Music

Skunk Anansie’s Skin: ‘Rage Against the Machine gave me permission to be political’

Skunk Anansie have broken boundaries and expanded the definition of UK rock. Frontwoman Skin explains her musical and political influences.

Skin from Skunk Anansie

Skunk Anansie's Skin grew up in a house full of reggae - and celebrities. Photo: Tom Barnes

Fronting Skunk Anansie, Skin was the first Black artist to headline Glastonbury back in 1999. It was the culmination of a decade that saw the band break boundaries and expand the definition of UK rock.

Recently, Skin made a more surprising appearance on the eye-popping Saturday night entertainment show The Masked Singer, where she performed inside a giant yellow duck costume. Donning the unwieldy disguise, she sang songs by Bon Jovi, Celine Dion and Stormzy. However, her distinctive voice saw fans guess her identity before the big reveal.

For more than a quarter of a century Skin has been an icon of British rock, and remains a force of nature on the band’s recent howl of a single, Piggy, as well as last week’s atmospheric release, Can’t Take You Anywhere. Before Skunk Anansie head out on a huge European tour, she joined us The Music That Made Me to talk about her musical and political roots… from Top of the Pops to the Brixton riots.

Skunk Anansie’s Skin: The Music That Made Me

The reggae club in Skin’s grandad’s Brixton basement

The first music that comes to me is my childhood music, which was reggae. I was raised in a reggae household and it consisted of reggae, reggae and then reggae because my granddad had a nightclub. So my earliest memories are sitting on the steps, watching everybody dancing to ska.

My granddad’s nightclub was on the main road that goes into Brixton and in those big, tall houses, they have like five or six floors. I mean now they’d be like £10 million each. The basement floor had a separate entrance, so there was a door that locked them [the club] away from the rest of the house.

In those early days, Jamaicans, these Black guys weren’t allowed to go into normal nightclubs. You know, like five Black guys want to go to a normal nightclub, they just not getting in. And they wouldn’t have wanted to either – it wasn’t their scene.

And so they just created their own nightclubs and shebeens. They’d sell alcohol and have DJs playing. My granddad had probably one of the most famous ones. There’s a picture of Cassius Clay, before he became Mohammed Ali, coming in through the door. Bob Marley came, Peter Tosh came, and Norman Manley came who was president of Jamaica at the time. It was quite a celeb-fest.

I just remember everything was this kind of etched glass and white tablecloths and really beautifully done, very dark and minimal lighting, a lot of cigarette smoke.

You know, I still love reggae, lovers rock, dub to this day.

Cassius Clay poses for the camera on May 17, 1962 in Long Island, New York. He was among the people to visit Skin's grandad's shebeen. Photo: Stanley Weston/Getty Images
Cassius Clay poses for the camera on May 17, 1962 in Long Island, New York. He was among the people to visit Skin’s grandad’s shebeen. Photo: Stanley Weston/Getty Images

Religiously watching Top of the Pops

So, in terms of my earliest memory, it’s like ska and reggae, which I kind of then ran away from and tried to find things I liked. That led me to indie music and rock’n’roll.

I used to watch Top of the Pops religiously. I was one of those kids that would sit like one metre away from the TV. I just remember when televisions went from black and white to colour. That’s how old I am!

Top of the Pops was my secret invisible friend. I used to watch Top of the Pops every single Thursday at 7. I never missed it, my whole childhood and teenage years.

That’s where I saw another world. That was my Alice in Wonderland, down the rabbit hole moment. I thought, wow, what are these people? Boy George, is that girl or boy? And what is David Bowie wearing? I realised there was another world of music out there that I just wasn’t seeing in my local community.

Rage Against the Machine gives permission to be political

In terms of the modern sound of Skunk Anansie, [the important thing] was the first time I heard Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name. I was like, that’s the kind of sound that I want to do!

My friend had an early copy of the single on white label. The first time he played it in the club and the crowd just exploded. I remember that light bulb moment: this feels like the music that I love. That I want to make. Because also it had politics in it and all the stuff I was writing was political.

I’m a black girl from Brixton. We went through two riots. During the whole of the Thatcher years, all of the inner city, South London – all the places that didn’t vote for Thatcher, basically – were just left to rot. At the same time, we were completely brutalised by the police. So, you know, people will say to me, ‘Why do you have politics in your music?’ Well, because I grew up in Brixton in the eighties. That little Brixton girl is always with me and that’s where a lot of the songs came from.

Rage Against the Machine gave me permission. I was like, well, if they can be successful writing songs about their experience and politics, then so can we.

Nirvana blows up hair metal

I remember Smells Like Teen Spirit just because it obliterated everything that was happening at the time. I mean, it was the end of cock rock and spandex and big hair, which had become so overblown and ridiculous.

You know, in England, we had an amazing metal scene. Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Black Sabbath. All this really cool, dressed in black, British sounding metal music, which was amazing.

And in America, you have this, you know, Guns N Roses and all the kind of spandex and their hair and the really exaggerated, incredibly camp music scene.

And then Nirvana came along with that record. In two weeks, all of that American hairspray stuff looked awful. It just looked so dated. I remember we were all like, yeah, this is our sound, this is our thing now. Because that was us. We were already in the army clothes. All of our clothes were from second hand shops in Camden and in Soho.

So that was another watershed moment for us as a band.

The Specials’ theme tune to change

I remember being 15 and I was really into the anti-apartheid groups, so I joined lots of demonstrations. And a couple of years later, I was living in a housing co-op when I was like 17. Half of [the residents] were Namibians who had been exiled because they had a pro-apartheid government, and then black British [people] and one white guy.

That was just a hotbed of political activity. There was always a big pot in the fire and someone was always cooking chicken wings or meat or something like that, because there was always a meeting. We were always making banners in the basement and going on demonstrations.

Free Nelson Mandela was a song that really summed up the feeling of a generation. And I think that’s what political song can do sometimes. It’s not like that song changes anything. But that song can be the theme tune to change.

Skunk Anansie kicks off their UK and European tour on March 25 at the O2 Academy Brixton. Find out more at skunkanansie.com

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