"I know people say it all the time, but you've got to make huge fucking mistakes or you just won't learn." It's a hot summer afternoon, and I’m thankful for the respite I've found in the air-conditioned lobby of the downtown Manhattan hotel where I'm interviewing (and getting valuable life advice from) Skin, lead singer of the British rock band Skunk Anansie.
Even in an oversized black tee, loose fitting knit pants, and sans makeup, the 49-year-old—who doesn’t look a day over 35—could easily be mistaken for a model. Talk to her for only a few minutes, though, and you’ll realize that her fronting a genre-defying, boundary-breaking, nonconforming band with hits such as “Yes It’s Fucking Political” and (the anti-Nazi song) “Little Baby Swastikkka” makes perfect sense.
Born Deborah Anne Dyer in London, Skin was raised in a strict Christian household by tough Jamaican parents. Her grandfather, who ran London’s most popular shebeen (what, in the U.S., we would call a speakeasy), used his business to cultivate an environment which introduced Skin to her first musical influences. “When I was little, people like Cassius Clay before he was Muhammad Ali used to go to my granddad’s club. So did Bob Marley. So did Peter Tosh,” she recalls.
Shebeens differed from bars or nightclubs in that they provided refuge to black people who were often excluded from public spaces due to discrimination and flat-out racism. “When [people like Ali and Bob Marley] would come to London, the clubs that black people could go to were nonexistent,” Skin explains. “They could be on stage dancing, playing the music, but they weren’t admitted onto the dance floor.” In that sense, her grandfather’s shebeen offered more than entertainment—its mere existence, working against oppressive social structures, was a radical act. “And that’s the environment I grew up in.”
Perhaps this is why, when I ask her simply, “what do you do?” she makes a point to say, “I’m a little bit of an activist,” before rattling off a list which includes singer, writer, and techno DJ.
Before entering the music industry, though, Skin was an interior architect, a career she enjoyed thanks to a now-defunct free education program. “If you’re from a poor background and you want to do better than your parents, the only thing you have is education.” The UK has slowly taken that away, though—“Americanized it,” as Skin laments. Now, “society and culture is just missing out so much on people that are from very lowly backgrounds—like myself, with no money—all the things that we can contribute. We can contribute a lot,” she says, as if she’s pleading with an invisible force.
She liked the design work, but ultimately knew it wasn’t what she would do forever. “I always wanted to do something with my life that I enjoyed doing all the time.” Turns out that thing was singing.
“I remember wanting to be a singer when Blondie came on [music TV show] Top of the Pops—she had on this black and white striped dress, and I just remember thinking that is cool as fuck.” Skin didn’t actually try singing until she was about ten, despite the fact that she says she “always knew” she could. “It wasn’t even a question.” I smile at Skin’s endearing bravado, the perfect complement to her surprisingly soft-spoken voice.
While the Blondie moment was pivotal, Skin points out that her first love was reggae. “Being of Jamaican heritage, Bob Marley is my Elvis. He’s my first musical hero.”
Later, in her teenage years, she discovered ska. “There were all these kind of Blue Beat boys, these white boys, who were playing ska in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and that was very familiar to me, but it was also different.” Skin was attracted to that sound of altered familiarity, and it was through these ska boys—“these white, skinny boys, playing black music”—that she actually discovered guitars. “Once I discovered the guitar, I just sort of went headfirst into it.”
Her early musical days were spent songwriting with a partner. “We wrote songs for like, three years, nonstop, every single day—that was our 10,000 hours.” She formed a band—a precursor to Skunk Anansie—but it didn’t work out. “All of the mistakes that I’ve made happened in that band.” They got all fundamentals wrong that first time around. “[We] got the songs wrong, got the sound wrong, got the look wrong, got everything wrong,” she says. “By the end of two years of being in that band, I really knew what I was doing.”
Eventually she started over, retaining only her original bass player, Richard “Cass” Lewis, and the Skunk Anansie we know today was born.
Skin tells me that back then their sound was inspired by “the blues-y, riff-tastic, noisy American bands” of the time, and what she calls the “Brendan O’Brien sound” particular to a lot of American grunge music. She launches into the chorus of Stone Temple Pilots’ “Dead and Bloated” to give me an idea of what she means.
Ultimately, Skunk Anansie developed a sound wholly their own—which some might consider “clitpop.”
Skin launches into the term’s origin story: “I was doing an interview, and [the reporter] said to me, in a sort of sarcastic way, ‘How do you feel about the fact that you’re not really part of the scene?’” In the mid-’90s, Britain’s mainstream, popular music scene—Britpop—was massive. According to Skin, if you weren’t part of it, you were a real outsider. “That meant that you weren’t getting TV shows, you weren’t getting playlists, you weren’t getting any of that goodness that those [more mainstream] bands were getting,” she recalls. “So I said, ya know, fuck that, we’re not part of the scene, we’re not Britpop—we’re clitpop!”
Skin says that the band (who reunited in 2008 after an eight-year pause) is actually more Skunk Anansie now than they were then. “We’re grown-ups now,” she tells me.
I ask her about their name, part of which reminds me of a character from African diasporic folklore; turns out the Anansi of my childhood is the Anansi of Skin’s, too. Inspired by an influential figure in Jamaican culture and host of a popular children’s TV program, Louise Bennett-Coverley (Miss Lou), Skin borrowed “Anansie” from the stories she heard Miss Lou tell about the character. “When we went to put the band together, I wanted [the name] to mean something—I wanted a bit of heritage in there. I wanted it to be important to me. Everything that we do, I want it to mean something, to have substance.”
And “Skunk?” Skin tells me that was Cass’ contribution. “Skunk is the animal that nobody will go near, but it’s not aggressive, and so it’s sort of clever.”
Being called “Skin” also has ties to her Caribbean roots. “My name was actually Skinny, and that was because when I was [very young], I was incredibly skinny,” she tells me. “In Jamaican terms, that was not good.”
“Skinny” began as a sort of tease, but eventually turned into a permanent moniker—one that she’s had “from childhood upwards.”
“When I got into a band they just shortened it to Skin, because in England everyone shortens everyone’s names,” she says. “It just stuck.”
Another thing that has stuck is Skin’s signature shaven-head look, which she first tried out when she was 22. “I was suddenly good-looking!” she laughs, recalling her initial reaction. She did it because she didn’t want to deal with all the “fussing around” associated with haircare, and black haircare in particular. “I started wearing head scarves, and that was the beginning of like, the afropunk kind of thing.” Then one day, while a friend trimmed his beard, Skin asked him for a haircut. “It took me two hours to persuade him to do it.” He finally gave her a low fade, but wouldn’t do any more than that, “because it was really a radical thing in those days—the early ‘90s.”
She went to a barber the next day and had them shave the rest. “That was a horrible experience because it was the same argument: ‘Why you want to cut off your hair?’” Eventually she learned how to do it herself so that she wouldn’t have to “take shit” every time she wanted a haircut. “The minute I shaved it off and looked in the mirror, I was like, ‘There you are.’”
She admits that she did go through a bit of an identity crisis when she was younger, because she always saw herself as Jamaican, but when she went to Jamaica, she felt like the odd one out. “They were speaking patois, and I didn’t understand it.” And things weren’t much better back home in England. She describes the cultural confusion of her generation: “Are we British? Are we black? Are we English? What are we?”
Eventually, she began to feel English, and tells me that, now, America is probably the only place where she feels “really black.” Careful to point out that England isn’t without racism of its own, she says, “in America, I can feel that people see I'm black first. And then I open my mouth, and they’re like, ‘Oh, but you’re English, so you’re not one of our blacks that we can behave badly to.’ It’s just rough here, man, it’s just rough. You really feel your race in this country. You really feel your race in a way I don't feel it in England.”
I ask her what she thinks of American politics as I try and digest what she’s said. “It’s really depressing,” she replies in a very serious tone before taking a vehement stance on Donald Trump. “You have to stop him. He has to be stopped. You cannot let this man be your next president.” This is unsurprising, considering that Skin has always been outspoken; awareness of her own intersectionality has informed her work since the beginning.
“I’m a female, I’m also black. I’m also gay, bisexual, I have fluid sexuality. I’m also from a very poor background—those four things really created my character and my identity,” she tells me. “And because of all of those things, because I’ve had knives thrown at me from all directions because of one thing or another, I have very open eyes,” she says, staring at me wisely, at once encouraging and challenging.
Emma Bracy is a person who writes things and listens to rap music while doing crossword puzzles. Follow her on Twitter @emmabracy.