Skin from Skunk Anansie

Interview: Skin

‘Black people can do anything. We really can do everything, anything that we want, and it is about finding your way and finding the journeys. That is not always straightforward.’

michelle escoffery
  • By Michelle Escoffery
  • 29 Oct 2020
  • min read

Deborah Anne Dyer, known by most as Skin, rose to prominence as the lead singer of Skunk Anansie. The first Black British woman to headline Glastonbury, Skin is the definition of the word trailblazer and has been shattering stereotypes since the early nineties.  

Following the release of her new book It Takes Blood and Guts, Guest Editor and fellow songwriter Michelle Escoffery spoke to Skin about her love of the London borough she grew up in, how her songwriting has developed, how authenticity is the key to success, Black Lives Matter and more.  

'When I stopped trying to be accepted by other people and I stopped trying to look like the typical rock star and look like the typical lead singer of a band, that’s when success really came.'

Michelle: I’ve started reading your book, and I was immediately taken by your love of Brixton. How do you feel about it now?  

Skin: I got a lot of my attitude, common sense and my peripheral vision from Brixton. I get my empathy and love of diversity from there. Back in the day, they called it multicultural. Now, they call it diverse.  

I’ve taken everything from growing up in Brixton, good and bad. Somebody said to me, ‘Why are you always political?’ And I was like, ‘Because I was brought up in Brixton. ‘How can you be in Brixton with your eyes open and not see what was happening in front of you?’

It has always had this bedrock of Black Windrush Jamaican culture. And everything rests upon that. Now, you see many English people coming to live in Brixton because they get beautiful residential housing and that they can afford. Back in the day, nobody wanted to live in those houses. They were all owned by Black people, the Windrush generation, like my mum. I don’t have a lot of trouble with people coming to live in Brixton. Every part of London needs change, needs to develop, needs fresh blood. But what I find is is that the new people who are coming are chipping away at the bedrock.  

They want to build their own bedrock on top of ours and they don’t value what was made by the Windrush generation, which is what made Brixton great. That foundation of Black people that have been there for five decades. When the riots came and mashed up everything, it was Black people that rebuilt Brixton.  

I feel very sad about it. I think that without that bedrock, Brixton is going to lose its coolness, its community. All the wonderful, lovely, luscious things that make Brixton gorgeous are all going to be gone and it’s just going to become another dried gentrified part of London.  

Michelle: When I look at certain women within the music industry, I think about their authenticity and you’re one of those females that fall into the authentic category for me. I feel like you’re comfortable in your skin, you know who you are and you’re not scared to show that. Is authenticity something that’s been a conscious choice for you?  

Skin: Growing up in England, there seems to be two ways that you can be. There’s the way that this country wants you to be, so that they can find you palatable. Or there’s the way that you truly are. I think that finding yourself and finding who you truly are, within this country, which is trying to tell you and dictate to you who you are, is a very hard long struggle.  

Being the lead singer of a rock band was a difficult thing to retain and I didn’t grow up within rock music. I had to leave Brixton and go and find the people and find that community and find my place and demand my place and forge my place within that community.  

In terms of authenticity, it took me a long time to get to that. I think once I found it, I just stayed within that consciousness.  

First you have the identity of being a Black British person in an English country. You’re supposed to like this. You’re supposed to like that. You’re supposed to behave like this and have this kind of accent or whatever.  

Then it’s, ‘Well, I’m still Black when I’m doing all these things. I’m just not the Black that you want me to be. I’m my Black.’. It’s taken me all this time to get here, so I’m going to stay authentic and keep to that.  

When I stopped trying to be accepted by other people and I stopped trying to look like the typical rock star and look like the typical lead singer of a band, that’s when success really came. That’s when Skunk Anansie just went bam.  

Because that’s me and that’s where I’m most comfortable. That’s where I’m the most inspired. I think authenticity is something that we all look for in other artists that we like. This idea of, for instance, pretending to be the straight hot Black girl. That was never me. You know, I was into just dressing the way I wanted to dress. I think that our audience saw that and that’s what they appreciate.  

You can’t fake authenticity. People can see it a mile away. It’s the root of my success. That’s why I’m always like this.  

'My songwriting is a reflection of the fact that I’m older. I’ve won love. I’ve lost love. I’ve won political things. I’ve lost political things.'

Do you find songwriting to be cathartic?  

Skin: I think in the first kind of 10 years, it was definitely very cathartic, because I felt like I had to get so much stuff out. I was so driven to get to a place where I could just do music full time.  

I think in the first half of your life, you’re just driven. In the second half of your life, career, you use all those lessons and you get a different kind of maturity.  

I think my songwriting in those early days was just bleurgh. Now, I’m a grown-up, responsible, more educated, more mature person. I think about every word much more.  

I’m also writing with the band. It’s cathartic, but then it’s also much more. Now, I play guitar with much more feel and beauty and love. It’s more measured. There’s more subtlety. There are more layers to it. I feel the same about my voice, you know, I’m much more aware of what my voice can and can’t do.  

My songwriting is a reflection of the fact that I’m older. I’ve won love. I’ve lost love. I’ve won political things. I’ve lost political things. I think a lot more now, in terms of my songwriting, because of all of those things, because of all those layers that my personality now has, I write in a different way.  

Michelle: When you write with the band, do you come with an idea first or do you guys write from scratch?  

Skin: Both. I’m always putting ideas into my phone. I like to sing the ideas. Well, now I realise how important melody is. I try and write the melody and the lyrics at the same time. Do you know how many songs I have got that are just brilliant but there are no words to them? They have got chords and they have got melodies, but I never came up with a great lyric.  

When I am with the band, we come up with ideas. I will have some words that I don’t have melodies to and I will want to, there and then, work out something good with the band.  

We all write everything together. We all get involved in everything. But the song can be literally inspired from anywhere. But the root of it is, lyrics and melody first, because then you have got the beginnings of a song. Because you know what it is like, you know, once you have got the lyrics and the melodies, you can do a million different grooves, a million different guitars. But if you don’t have those things, everyone is basically just jamming, and I hate jamming. It is the one thing I will not do.  

But when they just want to jam. I am like, ‘Okay. You go and do that,’ because I can’t participate in that. I am not a good enough jazz singer; I was never good at scatting. I was never good at it.  

Michelle: Two things I love about your voice. One, the style of writing that I love is, conversational. But also, you can literally see the emotion. It is palpable. You don’t have to imagine it. It is right there.  

Skin: When I work with young musicians on some of the masterclasses that I’ve done, I have always said to them, ‘What do you think is the difference between me writing a song and you writing a song?’ And they all stare at me. I say, ‘You know, the difference is me writing it. And the quality of the songwriting comes from how good you can translate what you are thinking and feeling to someone else.’  

My example I always give is, you know, I can say, I had an argument with my mother yesterday, let’s say. Actually, this is a true story. My mum was unhappy about something and I was looking at her face. She was pissed off about something. And I was looking at her and I had a thing that came into my head about it.  

How am I going to translate how that argument felt? Like I said, my mother wasn’t happy. But what came into my head was, my mother had no laughter lines. I was looking at her face and I was saying, ‘Where are your laughter lines? Why don’t you smile more?’  

From that one thing, you've got a song. It’s that translation of what you can say and feel, and that’s what I always say to my kids. 

Michelle: Did you have vocal training or did you just happen upon that particular style of singing and decide to develop it?  

Skin: A combination of both. I am a soprano. I can sing very high and it is easy. But I don’t have a low voice, at all. When I had training, the first thing I did when I signed my first record deal in 1994 was, I found a trainer, a tutor, and I had training on how to keep my voice because I don’t think you can train someone how to sing. You can either sing or you can’t sing.  

The way my physique and my body is, that is how my voice is. That is what defines my voice, just me and my body. I just used to sing all the time. I still do. I just sing, sing, sing.  

Before I was in the band, I would sing when I was doing the washing up, when I was in the bath, when I was walking down the street. I was just always singing. 

Now, I can’t do that because I am too well known, and people think, ‘Oh, there is Skin showing off.’  

'White male journalists would just start the interviews with, ‘Female, Amazonian, 6’4, aggressive, Black, lesbian, singer of Skunk Anansie.’ It’s that stereotype of Black women.'

Michelle: How have you navigated being in the public eye like that?  

Skin: I used to get very frustrated because a lot of the interviewers are old white men, and I know that I make them feel uncomfortable because I am unusual and society hasn’t taught them how to deal with somebody like me. I know that I made them feel vulnerable and I made them feel weird. And the way that they would react is just to say that I wasn’t very good and that the band wasn’t very good.  

A lot of white male journalists would just start the interviews with, ‘Female, Amazonian, 6’4, aggressive, Black, lesbian, singer of Skunk Anansie.’ It’s that stereotype of Black women, you know, you are Black and you are sexual, or you are Black and you are angry and aggressive.  

I just realised, the way that I used to deal with it, and I have said this a few times, was just that it is not my problem. It took me a long time to get to that position of strength, and feeling happy in myself, and shaving my hair, and feeling confident when I looked in the mirror.  

When I felt that people were feeling uncomfortable with that, I used to say to myself, ‘Well, it is not me making them feel anything. It is them not dealing with their issues.’ I always like to keep my shoulders clear and not have that weigh me down. And it is a naive approach, but it really worked.  

I know who I am. And I am not aggressive to people in the street. I am not rude. I am certainly not 6’4”. I am 5’8”. And I am not going to be insecure and worry about all of those things.  

Michelle: What is your take on what’s happening in the music industry following the murder of George Floyd and Black Out Tuesday?

Skin: I think that ‘Black Lives Matter’ was the best thing that could have ever happened. I think it happened because enough was enough.  

I have seen the rise of right-wing politics in England when Brexit happened. The next day, those kinds of racist white people felt empowered. There was a change. Every Black person I know said, ‘Yes, there was a change in the air after Brexit.’  

But I think Black Lives Matter has pushed those people and that viewpoint out the window because I have been able to talk about being Black, and female, and gay, in a way, because of that movement, that I have not been able to talk about in my whole career.  

Michelle: Wow.  

Skin: So, for me, I think it has been a positive thing. Of course, when anything gets to that point, there are tangents of it that I think could be detrimental to us.  

I think that it is important to remember that we know who is an ally and who is not an ally. We know who is racist and who is not racist. I think that there is that, especially in America, there is a portion of people that have run away with being the social justice advocate, who are actively looking for things that they think are racist, to try and bring people down. That actually is bad for us. That doesn’t help our cause. That is not what we as Black people want.  

We want more people to see how we feel, and more people on our side. We don’t want to destroy and condemn people and ruin careers over one comment that they made 10 years ago, or because they wore a fucking Jamaican bikini, you know. Other people in the world telling us, as Black British people, how we should feel about that. We weren’t offended. We know our Adele. We know who Adele is. Adele is not a racist person.  

It’s the tearing people down and making them feel like they can’t help us, or be on our side, because they are so terrified of what to say and what to do, so they say nothing.  

That’s the negative side of it. But I think overwhelmingly, it is a very positive movement. I have seen it change just in the way people have talked about me and my career and my band. I have seen a change in that people have seen which parts of it were down to racism. People used to say, ‘Yes, the band is good, I just don’t like her voice.’ If you compare Skunk Anansie’s playlists and radio play at the time to the amount of record sales that we were having to bands that were successful, the same amount of record sales. It is chalk and cheese. It’s like Viola Davis being compared as an actress to Julia Roberts. It is chalk and cheese. That is one of the ways that we don’t have the same levels. Economically and financially.  

'I don't think my book would have been received in the same way if it came out this time last year. I feel that people are openly looking, and open to hearing Black stories, and that is because of Black Lives Matter.'

Michelle: How do you see that changing?  

Skin: I feel that the book was perfect timing. People have taken this book and my story seriously.  

I wrote it with Lucy O'Brien because we wanted to have a different perspective on what was happening in the ‘90s because the only story that we were hearing was about white people in Britpop bands.  

I would say that Goldie has been way more influential in every music scene that has followed. The world’s biggest music scenes and music genres has been influenced by jungle, and whatever, from dubstep, to two-step, to grime, to drill, you know, to normal pop music. Justin Bieber. You know, it is is all from Black music.  

I don't think my book would have been received in the same way if it came out this time last year. I feel that people are openly looking, and open to hearing Black stories, and that is because of Black Lives Matter and the whole discussion around that.  

I feel that is the same with a lot of Black British artists, that we were doing this stuff 20 years ago in the ‘90s. It’s only now people are appreciating those stories, and appreciating our involvement, and appreciating our contribution.  

Michelle: What is next for you?  

Skin: I think, like most people, I am reassessing and realigning myself with the new world. As a musician and DJ, and even the TV I do, a lot of that can’t be done right now. But creatives are ideas people. Me and my other half been coming up with new ideas and different ways to do the things that we do and earn a living from it. I’ve also got a radio show on Absolute Radio, which I am really, really loving.  

Michelle: What do you want people to take from your book?  

Skin: That Black people can do anything. We really can do everything, anything that we want, and it is about finding your way and finding the journeys. That is not always straightforward.  

I want people to realise that some of the negative things that have happened in my life, I have turned them into positives. I know that is a bit of a cliché, but you can learn a lot from a negative lesson.  

I want people to take away that whatever you do, have some morals, have some integrity, have authenticity. Stick to who you are and what you want to do because that invariably will be the most successful part.