Two decades ago, I flew to London in search of Skin, the striking lead singer of alt-rock band Skunk Anansie, for an Elle magazine feature titled “Dykes with Mikes.” At the time —October of 1995, to be exact— they struck me as Britain’s most promising new import with their major-label debut album, Paranoid & Sunburnt, a single with Björk, and a showcase in Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller, Strange Days. “A lot of people find me scary,” Skin said back then. “But what they really find scary is that an aggressive black lesbian is fronting a band. I say, it’s about fucking time.” Bigelow agreed: “Skunk Anansie will blow people away,” she told me at the time. “They represent a brave new world.”
Perhaps the world wasn’t ready. The millennium came, but the band never achieved superstar status. However, they've managed to sell over five million albums while surviving most of that era’s Britpop bands such as Oasis, Pulp, and The Verve. And this month, Skin and her band continue to rock on with a world tour in support of their sixth studio album, Anarchytecture, including a long-overdue American date at the Afropunk festival in Brooklyn.
21 years down the road, Skin has softened neither her look nor her sound, and her wit —not to mention her tongue— is as sharp as ever. Here, she dishes on everything from ageism, post-Brexit racism, and why Caitlyn Jenner is "soul-destroying".
Out: Your new single is titled “Without You,” and to me, it sounds like the perfect Brexit theme song.
Skin: It’s really just about all the complexities of breaking up with someone —and breaking up a friendship as well. The idea that one minute you hate them, the next minute you can’t live without them.
You’re in the middle of a world tour and in Italy at the moment. What is it like to be a UK artist performing in Europe post-Brexit?
Ugh, Brexit. That’s one of the biggest disasters in British modern history. During the Bush era, Americans had such a bad rep when they came to European countries and England. Because it was like: “You guys voted for Bush!” I feel that now the English are the bastards of Europe... It’s really quite scary what happened. These guys ran a campaign like Donald Trump —a negative campaign about fear— and it bloody worked. It’s fucked up the country.
Caitlyn Jenner seems to think that Donald Trump will be good for the LGBT community and women in America.
How? Just look at the history of the Republican history and LGBT rights: Pro-life, anti-gay. It’s anti anything that has to do with the freedom of our community. The thing about Caitlyn Jenner is that she lives in an upper-class, wealthy world. My [trans] friends who have had the operation? It took them about 20 years to get the money together. Caitlyn Jenner may change on the outside, but she is still a rich, white, right-wing Republican. Transexual people can be from all walks of life, but she should support all those people who are not going to have it so easy. Instead, she does the complete opposite, which is standing on the side of Republican people who are using her. It’s really soul-destroying to hear her promote Donald Trump.
But on the bright side, we can all look forward to you performing at the Afropunk festival in Brooklyn later this month. What does the word “Afropunk” mean to you?
Personally, what it means to me is basically celebrating artists of color who are outside the box. And that’s what I have been doing my whole career by fronting a proper, full-on rock band. That’s what I love about it. If you’re a white person and you rap, everyone goes: My God! That person is absolutely fucking amazing! Do you see him? He’s rapping like a black person! And if you do R&B, everyone goes: Wow, he’s got such a soulful voice!
Like Sam Smith, for example?
Exactly! There are a million black people who can do that shit. Oh, I can’t bear it. He’s really over-the-top in the way he sings. Why does he sound like he’s about to cry in every song? When you have black people doing something that's perceived to be what white people do —like rock music— you don’t get the same positivity. This idea that you’re black, so you should be doing this, not that. No, I should be doing what the fuck I want to fucking do. I love the idea of Afropunk is because it incorporates everything. Black music doesn’t have to be hip-hop or R'n'B; it doesn’t have to be within the box.
What has changed about the atmosphere in England after Brexit?
People think it’s ok to be openly racist now. The day after Brexit, I put a comment on my Facebook page —as a joke— and I said: I think I'm going to start calling myself Jamaican now that the British are the idiots of Europe. I got more shares —and more people telling me: 'Well, go fuck off back to your own country then.' I also had vintage, old-school racism. Comments like 'gorilla' that I haven’t heard since I watched some old film from the 1930s. Something has really changed within Britain. We're no longer the most open, forward-thinking society. England is like a headless chicken running around the farm.
How are discussions of intersectionality —the theory of how various types of discrimination interact— in the UK different from in the US?
If you look at me —someone who is gay, black, and female— I’ve had that my whole life. People will routinely say to me: 'So which is worse? Being black, female or gay?' And I say, Hold on. Let me separate myself into those three different things and ask each of them. They are actually connected. Before Brexit, it was frowned upon to be openly racist and homophobic. But absolutely no problem at all to be incredibly sexist. In England, we’re like: 'Racism is terrible. Homophobia is terrible. But sexism? Well, you know.' We are a bit wishy-washy.
You have been in the public eye for over 20 years, but what do you want your look to convey in 2016?
As an artist, I never wanted to be the girl next door. I come from the David Bowie school of rock performers. It’s art. When you walk on stage, if you want to be something different, then you can play around with your personality. In my early career, I did the rock look and tried to look like everybody else, but I was still perceived as a freak. And then I thought: You know what? That’s a good thing. Because there's only one me. There are lots of black women who shave their heads —that’s not a big deal— but I am seriously into fashion and really over-the-top on stage. I love individuality.
At 48, you’ve been chosen as the face of Sisley’s spring/summer 2016 campaign. Do you feel sexier than ever as you approach 50?
Absolutely. People are still shocked when they find out my age, and I love that. I’m like: Yep, that’s me! I’ve earned it, and I'm really happy about it. Ageism is much tougher on women than it is for men. It’s the old Madonna story. People only talk about her age. She is way fitter than most 20-year-olds. If you look great, then why worry about it? But as a society we have a nasty, unhealthy obsession with very young girls. And it’s really fucking creepy. This is why it’s much harder for women to grow old gracefully —because we’re always being compared to teenage girls who haven’t developed yet.
You famously coined the term “clit-rock.” What does that mean as someone who identifies as a queer, feminist artist?
It was at the time Skunk Anansie started and the Brit Rock thing was going on. We were not part of that; we were outsiders because our sound was inspired by American bands rather than the Stones or the Beatles. We were more like Rage Against the Machine, and we became ostracized. At the time, someone asked me what it’s like to not be a part of that cool scene and I said: We’re not fucking Brit Rock, we’re Clit Rock. I was just being a bit dirty and provocative, like: We’re making up our own fucking scene. And then it became a thing. But the point is that we’re not part of any scene, and don’t try to be part of something. There is no clit-rock scene —I just made it up.
You’ve had a number of high-profile gigs over the years: Headlining Glastonbury, duetting with Pavarotti for an audience with the Dalai Lama, performing at Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday party. Looking back, which one has meant the most to you?
I like the idea of performing with technically fantastic singers who I can learn from, like Andrea Bocelli and Pavarotti —it fulfills that part of my psyche. My favorite would be the Nelson Mandela birthday concert, in South Africa. Singing “Happy Birthday” with Michael Jackson, Danny Glover (who I later made the film Andron with), Nina Simone (who was my personal hero), and Stevie Wonder. Later, Chaka Khan dragged me on stage and I sang “Ain’t Nobody” with her for Nelson Mandela. He was just grinning away. That, for me, was one of the best moments of my life.
Skunk Anansie will perform at Afropunk Brooklyn on August 28. For tickets and further information, go to AfropunkFest.com
Photography by Tony Kelly