Sitting in the cramped confines of the GCN broom cupboard surrounded by printer cartridges, Christmas trees and mop buckets, I take a deep breath before hitting record and dialling the living legend that is Skin – the frontwoman of the massive ‘90s rock band Skunk Anansie responsible for some of the most iconic rock songs of the past two decades. Forming in 1994, Skunk Anansie brought an unequivocal vibrancy and urgency to rock music, releasing three albums; Paranoid And Sunburnt, Stoosh and Post Orgasmic Chill which sold over four million copies worldwide. They would go on to release four further albums, pursue solo careers and now, 25 years later, release their live album collection – [email protected].
The power and importance of Skin’s fierce presence as the queer black frontwoman of Skunk Anansie cannot be overstated. On their debut album, Paranoid And Sunburnt, Skin sang openly about racism, sexism, love and loss with heart-wrenchingly honest lyrics that set them apart from the white boy Brit-pop phenomena of Blur, Oasis and the Camden cool kids.
Skin picks up my call and I am immediately greeted with a cheerful and cheeky voice that allows me to relax, momentarily check my fan-girling and jump right into the conversation. I have been by asking what some high points have been over the years.
“There are quite a few. Headlining Glastonbury is probably musically one of our high points. We were really on fire that night and the audience reaction was amazing. I recently won Inspirational Woman Of The Year from Music Week, that was really fun. I think people forget I exist sometimes so it’s nice to get that! Other high points, I would say, my singing lesson with Luciano Pavarotti was pretty cool. Meeting and singing for Nelson Mandela was a good point as well.”
The conversation continues at a rapid-fire pace and we cover so much in a short 30 minute call that I’m left with a head whirring full of ideas, thoughts and energy. Here are some of the topics we touched upon:
“Skunk Anansie have it all in terms of diversity and otherness and I think people forgot how difficult that made it for us back in the early ‘90s. I think now if you’re not diverse and queer, people aren’t as interested in you. I think that’s a really good thing. I mean don’t get me wrong, you still have to be fucking good.
Just because you’re diverse and you’re queer, you still got to be a fucking good band. Back then at the time, there were only a few of us, there was Skunk Anansie, Asian Dub Foundation, Cornershop. We were on the fringes of the mainstream scene. We’re weren’t anywhere near as big as any of the big white boy bands, you know, like Blur or Oasis.
I represented a triple whammy; queer, black and I was shaven-headed. All of those things that the industry thought fans wouldn’t like because of that weirdness and that outsiderness is what people love about the band. Also, we were political. We were coming from a point of – this stuff affects us and is really important to talk about and we’re not just going to write a nice pop song. It’s about being authentic, you know. We are what we are, and we’re not going to run away from things that are affecting us and we’re not going to pretend to be the cool Camden kids, you know. We are what we are.”
“In terms of sexism, I never worried about it or was affected by it because I’d just ignore it. If I worry about that stuff it’s going to drag me down and I’m going to see it everywhere, all the time, because it is everywhere. I’m black, I’m gay, it’s hard to explain, but my job is not to educate people about sexism, racism and homophobia. You need to educate yourself, if you don’t know yourself, what am I supposed to do? Then you’re just playing by numbers.
I see a lot of it now. Companies pay someone to make their product look diverse and it’s kind of – you’re not diverse, if it’s not cool to be diverse then you’d go and be in the not cool camp. It’s not my job to educate people who just want to make money out of our diversity.”
“We were triple platinum on our albums and that just doesn’t exist anymore. What exists now is followers and likes. In some ways, streaming is a lot more accurate. You know people could buy the record, not like it and never play it. If you buy it/stream it and you keep streaming it, then that really shows how much people like a record. The problem I have with it is that record companies get loads and loads of money from these streaming companies but then the record companies don’t give the money to the artist, which is such a rip-off.
Streaming companies are not allowed to say how much record companies pay them, but it’s billions, and when anyone complains, what they do is they just pay off some huge artists and fuck off all the other artists underneath. I think that needs to be adjusted so that bands can afford to do what they are doing. Not every band can afford to tour. That’s one of the big problems I have with what’s going on in the music industry right now.”
“Brexit is really bad for the country and we’re marginalising ourselves unnecessarily. We’re turning ourselves into a little island backwater. On purpose. The Brexit argument was founded by UKIP and Nigel Farage. Cameron was a fucking idiot for letting himself be coerced into that.
The Brexit side have a very charismatic leader in Nigel Farage but they are one step away from the National Front. We as black people, we all feel that, we all know that and you can talk as much bullshit as you like about ‘You’re upset about people doing swastika signs but that’s really who you are, Nigel Farage, and that’s what UKIP are and no amount of talking is going to change what every black person and brown person in England knows – it was about immigration. Many did not understand, and still do not understand what it really means to leave the EU, so they voted on the immigration thing. That’s the only bit they understood.
I wasn’t surprised by the vote. I’ve travelled around the country and I know how racist people are outside of London. I’m not saying that everyone who voted for Brexit is racist, that’s a ridiculous thing, a lot of people were voting on sovereignty. But the big poster of a Syrian caravan going into Germany with the words ‘Breaking Point’, now, that was a racist poster. That for me was the image of Brexit. If you voted Brexit, I’m not calling you racist but you did vote with the National Front, so that’s on you for not getting more educated and for getting used and abused by them.”
“It’s a really dated approach. I can understand that women are angry but I think it’s counterproductive, the point of it is – we shouldn’t have territories. We should all feel free to be in each other’s worlds and be accepted by each other. I was part of a black women-only group in my early 20’s, the reason why we did that is we felt we weren’t included in any gay stuff at all. It was all just white men. So we created something for ourselves. We wouldn’t need to do that now. Back then we did it for strength but nowadays inclusion is so much more powerful.
I feel very strongly that liberal people and left-wing people are very good at tearing each other apart. Trans people are not the enemy to feminists. The enemy to feminists are right-wing conservatives who want all of us fucking dead, and I think we can put so much energy into excluding each other and tearing each other apart that we make ourselves as a whole, much much weaker! Right-wing people use that weakness to make themselves stronger.”
Much like listening to the music of Skunk Anansie, my conversation with Skin leaves me revitalised, her energy is infectious and compelling. With live dates planned for later in the year, a new album from one of music’s most distinctive vocalists couldn’t be more welcome.
This article was originally published in GCN Issue 351. Click here to read more.
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