwe’s: ‘Sitting on a Man’: https://vimeo.com/242965624

Evan Ifekoya’s: ‘Contoured Thoughts’

Shamica Ruddock’s: ‘The Island is No Home’ 

Then Steve McQueen‘s Small Axe film series has been great to watch these past few weeks. Particularly ‘Lovers Rock’ which features a party and soundsystem, definitely lived vicariously through that one. 

John Akomfrah’s ‘The Last Angel of History,’ the og documentary on sonics and the Black Atlantic.

Ngozi Onuwurah’s ‘Welcome II Terrordome’ the first theatrically released feature film by a Black British woman about a dystopian London where Black folks have been pushed out and forced into ghettoes. Very pertinent for this year.

‘Babylon‘ set in 70’s London following a group of friends with a soundsystem.

‘Pressure’ by Horace Ove too! 

D: The mix is called “I miss the fucking club”, which is like—yes– and also heavy feeling we’re sick of feeling! How are you listening to this back when you made it (last summer), and now? It ends on such an anti-climactic note as if there’s more to hear. Was this a narrative decision? To me, it felt like what it feels to remember the last rave I went to, not knowing it was the last for lord knows how long.

P: To record something like this I had to put myself in a complete fantasy headspace, visualising friend’s movements and reactions to songs & moments. Really channeling that dark and smoky space of a party. Listening to this is for sure a mode of escapism. The end is this harsh return to reality. Who knows when I’m going to experience a track like KG’s “Sensei” with other people, it’s holding out hope and also exercising restraint. Playing music to no one has its limits! I definitely feel like it’s important to preserve energy in this moment and reassess things for a beautiful, more intentional and comeback. 

D: Thanks so much for the conversation, excited to speak again soon 🙂

P: Thank you! Really enjoyed making my way through these and what it’s brought up. 

Check out more from Pepper Coast and Black Obsidian Soundsystem

Featured image at the top of the post is credited to Theo Ndlovu. @lifethroughmylense_pro on Instagram