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INTERVIEW: Skin - 'Skunk Anansie's 20-year-old politically charged anthems are even more relevant today'

Laura  Barnes
INTERVIEW: Skin - 'Skunk Anansie's 20-year-old politically charged anthems are even more relevant today'

1995 was a very ‘safe’ year for British music. The charts were filled with the likes of East 17, Take That, Robson & Jerome and Simply Red. On the rock/indie music front, Oasis and Blur were doing their whole playground battle thing.

When Skunk Anansie burst onto the scene with their debut album 'Paranoid & Sunburnt' in September of that year, there was suddenly something very different to hear, and look at, other than the familiar gaggle of white, cis men crowding the airwaves.

The UK music scene has always been a fantastic place for diversity and alternative expression, but having commercial success was sometimes a little hard to come by for many bands that were doing something different.

Those who only know of the band by their biggest tunes – the likes of 96’s ‘Weak’, which was their first single to break the UK’s top 20, and their huge hit ‘Hendonism (Just Because You Feel Good)’, which peaked at no.14 in the charts and really put the Skunk Anansie name on the map – may be forgiven for taking these songs at face value as love songs with a bit of “oomph”. It’s not until you really sit down with ‘Paranoid & Sunburnt’, and its impressive 1996 follow up ‘Stoosh’ that you realise the political messages behind many songs, covering race, gender, sexuality and so much more.
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Some of the political statements that we were making, and some of the things that were angering us 20 years ago, have become very relevant again.

With songs like ‘Intellectualise My Blackness’, ‘Yes, It’s F**cking Political’ and ‘Selling Jesus’, vocalist Skin was making statement after statement, speaking out for the alternative, and challenging the listener to think about issues that they might not necessarily feel comfortable with themselves, but knew that someone needed to say them.

“In many ways, some of the political statements that we were making, and some of the things that were angering us 20 years ago, have become very relevant again,” Skin tells me as we chat at the Academy of Contemporary Music’s (ACM) London campus.

“I don’t think we’re going backwards, I think we’re going forwards so fast that some people can’t deal with it.

“If you look at society and politics, and gender and gay politics in particular, we’re going forwards and forwards and forwards. Some people can’t take the pace of that, so they’re harking back to the days when things were more conservative.

“So those songs, and the stories behind them became even more relevant now than they were then, because now they have a 20-year history. You look at the history and you think: “God, we’re still having to fight that same battle?” We still have to be aware of the same things that were over 20 years ago.”

Skin looks at the positive aspect of the recent political issues plaguing the world, especially those of Brexit and the rise of Trump.

“I lot of good things are coming out of it. A lot of kids are getting riled up about politics, because they weren’t interested for a long time. Now, you’re seeing people getting excited about politics and getting a view point, having a discussion and actually getting off the fence and realising that there’s more to life than having a big old party and getting drunk.

“The things that you hold dear, and the things that you value, if you don’t stand up for them now, in 20 or 50 years, they’re going to be gone,” the singer warns.

“There’s a very clichéd quote that I really believe in that is: Stand for something or put up with anything.”

The reason our interview was being conducted at ACM was because Skin was presenting up and coming musician Ky Lewis with the academy’s first ever Skunk Anansie Scholarship – you can read more about that here.

And on the subject of education, Skin continues to show that passion for equality, revealing that she put the idea to Ace – Skunk Anansie’s guitarist and ACM’s head of creative industry development – that while it’s great that kids can afford to do expensive courses, wouldn’t it be great if the band could do a scholarship to pay for someone’s education for free.

Skin tells me that there was nothing like ACM when she was growing up. “There was no such thing as a music college. We came up the grassroots way because that was the only way. If you wanted to be in a band you just had to beg someone to buy you an instrument, learn it, and find people that were like minded by going to gigs. That’s how Skunk Anansie found each other.”

Skin admits that when Skunk Anansie formed and started playing in their local London music scene, she didn’t realise how different the band was.

“In our group in London we were normal. There were loads of bands featuring people with backgrounds that were Indian, Asian, African etc. Everyone was just in bands and there was no definition between sexuality, gender, race, disability or anything like that.

“Then we started playing outside of London and we realised that it was quite a strange thing to have a black female singer fronting a rock band. We knew that was different, but then it became really different the further out we went.

“Then when we started playing outside of England is became an even bigger deal. It was actually a shock to people.”

It’s important to stay true to yourself and keep doing your thing and not take the weight of public opinion, whatever it may be.

Skin again takes a no-nonsense approach to the ‘shock’ attitude of others.

“Those issues aren’t my issues or the band’s issues. It’s not my problem, I’m just who I am. I’m not going to take the weight of other peoples’ negativity, or even peoples’ positivity. Because sometimes, when people are trying to be overly positive they can be just as offensive,” she says.

“But all of it is irrelevant. It’s important to stay true to yourself and keep doing your thing and not take the weight of public opinion, whatever it may be.”

As well as her work with Skunk Anansie, the singer, musician, DJ and actress has been keeping herself hard at work with numerous projects throughout Europe.

“Being successful is one thing, maintaining success is a whole other thing,” she tells me. “The key to that is to be diverse. It’s important to meet people and do lots of different thing, especially things that challenge you.”

One recent thing Skin found challenging was learning Italian to appear on Italy’s X Factor.

“The reason why I was asked to join the show was because they have rock bands on there, and a rock band won it last year. So they needed to have someone that had that viewpoint.

“Italy is one of Skunk Anansie’s biggest markets. We play to between 16 and 20 thousand when we gig there, so it’s a big country for us and everybody knows me there. I had to learn Italian for it, which was the hardest part of the whole thing!

“Working with the kids and seeing if a song was good or not, that was easy. Speaking in Italian really quickly and trying to be witty and funny on a live show was really difficult. But I got through it.”

Seeing as her work takes her across Europe, we spoke about whether the impending Brexit will have an effect on her own work and the band’s European touring.

“I don’t think it will affect my work in Europe at all actually. We’re still going to tour and do concerts. It might affect how much money we make, or how we do it, but it’s not going to stop us.

If it means that to be a creative, touring artist, I have to move out of England, then so be it.

“No one knows what’s going to happen. And that’s the most ridiculous thing about Brexit. People voted for it, and we’re going to have it based on a bunch of lies.

“Our biggest markets are in Europe. We have to tour Europe so we will find a way.”

Having lived in the South of France and Spain for 12 years, Skin only moved back to the UK in 2015. “I spend a majority of time outside of England anyway. If it means that to be a creative, touring artist, I have to move out of England, then so be it,” she states.

Having released six albums over the past 22 years, Skunk Anansie are back in the studio working on their next release, and Skin reveals how the whole process has change as the music industry evolves.

“We just built out own studio in Cass’s (Skunk’s bass player) back garden because it’s just so expensive to go to a recording studio. We’re recording some new songs, a new style, lots of experimentation. And we can experiment all day and all night without having to pay anyone other than Cass’s electricity bill.”

As well as taking the recording process into their own hands, the band also functions as its own record label.

“We have our own label now. 20 years ago, my job was to write the songs, record the songs, then sing the songs live. We had a 20-person record label that did everything. We had three people just booking flights. We had people who booked venues, someone doing the rider, makeup artists and so on.

“My job now is that I’m one of four directors of Skunk Anansie, which is a brand. And between the four of us, we do everything ourselves. We book studio time, hire a tour manager, we do everything.”

Skin believes that the reason the band is still successful is because it has grown with the changes in the industry and the opportunities technology has presented.

“Kids know that’s the way to do it, but the older bands are the ones that suffer. They’re the ones that are finding it hard to change and move with the times.

If music doesn’t work with technology and be open to fresh ideas and new paths, it will stagnate.

“A kid can make a whole album on their computer. They’re going to work out how to sell and make money from that without having to go to anyone else. That’s what we’re working on, that’s what we want to do.

Despite it being harder to make a living out of music, Skin is positive about the future of the UK music scene.

“The thing about up and coming musicians is that they’re new and they’re fresh and they will find a way. If you want to do something strong enough, you will find a way to do it. The industry that we were raised in is completely different from the way the industry works now.

“In the same way that downloading had a huge affect of music, people didn’t stop making music, they just found new ways to make music and finance it.

“Things change. They have to change. The music industry can’t be the same as it was in the 70s or 80s because technology changes, and if music doesn’t work with technology and be open to fresh ideas and new paths, it will stagnate.”

For more information visit https://skunkanansie.com and https://www.skinmusic.com

Tags: skunk anansie , Interviews , ACM , Skin

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