Heavy Culture is a monthly column from journalist Liz Ramanand, focusing on people of color in heavy music as they offer their perspectives on race, society, politics, and more as it intersects with and affects their music. The latest installment of this column features an interview with Skunk Anansie vocalist Skin.
Deborah Anne Dyer, also known as Skin, formed the band Skunk Anansie just over 25 years ago. Despite an eight-year break in the first decade of the 21st century, the group is still going strong, also featuring longtime members Martin “Ace” Kent (guitar), Richard “Cass” Lewis (bass), and Mark Richardson (drums).
Known for her powerful voice and commanding stage presence, Skin draws inspiration from a wide variety of influences. She and the rest of Skunk Anansie create a powerful mix of punk, jazz, funk, metal, and rock to create a sound that is truly their own.
The British band has a long history beginning with their ’90s albums Paranoid & Sunburnt, Stoosh, and Post Orgasmic Chill before disbanding in 2001. Since reuniting in 2009, Skunk Anansie have delivered the albums Wonderlustre, Black Traffic, and Anarchytecture.
With a new album potentially on the way, the group recently unveiled a new single, “What You Do for Love.” The band also has tour dates in August and September all over the UK, along with some European festival dates.
Heavy Consequence recently caught up with Skin for this month’s “Heavy Culture” column. She spoke openly about the new music, as well as her identity crisis growing up in a Jamaican family in England, the domino effect of Donald Trump’s presidency and Brexit globally, and much more. Read the full interview below:
On her cultural and musical background
Well, essentially I’m Jamaican, both my mother and father are from Jamaica. So I grew up with a very Jamaican, Christian background — my mother was and still is churchwarden. I grew up with reggae, R&B, soul, that kind of thing. Culturally, I think that when you’re used to something and with inquisitive nature, if you’re a bit braver, you tend to look for things that are different.
We had this TV program called Top of the Pops in England; it was a weekly music program with all the latest releases and music that was coming out. Top of the Pops was kind of my periscope into another world into other cultures. When I was growing up, black people and other cultures weren’t really seen as being British.
I think we were the first generation to have that identity crisis of “What are we? Are we British? Are we Jamaican?” — because everything we do is Jamaican, we eat Jamaican food, we do Jamaican things but we’re going to school and living in England and being taught English things. I had that kind of identity crisis of “What Am I? I don’t know what I am.” There’s a lot of things that a lot of my generation were working through.
The first music style I knew was reggae and then I started watching Top of the Pops and I just loved music. I knew I could sing from a very early age. I didn’t want to sing in front of many people because I was too shy but I was aware that I had a voice and could sing at 6 years old. I think Blondie [singer Debbie Harry] was the first person I saw on Top of the Pops where I was like ‘I want to do that!’ I thought Blondie was an interesting and different kind of music. There was a certain blackness to [Debbie Harry]; she was influenced by rap and black culture so there was a bit of a link. I have no idea why it was Blondie because it wasn’t like there were no black people on the show; there was R&B and soul music on Top of the Pops too.
When I was older, you had white guys playing reggae and ska music and you had bands like Madness and The Specials and for me, that was like, ‘Oh that’s reggae but it’s not — it’s something else.’ It was like a new version of reggae so it was familiar but it was like stepping out of the void and in many ways that got me out of my kind of culture. I started DJ-ing and I had the biggest record collection, every week I would buy records. I think it was more interesting doing things that were unfamiliar.
On what her parents thought of her love of heavy music and her career as a musician
I think I didn’t really go for it until I left home, which I did at 18. I went to study and pursue a degree. I guess at around 16, your parents lose that connection in what you’re doing. They didn’t know what I was doing or what I was into. Jamaican parents are very strict — so you know they’re not going to like it and you know they’re not going to agree to it so you just don’t tell them anything. So I hid that I liked rock music and all these local bands and I started having my little record collection at 16. My mom was too busy surviving and working all hours to notice what I was doing.
Jamaican parents, my parents were very much like as long as they’re feeding you and you’re not giving them any trouble then they think they’re doing a great job. My mom would make me delicious food and I was happy about that because that’s how she showed her love. When she was growing up that’s just how it was done. If you got food then you were lucky. My parents weren’t the most loving, they weren’t huggy-feely parents; most of the time they barked at me. My friends’ parents were Jamaican and weren’t like that at all. My dad was away and my mom had the stress of raising the kids. I don’t blame my mom.
The thing between my generation and my mom’s generation is that things just moved too fast. I can identify with my nieces and nephews’ generation; I can understand why they like their music. But I think my mom’s generation and me, that’s when information took hold and I think it just moved too fast for them and it’s just strange. I can understand why it’s difficult for them to understand our generation.
On the relative lack of diversity in heavy genres of music
I think society makes it difficult. If you’re white and you want to sing soul music, people love it; you become very successful. If you’re white and you want to become a rapper, you’ll have a difficult time but you eventually become the biggest rapper in the world. It doesn’t work the other way around. When I first started in rock music, I was told I wasn’t doing the music of my people.
There is still a culture around the band, even now, that it’s not proper rock music. I think the [music] industry likes having people do the “black thing” because it’s containable but then they don’t like it when we do what is perceived as theirs. I had a journalist recently ask me, “Was it difficult being a black woman making white people’s music?” I was just kind of like well, “What do you consider to be white people’s music?” Rock music came from blues, electronic music came from disco. I was just like, “Wow, they really think it’s theirs.” It’s like we didn’t have an influence on it.
In England, we have very few black bands who are successful — there’s not that many, you can count them. But then you think of white people that do black music — rappers and soul artists — and there are hundreds. It’s not because black people don’t want to do that, it’s just that it’s very difficult for them to do.
On the latest single “What You Do for Love”
It has a political undertone. What it’s about — the basis of fascism is because people love their people, an extreme religious context is people’s love of God. To me, I don’t understand, you say you do this for love but you’re doing the most heinous things for people. Because of your religion, you’re throwing people off the top of buildings and you want to wipe out an entire race of people because they’re not the right color because you love your people. It’s a political song but it’s just a title that came into my head.
On how she views America under Trump as a British black gay woman
Do you know what’s really sad? The saddest thing about it is the Trumpian effect on the whole world. I must feel like people look at England and Brexit like, ‘What the hell happened to England?’ England represented diversity, forward-thinking politics, one of the first to agree to gay marriage and laws against racism and fascism in our country. All of a sudden Trump fired up every right-wing in every country, so now Brazil has problems, Holland, France, and Germany has problems. So I kind of look around the world and think wow it’s incredible how energized and how Trump becoming president has sparked the extreme right-wing in every country.
I don’t think America looks weird; I think it looks very familiar. The thing about it for me, what I find that’s really disturbing is the polarization of it and the segregation of people’s viewpoints. We have left-wing and right-wing but being a right-wing person does not mean you’re a fascist or a racist, it could be that you’re a bit more conservative and it doesn’t mean you’re wrong, it’s just a different viewpoint.
Now we kind of have this thing where left and right [wing perspective] is becoming right and wrong. I think that’s really worrying because left-wing and right-wing people can still have very similar or different views — we got gay marriage from a right-wing [conservative] government [in England].
I think Trump has really separated it — all of a sudden if you have a certain political view; if you’re left-wing and liberal or far-left and its kind of like, what are you f**king talking about? There is no left wing people who want to kill or hurt all right-wing people. The mirror doesn’t work that way – the far-right wants blacks killed and gays killed, they just don’t want us to f**king exist.
It’s really disturbing when we see countries like England, my country, having people making those extreme views and normalizing them. I don’t look at America as crazy; I look at America as a shining example of having some of the most fascist people on the planet.
On Donald Trump and his base of supporters
I think the way the left-wing felt with how they view Trump– he’s too powerful to be classified as crazy and dumb. He has too much power and he can do too much damage. When you’re an American president and you can have wars with various countries with one wrong move you have to take it very seriously. I think the president behaves like a spoiled child but he’s not the one that has all the power. The right-wing doesn’t even like him, they put him in that position because they’re underneath him. The clever right-wing people are the ones doing the damage.
Trump just says a bunch of dumb shit — he doesn’t really work, he’s like eating burgers and watching Fox News all day. The people who are underneath him and controlling are the ones who are creating these laws coming into place.
I saw something on the phrasing and words of “Trans people” being taken off of government websites. They’re erasing them like they don’t exist and that’s 1.6 million people. All of these little things are happening. They’re not concerned with the latest thing Trump is doing or saying they’re doing some really bad shit that’s going to have consequences for decades to come. That scares me more.
You know when we had Brexit, all of the racists came out of the woodwork. In the last two or three years, we have higher incidents of racial abuse and violence than we have had in decades. The people behind Brexit were people who don’t want immigration.
What people forget is Brexit was about immigration, it wasn’t about all these other issues. It was about not letting people of color into the country. They don’t really mind so much white people coming into England; the same way Trump can talk about immigration and sending people back but his wife is an immigrant.
It’s OK for beautiful white people to come into the country but they don’t want Mexicans and people from black countries. That’s what Brexit was voted on because nobody really understood what it was like to leave the European Union. I agree that there were lots of things that needed to change but you change things, you don’t just leave. I think the way it was handled, with the conservative government, we shouldn’t have had a referendum anyway.
Future investment holdings coming into England have been frozen and it’s going affect us and our GDP for a very long time. Our economy is doing very badly, we’re in a very difficult situation and nobody wants to talk about it.
Our thanks to Skin for taking the time to speak to us for this month’s “Heavy Culture” column. Download or stream Skunk Anansie’s new single, “What You Do for Love”, at this location, and see their upcoming tour dates here.