The gal-dem collective is disrupting traditional media all from their tiny HQ in a London car park

If you wanted to find a kind of ground zero for gentrification, you could do worse than here: an office block carved out of a concrete multistorey car park in south-east London that now fizzes with the cumulative energy of dozens of startups. Yellow “Ahead Only” signs still mark the lanes that link digital media companies with eateries whose lunch dishes are garnished with labneh and almonds.

The bigger businesses have garnished their parking spaces, too, with pot plants and deckchairs. But I have scaled these levels to find gal-dem, the award-winning online magazine run by women and non-binary people of colour. By contrast, its HQ is squeezed into a minuscule space about the size of one car parking spot. Their occupation here is an ambivalent one, both physically and metaphorically. The gal-dem journalists inhabit the space lightly – a few shelves and A1 magazine covers the only gesture towards permanence. There are few other people of colour working here.

What gal-dem lack in space, they make up for in energy. As I enter the tiny newsroom, I find four women – none older than 25 – sitting at their laptops in a row, facing a chipboard wall, the conversation darting casually around what seem to be everyday subjects in gal-dem lan. Liv Little, the magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief, looks suitably playful for an architect of media subversion, wearing a deep blue jumpsuit and running a hand casually over her shaved head.

From left: lifestyle editor Niellah Arboine; assistant politics editor Jinan Younis; art director Leyla Reynolds. Photograph: Yves Salmon for the Guardian

“I was in Deptford market and a glass of wine there costs £6 now!” laments Niellah Arboine, gal-dem’s lifestyle editor, seated regally at the end of the long desk, with sleek braids and distinctive lime slice earrings.

“But was it delicious though?” Little probes cheekily.

“Yes!” Arboine confesses, laughing. “And, apparently it doesn’t give you a hangover, because it has so few sulphites it in.”

Little is both excited at the prospect of securing a major US star for the forthcoming annual gal-dem print cover, and aware of how much the whole process is costing her. “I’ve been chanting every morning that we get her,” she says, describing herself as a practising Buddhist. “I had to go through three inner circles, and those phone calls to the US are expensive!”

The team have previously interviewed everyone from Oprah and Lupita Nyong’o to British musician Ray BLK; the fact that such famous women are keen to collaborate with gal-dem, while the editor-in-chief frets about the price of the phone calls required to arrange the next star, is a marker of the reality of life at this major media disrupter.

Little, who is 24, grew up in south-east London, with Guyanese and Jamaican families, and a friendship group representative of the diverse area. When she went to study politics at the University of Bristol she struggled with the all-encompassing whiteness her student experience entailed. “I had never been confronted with racism until I went to Bristol,” she explains. “It was overwhelming and I was stressed. You become woke.”

‘We have this collective amnesia about the impact of Caribbean women in the UK,’ says art director Leyla Reynolds, far left. Photograph: Yves Salmon for the Guardian

Little met Leyla Reynolds, who as art director at gal-dem has helped build the magazine’s reputation for standout graphics and illustrations. Then a fellow politics student at Bristol, Reynolds was frustrated at the, as she saw it, lack of interest of university staff in her chosen dissertation topic, the political contribution of black British art in the 1980s. The final straw for both women, it seems, was the joint experience of taking a class on feminism, only to find it taught by, as Little describes him, “this white man”.

“We thought, ‘We know so much about feminism, what is he doing?’” Little recalls. She began posting on message boards about connecting with others in Bristol and beyond who were also dissatisfied with the lack of diversity on campus and on the syllabus.

Registering the domain – “it sounded like the most natural way to describe a group of my peers” – Little and Reynolds began growing a network. They highlighted some of their favourite articles from publications they admired under the hashtag #sixtysassydays (a name that now makes them cringe). “I had this idea – we were just sharing content that we liked for 60 days before we launched,” Little says. “It was a good way to build up a bit of a network.”

Little now disparages gal-dem’s first incarnation (“Such bad social media!” she exclaims), but it worked, attracting attention among other women and non-binary people of colour in Bristol, including Antonia Odunlami, whom Little and Reynolds met at a networking dinner in the city. Together with Odunlami, now music editor at gal-dem, they began brainstorming on how to grow a passion project that was still in its infancy, along with the confidence in themselves.

Arts and culture editor Micha Frazer-Carroll; news and features editor Kemi Alemoru; video editor Daisy Ifama. Photograph: Yves Salmon for the Guardian

“We went to this Queens Power Lunch,” Little says, describing an event designed to support women in business and self-empowerment. “We all had to go round and say what we were doing, and we were all fucking terrified. We met Lisa-Marie Carter [founder of jewellery company Nikao], a woman who runs a really successful company, and she told me how to build a website. Funny, our website hasn’t actually changed since then. She gave us that. And a boost in confidence to go out and try it.”

Along with that confidence came their first event – an informal get together in a London coffee shop, where people who were interested could come, as Little describes it, “for a really chilled meetup”. It was here that they first encountered Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, now gal-dem’s deputy editor, whose writing on her experiences of using Tinder they had already read, and admired.

Only three years later, this group of young women, which now includes more than a dozen editorial staff and numerous regular contributors – many of them with almost no prior professional or media experience – has shaken up the mainstream press. They give a glimpse, alarming for some, of a future in which the white, male perspective will not monopolise. “What we are offering is something people didn’t get before,” Little says. “As women and non-binary people of colour, people assumed that we all had the same thoughts, or the same upbringing. And we are showing that there are so many different perspectives within these very broad categories.”

Pieces such as The Virginity Paradox I Face As A British Muslim, in which the writer Sara Jafari questions her commitment to no sex before marriage as a feminist or The Vagina Affliction More Common Amongst Women Of Colour, on how women of colour are more prone to bacterial vaginosis (which can “really piss on your chips, side eye your sex life, or kill your confidence”), are just two examples of how qualitatively different gal-dem’s offering is.

Editor-in-chief Liv Little, right, with deputy editor Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff. Photograph: Yves Salmon for the Guardian

For now, the commissioners, and contributors, in this brave new world, are unpaid. “It’s been very voluntary for the most part, unless we’re running branded content or working with museums,” Little says. “The position people see us in now, everyone thinks we are sorted, but it’s tough. We do have a clear potential revenue model [by attracting investment, building brand relationships and organising events], but at the moment everyone has other jobs. We do a lot of work with our contributors, so they are getting a service when they write for us. But obviously the aim is to have the investment and infrastructure to make sure everyone is paid.”

The scale of gal-dem’s current – never mind future – plans are dizzying. Reynolds, wearing a floral dress, her dark brown hair streaked with blond, speaks proudly of a project the team recently created, a commemoration of Windrush at 70 in collaboration with the mayor of London at his office in City Hall. “It was a three-part thing: a Caribbean kitchen installation, 12 absolutely incredible portraits of black British Caribbean women from Windrush to now, and a series by the artist Rochelle White, who creates huge photographs of Caribbean food dishes and places them against these luxe backdrops.

“We have this collective amnesia about the impact of Caribbean women in the UK,” Reynolds says, adding that she is hoping the Windrush exhibition will now tour the country, visiting schools and community spaces. “We need to make sure this stuff has a legacy, rather than a moment.”

Soon after we meet, gal-dem will launch Rewriting The Canon, a literary course in conjunction with the London department store Liberty, repositioning writers of colour, whose legacy is so often overlooked. The demand has taken everyone by surprise: during the day I am with her, Little spends most of her time preoccupied with the dilemma of more people having subscribed than can actually be accommodated.

Then there is a forthcoming gal-dem book, and a collaboration with the Afropunk festival. All this adds to gal-dem regular events, gal-dem Sugar (club nights and museum takeovers at which the team fill the usually quiet spaces of museums with installations, films, talks, DJs and all-round partying) and commercial projects that have so far included collaborations with Red Bull, Asos and Nike. Little is also signed to the model agency Storm, and has appeared in Vogue for a feature entitled Meet The New Suffragettes.

Corporate gigs provide some financial relief from the unpaid work of the gal-dem magazine itself, but are not without hazards. “It’s hard,” Little concedes. “The boundaries are constantly shifting. The way media and brands and advertising are set up, it’s against people of colour. To find those brands that are not part of that, or that have a good ethos, they are few and far between. We say no to loads of stuff.”


I join today’s four-strong gal-dem team for lunch at a Jamaican cafe inside the nearby market. It’s run by a no-nonsense Rastafarian who seems to have found a happy harmony between the black traditions of pre-existing residents in this part of London and the new influx of clean food-loving hipsters.

While eating our chickpea curries, roti and dumplings,we talk about the memories associated with certain foods; the experiences of queer people of colour, and thedilemmas of coming out tofamily elders.It’s another reminder of how personal the issues that make up so much of gal-dem’s published material really are; reflecting the complexities of navigating sexuality, race and class. The magazine runs content that deals frankly with the daily struggles these identities entail, such as My Sense Of Home Shifted When I Came Out, about the sadness of having to create distance with one’s family; and Why We Need To Dispel The Myth That Ethnic Minorities Are Aspirational By Default, challenging the narrative that it is white working-class boys whom society is leaving behind.

For Daisy Ifama, who grew up in a small town in the West Country where she had cleaning and dinner lady jobs at her own school, while still a pupil, studying at Goldsmiths in London exposed her to class elitism. “I just didn’t know that lots of private school people went to university,” says the gal-dem video editor. “My teacher was like, ‘Put your hands up if you didn’t got to private school’, and only I and my friend put our hands up. I had never been friends with someone who had gone to private school before.”

Assistant music editor Grace Shutti; politics editor Leah Cowan; chief sub-editor Kuba Shand-Baptiste. Photograph: Yves Salmon for the Guardian

Arboine says she grew up “in a very multicultural, beautiful bubble, where I was used to learning about all these amazing black people”, only to experience the shock of racism at university in Aberystwyth. “I had never felt so othered in my life.” Reynolds moved from London to Suffolk at the age of 11. “I had been at primary school in the city of London, in an insanely multicultural area, then I came to Ipswich and people were like ‘Because you’re a bit black, you’re quarter cast.’ And I was like, ‘That’s not OK.’

“I remember crying once when someone said the N-word in a joke,” Reynolds recalls. “And people saying, ‘It’s fine, black people aren’t being killed any more’, and stuff like that. It all has an impact on how openly you talk about race.”

Little, meanwhile, went to private school, the result of her mother’s determination to provide her daughter with the best education she could. “My mum is a very hardworking woman who nearly killed herself to pay for my education,” she says. “She found a way to make stuff work. I’ve always worked, too. When I was at Bristol, doing my dissertation, I was a nanny, I was also working in a burger restaurant. My hair started to fall out because I was really stressed. We have all pushed ourselves to extremes to do this.” There’s a sense among all the team that this was both an incredibly tenacious choice, but also not really a choice at all, so certain were they it had to be done.

Gal-dem attracts the audience it does, and the brands desperate to resonate with that audience, because of what’s often described as “authenticity”. But the gal-dem team see it in less grandiose terms, as being true to their own experience. One of the magazine’s most popular features was Arbione’s Letter To My Younger Self: Your Body Is Yours And Yours Alone, which she – and thousands of others, it seems – still turns to now. “I was in this weird limbo part of my life. It just started out as a letter. And then it just kept going and going.” The letter is searing and sweet, but painful, too. “In the nicest way possible, you look a bit like one of those Lego men. Your hair was never meant to be straight and that’s all right,” Arbione writes. “There’s no right way to be black… black is who you are, not what you do.”

This honesty is a simple commitment, and gal-dem will not be apologising for the success it has delivered. “At the beginning, when you get offered loads of stuff, you are gassed and feel really privileged,” Little says. “Now I feel like these institutions are really privileged to have us in their space. And that is the biggest piece of advice I give to anyone now when I speak: know that you are so valuable. What you have, they don’t have. And that’s refreshing.”

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