Skunk Anansie's Skin: Race, Sexuality And The Pursuit Of Identity

Skunk Anansie vocalist Skin reflects on her upbringing in South London, the power of anger, how the band changed over time and why the world is still completely screwed…

Skunk Anansie's Skin: Race, Sexuality And The Pursuit Of Identity
Phil Alexander

“Somebody got engaged!” chuckles Skin, talking about her announcement on Instagram the previous day. The Skunk Anansie singer is on a Zoom call from her home on the Balearic island of Ibiza. It’s a glorious, sun-filled day there and, as she turns her laptop around to give Kerrang! a quick virtual tour of her mountain-side finca, we look on with envy at the shimmering pool that sits before her.

Skin’s decision to get engaged to Lady, her partner who she first met some 12 years ago, is a sign of how settled she currently feels. It also coincides with a period of reflection that has led to the publication of her autobiography, It Takes Blood And Guts. Written with her friend and music journalist Lucy O’Brien, the book takes the reader back to Skin’s ’70s childhood in Brixton where she grew up in a tight-knit Jamaican community with her mother, her siblings and her maternal grandfather (her father, she admits, was in the RAF and “a distant presence” prior to her parents eventually splitting up).

As you would expect from one of the most outspoken musicians of her generation, Skin tackles the issues of the racism and sexism she has faced head-on. She is equally unflinching when she describes being subjected to two violent attacks in her teenage years – the first from a then-boyfriend, the second from a man who randomly attacked her in street before continuing to stalk her.

Her own emotional journey centres around her decision to come out, a process which was gradual and involved her facing down prejudice that was endemic and wide-ranging in the ’80s and ’90s and, at certain times, close to home. “I’ve never discussed my sexual identity with anyone in my family because I feel you either accept it, or you don’t – and that’s part of my survival as a black gay woman,” she states plainly in the book.

Self-preservation and self-discovery lie at the heart of the book as the shy, willowy Deborah Anne Dyer forgoes a career in interior design to give reign to her musical impulses. Starting out at open mic nights, she forms ill-fated, blues-rock outfit Mama Wild before eventually emerging as the fearless, shaven-headed singer of Skunk Anansie in 1994.

Skunk’s own rise is depicted as both swift and at odds with the all-pervading influence of Britpop – a scene that Skin openly rails against. “In the mid-1990s I was so tired of Britpop, which was like a humpback whale, mouth wide open, swallowing all British music in a single gulp then shooting out a marketing jet stream of floppy-haired white indie bands trying to make it in the USA,” she writes acerbically.

Certainly, the jingoism associated with Britpop was at odds with Skunk’s collective and inclusive worldview. Their politically-charged debut single, Little Baby Swastikkka, emerged in 1994 – the same year in which Oasis and Blur released Definitely Maybe and Parklife respectively. While the latter albums were openly influenced by the music that soundtracked Britain’s cultural dominance of the 1960s, Skunk’s first 45 dealt with a far harsher residual truth. Rather than looking back, Skunk were looking forward. In Skin’s own words they viewed themselves as part of “a new, alternative scene that was political, aware, caring and diverse”. Like Rage Against The Machine and Nirvana, they were heavy with it too.

Skunk’s own accomplishments are re-lived with self-deprecating humour, the band selling a cool five million albums in the space of six years. Such was their success that they found themselves in exalted company, the book’s cast of characters ranging from the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela (they attended his 80th birthday alongside Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Nina Simone – with whom Skin spent the night drinking) through to fashion designer Alexander McQueen, and on to David Bowie, Grace Jones and Lemmy. Their headline appearance at Glastonbury in 1999 meant that Skin was famously the first black artist to headline the festival and it proved to be a high-watermark for the band. So much so that they struggled to build on it, splitting in 2001 under the pressure of a relentless cycle that included endless touring and recording.

By then Skin was established not only as the face of the band, but as an iconic presence in her own right whose coterie of friends included fashion designers alongside fellow musicians. Her ensuing solo career saw her traverse genres as she hopped around the world in her customary restless manner.

A rapprochement with the band was slow and uncertain. Concerns about Skunk’s continued relevance after a seven-year absence seemed like an issue. When they finally reformed, they did so by returning to The Splash Club in King’s Cross, the venue where they’d cut their teeth in ’94, and playing two shows in April 2009. It was, says Skin, “like finding your way back home”.

Since then the four-piece of Skin, guitarist Ace, bassist Cass and drummer Mark Richardson have continued to make new music, their achievements during the last 25 years being commemorated by their induction into the Kerrang! Hall Of Fame at the Kerrang! Awards in 2019. “I was so delighted, I posted all our Kerrang! covers on Instagram, including the one where they’d spray-painted me gold,” writes Skin in the book.

It Takes Blood And Guts brings her story right up to the start of the pandemic and finds her in Brooklyn with Lady as New York goes into lockdown. “Lockdown in New York was incredibly severe and we decided we had to get out of there after four months of it,” she says. “We were just dreaming of escaping to Ibiza.” Since the book ends as COVID hits, it seems just about the right place to pick up today’s conversation…

How do you view the impact of COVID on music, and life as a whole?
"No-one expected it, but I quickly realised that all our gigs would be cancelled. The saddest thing is that it’s given all these huge corporations the right to trample over the smaller, independent shops. For rock music there’s a lot of repercussions in the future because it’s about being independent. What’s going to happen to live music and to those that play music out there? There’s a lot of desolation out there right now, but we have to believe that we’re good at fighting back because that’s what rock musicians do and we have to remember that."

It’s quite a good time to publish a book. Why now, though?
"The fact that it’s coming out now is by chance! But I watched a film a while back about Tina Turner and I was talking to Lucy O’Brien and she said, ‘You should write a book.’ She teaches too and a lot of the people she teaches wanted to know about how I’d done things. I let it fester for about three months and thought about whether I had anything to say.

"I realised that every time I get asked about the ’90s people ask me about Britpop. But there was a massive rock scene, loads of bands! In some ways people going on about Britpop was in danger of erasing what we’d done. The more I thought about that, the more I got angry about it and I thought people may want to know how a black girl from Brixton ended up being in a rock band. There was also a lot of other music going on in the ’90s – trip hop, drum’n’bass with Goldie, Björk and electronic music, and a massive rock scene. We were this diverse band that came out of this weird scene around King's Cross and [I didn't want to] let our story be cast aside."

In the book you talk about your childhood and you describe music as an escape. What were you escaping from?
"Well, the thing is that I’ve talked to a lot of my friends in bands and they said, ‘Yeah, my dad gave me this record when I was eight,’ or, ‘I heard Led Zeppelin when I was four years old.’ I didn’t have any of that. The music I was hearing was R&B, soul and reggae, and it was good and I love it, but it wasn’t me. I had to work my way to rock music. I didn’t have that environment where I was given a guitar at eight and given a background in rock music. I watched Top Of The Pops where they used Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love and that was the first piece of rock music I heard, but it was like a piece that was on an island, and I had to work my way to that island.

"Everything I’ve done, I’ve had to discover it and work it out for myself. I suppose that’s what the whole story is, really. It was a real journey to get to rock music. People said to me, ‘That’s not your music,’ or, ‘That’s the music of the oppressor.’ They said it was a white thing and it was a male-dominated thing. There was lots of that: the idea that this wasn’t what I was meant to do. But it was a very natural thing for me to like rock music, just not for anyone else I knew."

Your family come from Jamaica but you were born in the UK, so you had a dual identity. That seemed to hit home when you visited Jamaica and you found the patois hard to understand.
"Yes, it hit me then that I wasn’t Jamaican – not like my mum was. My mum was a real Jamaican from Jamaica and I’m a British person with Jamaican heritage. It was really uncomfortable going there and not being able to understand certain things that were being said, while being painfully aware that British people didn’t see me as being British. They say, ‘Where are you from?’ I’d say, ‘I’m from Jamaica,’ and I’d carry that flag, but that wasn’t the truth. There was that identity crisis, and then there was the question of musical identity.

"I felt awkward and there were parts of myself I used to hide. I liked all types of music, but I kept the fact that I liked rock music hidden because, as I said, people thought it was weird for me to like rock music. I liked Stevie Wonder but I was searching for something else.

"There was also the gay thing, too. I wasn’t after the boys in the same way that the other girls were after the boys so I’d pretend that I was aloof. There was a part of my character that made me feel odd. Even my hair! I didn’t want ‘black girl hair’. I had a curly perm! There was a lot of discomfort with my life and my situation, so that’s what I needed to escape from. I needed to get the chains off from where I was from. It’s funny because as you get older you want to go back to where you’re from, and you go back there with strength and as a new person, but I think when you’re a kid you just want to escape."

You mention strength but you also mention anger. How important has anger been in shaping you?
"I think it’s been vital. I also think that rock music is a great place to express that anger. You can get things out. But I think anger has to have a cause otherwise it’s just violence. That’s a very different thing."

It genuinely is.
"Yes. I’ll tell you a story that’s not in the book. When I was 11 years old there was this girl who lived next door and she’d come over the fence into our garden and I was very territorial. I didn’t like her and she didn’t like me. She was much taller, much lighter skinned and much snootier. One day she was hanging out in our garden and I said, ‘Get out of our garden!’ She refused and she got her shoe and hit me over the head – a whack right in the middle of my head. The next thing I remember is kicking her so hard that she went flying back over the fence into her garden! What I realised was that I’d blacked out completely because I was so angry. That terrified me because I’d lost control and when you do that, you can do anything.

"She went and got her mum, who called mine and we all went out to talk about it and when I looked at [the girl] I’d literally beaten the shit out of her. I was terrified. I went back inside and my mum gave me a beating but it didn’t hurt because I was so terrified of what I’d done. It did teach me a lesson: you can get angry but don’t black out or lose control. Since then – and this is a giant secret that I’m about to tell you – I have never lost my temper in the same way since.

"But, for me, anger has been a very, very useful tool. There are times with the boys [in the band] where I pretend to get angry just to get things done. I’ll look at Leigh [Johnson, Skunk manager] and wink, and then pretend to get angry. I’m very good at it! It’s a useful tool when people start fucking about! Anger has been very important in how I am as an artist and how I get things across in some of the songs, but it’s controlled."

The Skunk story is obviously a big part of the book, and of your life. You were a political band from Day One but you wanted to be a big band, too. Is there a contradiction in that?
"Yes, a huge contradiction. Our aim was to be in a band forever like The Rolling Stones but there was never a sense that writing pop songs was going to help that along. We weren’t good at that either. Our songs became popular but we never wrote a pop song. We were idealistic. For instance, we felt we needed to be five times better live than anyone else. The thing that we knew the establishment disliked about Skunk Anansie was the diversity and the fact that I was gay. But those things were also the reason the band became successful in some ways. When you’re doing something different, it is difficult at first. We came up during Britpop and it would’ve been easy to do just that, but it would’ve been boring to us. We had our thing and we knew our chemistry was really strong. If we kept on doing what we were doing, we thought we’d get there.

"But getting there is interesting too because we’re all working class kids so to us, getting there was getting a record deal at first. Then, second thing was the idea of touring. Selling records was almost an afterthought. There was no plan. For us, it was about being authentic and being good at what we did."

Skunk’s own rise was pretty quick and took its toll. You make that clear in the book. Looking back, what would you do differently?
"I don’t think we would have been capable of doing anything differently… The things I would tell people to do are things like buy a house, invest wisely. I’ve got a pretty good pension plan actually! But when you’re in a band, you’ve got to enjoy yourself. Just keep something for later! The only thing I would’ve done differently was ending the band when we should’ve just taken a break."

Do you think at that point you’d outgrown the band? Or that you were bigger than the band?
"I didn’t feel as though I had outgrown the band, but the thing that was really important in Skunk Anansie was the chemistry and due to one reason or another, that had really dissipated, and we were at a point where were apart from each other. Everyone was having separate conversations, too.

"Those guys are rock, rock, rock whereas I like a lot of different things in terms of music, and other elements. I’m a lot less easily pleased so it wasn’t that I outgrew them, it was just that looking ahead. I thought we had to do other things and to bring those other things back to Skunk Anansie.

"The reason U2 made Achtung Baby was they could see that they were becoming a bloated, American band and it was all about to fall apart. I could see that too. U2 went away and stripped it back and came back with a brand new sound, and that was the stage I felt we were at but only I was wanting and willing to do it. It really is about a leap of faith, and wanting to do something together as a band. You can’t drag people kicking and screaming into something that they don’t want to do. They’re much more, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ whereas I’m a lot more, ‘I’ll deliberately break it just so I can fix it.’ I got to a point where I knew we were about to make a really bad album and I’ve always felt that it’s much harder to come back from a bad album than it is to come back from a break-up. Once you put bad music out there as an album, it’s really hard for people to fall in love with you again. I’d rather go and do other things – and this is in hindsight, of course – than spend loads of money in the Bahamas making a bad album.

"Really, it was more the fact that we kind of drifted apart as people. We never hated each other or fell out. We just started living very separate lives and that’s not good."

The book also features a cavalcade of fabulous characters that you’ve been able to call friends. Luciano Pavarotti, Grace Jones, Lemmy… Out of all the people you’ve met, who’s given you the best advice?
"We did hang out with lots of people. People like David Bowie as well, but I have to say that all roads lead back to Lemmy. Lemmy liked Skunk Anansie when other people were slagging us off. The thing about Lemmy is that he knew who he was, and he knew what he liked. He was very secure in that. He also had this softer side. He wanted to record some music with me that was much softer than the music he is known for. He didn’t want to do something loud.

"Whenever I hung out with him, he was just reliably Lemmy, but I’ll never forget when I was in a relationship that ended and he called me and said, ‘Let’s go and work on this track.’ I told him I couldn’t because of what had happened. He was so lovely. He just said, ‘Whatever you need, just call me, I’m here for you and I know exactly how you feel.’ A lot of rock boys would be, ‘Yeah, okay, love. No problem, see you later,’ and try and get rid of you. He was the complete opposite because he had that depth of character. I put the phone down and I cried after that. Most people would not expect him to be that lovely, that gorgeous. That was the difference with him. He was a phenomenal rock star, he didn’t put up with bullshit, but if you needed him, then he was there."

There’s Lemmy The Caricature and Lemmy The Man. Then again, you’re Deborah from Brixton but you’re also Skin from Skunk Anansie. Are they different people?
"Around the time of the first album after we’d started to become successful, I remember chatting to some big rock star and he started talking about himself in the third person. I fucking hated it! I was like, ‘Are you pretending? Acting? Or what? Because you’re talking about yourself in the third person all the fucking time?’ I couldn’t understand it and I found it disconcerting.

"My name is Deborah. Skinny came from the fact that I was really skinny when I was young – which was not a good thing in Jamaican culture! Then in Skunk Anansie I called myself Skin. But Deborah, Skinny and Skin are all the same person. I’m not going to have conversations like I’m somebody else, although I do sometimes exaggerate that rock star part of my character. But I’ve always tried very hard to make sure that there isn’t a distinction. It’s always me. I don’t switch into someone else, and that’s important to me."

What has the experience of writing a book taught you, personally speaking?
"Having the chance to write the book with Lucy O’Brien gave me the chance to look at all the things that I did wrong, and all the things that I did right too. And it’s allowed me to really think about what I want to do now, and how I’m going to do it. I mean, what happens if this whole [coronavirus] thing goes on for another two years – which it easily could, bearing in mind the way in which it’s been managed? There’s a lot of questions about the joy of life. Where does rock music and being a musician even fit into that?

"I’ve been saying to the boys for years that I don’t think we need to do albums, we should do EPs instead and singles. We’d have five or six songs but they’d all be brilliant, and we’d tour around those. There’s lots of things that we can do now technologically and I think we’ll things change because of that.

"For me personally, too, I like the idea of being a lot more solid in my home life. We got engaged and I’m enjoying that – being loved, and being in a loving environment at home. Being supported, and supporting each other. Going round the world with someone is a really nice thing. I’ve always wanted that and now I’ve got it, so that’s been really good for me."

From the perspective of a black, bisexual Brixton-born woman, how do you view Britain and the world today?
"It’s quite scary. We have the rise of these right-wing politics, and we have a manipulation of points of view coming from all over the world, including places like Russia, and it’s a really difficult to fight. Cancel culture also adds to the polarisation of things.

"Even as a black person, you saw how American black people can shape the way other black people’s experiences should or should not be. We saw that recently with Adele [who wore a bikini featuring a Jamaica flag in order to celebrate the annual Notting Hill Carnival]. A lot of British black people were saying, ‘Of course she can wear a Jamaican flag.’ Notting Hill Festival is about bringing all races together because it came out of black and white violence, so it’s better to bring people together. We like it when people wear Jamaican flag T-shirts. They’re not appropriating, they’re appreciating – there is a difference. But in liberal politics we’ve got all these people disagreeing and fighting with each other while the right wing don’t give a shit. They’ll do anything to keep Trump in power because it means they get their other things through. It doesn’t matter whether they agree with him or not, they just want to maintain what they’re doing and their own power, while the left wing is tearing itself apart over a Jamaican flag bikini. We’ve missed the point. We’re being killed all over the world for being black, so I really don’t give a shit about a fucking bikini! We’ve got bigger fish to fry, you know! In that respect, certain things really scare me.

"You have to remember, though, that my personal life is fantastic and so I come at things from a position of hope. I think it’s important to make yourself happy first and use that as a basis to fight from. Stand on concrete not quicksand. That’s how my life is now. There’s so much stuff going on but you can’t get lost in that to the point where you can’t sit outside and have a glass of wine with friends."

So, to quote an old Skunk tune, Yes, It’s Fucking Political, but it’s actually personal too?
"Absolutely! I have to say that I do think that lyric is one of the best lyrics ever written because everything is political at the end of the day. That’s the crux of life, really. You can’t be non-political and be effective. Whatever you want to do in life, it all comes down to politics – how countries are run and societies are built. So everything is political and it always will be."

It Takes Blood And Guts by Skin and Lucy O’Brien is out now.

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