This bright and charismatic woman is somebody I grew up listening to, and it’s hard to describe how weird and exciting it felt at the same time to hear her soothing and familiar voice not coming from the radio, but right straight at me as I ran this interview.
Skin – whose real name is Deborah Ann Dyer – is the lead vocalist of the legendary British rock band Skunk Anansie that also includes bassist Cass, guitarist Ace and drummer Mark Richardson and have made the soundtrack of my generation ever since the late 1990s with an uninterrupted flow of powerful lyrics, iconic video clips and strugglingly beautiful hits like Hedonism (Just Because You Feel Good), You’ll Follow Me Down and Secretly.
With a career spanning over 25 years, 6 studio albums released and more than 5 million records sold, Skunk Anansie have been the real deal in my home country right from the beginning: their 1999 album Post Orgasmic Chill was a three-time certified Platinum in Italy with over 300,000 copies sold, their 2010 record Wonderlustre debuted at number one in the national album chart, and Skin also acted as a judge in the Italian edition of The X Factor in 2015.
Not only is this lady – who has recently been awarded an OBE by the British Monarchy and nominated the first-ever Chancellor of the Leeds Arts University – an extraordinary singer and songwriter; she’s also a talented electronic music DJ, a fashion icon, a writer who published an autobiography titled It Takes Blood and Guts in 2020, and also the strongest advocate and activist for the many social, cultural and political causes I’ll discuss in this never-ending introduction.
The occasion to meet Skin has been her collaboration for the release of Etta James: The Montreux Years and Nina Simone: The Montreux Years, a stunning fully-restored two-disc CD compilation album featuring all the Montreux Jazz Festival performances of both late American artists, plus some previously unreleased material; the record features the 1968, 1976, 1981, 1987 and 1990 Montreaux live performances of Nina Simone and the 1977, 1978, 1989, 1990 and 1993 concerts of Etta James.
Skin talked extensively about how her musical journey was influenced by both Etta James and Nina Simone, of whom she said:
There was something about Etta James, about her not really feeling that she deserved success or something like that, but then you see her walk onto the stage and she owns it. I watched this on show performances: she’s in a complete 110% confidence, and she’s feeling every single word and every single lyric she’s singing. She’s just complete. When I read up about her, I discovered that one of the reasons why she had this incredible powerful voice was because, when she started singing at five years old, a pastor would punch her in the chest, so that the sound would go into her stomach. And that really resonated with me in another way, because when I played classical violin, I had this classical violin tutor who made the lesson so horrible that I would actually just hate going to lessons, but then I became really good at it out of fear and out of upsetting the teachers.
When it comes to Nina Simone, it was really important to me to look to people who had done political songs and have done it really well. How did they do it, why did they do it? For me, the way that I was influenced by Nina Simone is the way her songs were personal. She never tried to sum up the feelings of a generation, she was talking about what she felt at that time, what was going on and what hurt her individually, and that is the number one lesson I’ve learned from her politically, that political songs are vital and really important for artists. We’ve got to have a whole range of music, so not everybody has to be political, but I think that if you look at the history of political music, with Marvin Gaye and Gil Scott-Heron – and I’ve just mentioned a few – you can see how vital at certain points in time that sort of souls have been. They’ve been the anthem to change, the anthem of generations. And I felt that she, along with other artists, was really that. But as I said, what was great about that was her making the story about what she personally felt, and that meant that I felt it, you felt it and everyone else felt it. And that’s a huge lesson I learned from her when I was writing because, you know, a lot of Skunk Anansie songs are political. And also, write about what you know; I got that lesson from her to write about what you feel because it’s what you know. Don’t try and sum up what everybody else feels or please everybody or make everybody happy. As a black woman, I feel we do fall into those mama roles and sometimes society wants us to be the mother that takes care of everybody. And she was like, “No, no, I’m angry, and this is what I feel!” I mean, I could go on forever, but these are the things that as a black woman writing political songs, these are the things about Nina Simone that really struck a chord with me.
And so, here is the other major reason I was keen to speak with Deborah: her extensive political activism, which I find really authentic: she never just jumped on the bandwagon to get publicity.
Skin has been an activist for all her life, she travelled to West Africa with Amnesty International in the 1990s, she publicly campaigned against genital mutilation, she worked in music therapy for disabled children, she was involved in The Baobab Foundation and The Medical Foundation that work with asylum seekers, child soldiers and torture victims, she met Nelson Mandela and performed live on stage with Luciano Pavarotti in 2000 in front of the Dalai Lama to support Tibet, and – last but not least – she has never used her open bisexuality as an easy route to win press coverage or get the favour of the gay community in a society that tells you about musicians’ sexual orientation even before you can merely get to hear them singing.
When she discusses racism, black people’s issues, women’s issues, gay’s issues or just any other issue, she never comes from a place of victimism, condescendence or self-referentiality. She admits that she had to work ten times harder as a “skinny black girl from Brixton who fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll”, but she doesn’t seek commiseration and never comes up with any heartbreaking tales from the land of discrimination and bullying despite being from Brixton, which used to be one of the historically most deprived areas of London: Skin just reports the facts, the figures and her informed opinions about it all. With her, it’s never personal, it’s all about social justice in the widest sense: was she born as a straight white man with blonde hair and blue eyes, she would probably feel exactly the same things.
How many other celebrities you heard of have publicly expressed concerns over “the intellectualised leftwing distractions getting in the way of the serious business of fighting the extreme right”?
How provocative that sounds in a political arena where you’re immediately and permanently labelled as a fascist if you only dare to criticise the intellectualised leftwing bullshit?
In the last two years, the politically correct way of being, thinking, acting, speaking, dressing, consuming and even eating has been taken to an extent that constitutes a threat to freedom of speech and democracy – to the point that Richard Ashcroft refusing to play at a UK government-restricted festival that imposed Covid vaccine as an entry-rule was portrayed by the media as an irresponsible and selfish betrayer who “doesn’t care for his fans’ money and health”.
But you never call it a betrayal when a singer sells his soul to the system, do you?
Today, it looks like everybody is standing up for something, while in reality they’re all just fishing in the safe pond of the mainstream-friendly causes, and the only thing they are actually standing up for is the current political agenda.
Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, #MeToo, the Covid vaccine, mental health charities and the (whatever that means) “war on climate change” – which is by far the safest option and just requires the purchase of a reusable water bottle: today, these are the only movements people are allowed to raise their voices for, and when it comes to famine in Africa, to the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, to human rights in Tibet, to the war in Yemen, to HIV, to the unlawful detention of Julian Assange, to child poverty and economic inequality – well, all this and everything else is gone and forgotten.
“Everything is political”, “We’re making it too black and white. Because the world is not black and white”, “Skunk Anansie are political because I’m from Brixton, and in the 1980s we had two riots, we were underfunded and pushed to the side during the Thatcher years who didn’t have any interest in a Labour-funded council – a bit like now. If you were raised in an inner-city that was underfunded by the council and by the government, you asked yourself why”; these are just a few of the statements Deborah made during other interviews and that show well her in-depth level of understanding of very complex issues.
Had I had more time with Skin, I would have probably questioned her about pretty much everything from World War II on, as it doesn’t happen every day to speak with courageous people, people you can respect.
Courage and respect used to be important in music in the days when John Lennon and Yoko Ono would make a mess in the streets to put an end to the Vietnam war, but we have completely lost the sense of rebellion in the last decade.
Damon Albarn, who is white as a ghost, criticised the London Live 8 concert for not featuring enough black artists back in 2005, when, trust me, nobody would praise you for that and this wouldn’t make you any more popular, but just a pain in the ass.
Freddie Mercury had Queen’s I Want to Break Free video banned in the United States in 1984 for dressing like a woman in a clip that was just very funny and not obscene at all, and the man didn’t get any sympathy from the press for being gay.
Today, male singers who have always been heterosexual and dressed like regular men are rewarded with a Vogue cover and millions of likes for suddenly putting on female clothes to “stand up for equality”, and they are not even required to take the plunge and come out as gay, because it doesn’t even matter – and they are regarded as modern heroes when they’re not actually taking any risks.
People like Skin don’t need to make themselves ridiculous or to volunteer juicy details about their personal lives, and their contribution to a more inclusive society is actually their peaceful acceptance of all differences; after I read in another interview how structured and intelligent Skin’s political analysis of the Black Lives Matter movement was, I wanted her to comment on what I personally consider a contradiction in the black protest, because even if she’s a BLM supporter, I knew that her response wouldn’t be predictable or politically correct.
I’m not an expert on American history and culture, but all I know is that Micheal Jackson, Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Stevie Wonder and Prince have always been some of the US best-selling artists of all time.
American black actors like Morgan Freeman, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, Diana Ross, Halle Berry and Whoopi Goldberg are among the most-loved movie stars in the world.
Naomi Campbell has been considered one of the most beautiful women on the planet including in the US for years, and the political power held by somebody like Oprah Winfrey is hard to quantify and would probably be harshly disputed if it belonged to a man, whatever the skin colour.
The unchallenged attempt to trick the entire humanity into thinking that racism is an exclusivity of just one particular skin colour may prove extremely dangerous, especially as the other forms of racism, hate and discrimination towards other ethnic and religious groups including Native Americans, Latinos, Irish Travellers and Gypsies, just to mention a few, are going completely underestimated and underreported – just like nobody in the UK will ever admit how quickly racism against Europeans has spread in the country right after Brexit.
If you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist.
My point for Skin was the following: if the 46,8 million black people living in the US still claim they “lack representation” after they were represented by Barack Obama for 8 years, what should the 60 million Hispanics living in the US that were never represented by anybody say?
Skin’s answer about that, her precise scrutiny of the roots of racial inequality in America and the ancestral implications in how police officers have historically been recruited and trained in some parts of the States will probably make one of the most interesting comments you’ll read about the topic.
If you’re not American though, perhaps you’ll continue to wonder why the rest of the world is being required to take part in an issue created by the United States, in the United States and that primarily affects the United States in this particular form.
The United States kept racial segregation until 1964, it’s them the only one responsible for their own history, politics and current situation, and the rest of the world should be wary of the exquisite American habit of bombarding other countries to bring them “democracy”, because brainwashing is just a more subtle way of bombarding.
I mean, I don’t ask you to take a stand against the political and social mess we’ve got in Italy and that you have no idea about – nor do I try to persuade you that you’ve got the same problems.
You don’t wash your dirty laundry in public, let alone you ask the public to wash your dirty laundry for you so you can eventually wash your hands off it and come out clean in the end.
Skin, I’m so excited to speak with you, I grew up with Skunk Anansie music!
Haha. Yes, I’m Italian. I know you learned Italian while acting as a judge in The X Factor Italy in 2015 alongside Mika – how was the experience?
Oh my God, that was stressful!
Yeah, trying to be charming on TV and all this… well, Mika is one of the friendliest guys on the planet and the team was lovely and they really looked after me. And it was a really fun thing to do, but at the same time, it was stressful.
What achievement are you most proud of, at this stage in your career?
I guess what I’m more proud of is the fact that I managed to carve a career out of music, and I’m still doing it. I’m still doing it, so my definition of success really is the fact that my band is still successful, me as an artist as well, I still get to spend all my day doing music or talking about music, and I get to kind of run my own life. And that really is a thing of success because it’s a very difficult thing to do, especially when you’re a band from the 1990s. You know, having long longevity and being able to still do music full-time is a very successful thing, so that’s kind of my success definition.
Which one of your songs are you most attached to?
Oh gosh, I love a lot of them!
Of course you do!
But it changes, you know. I would say that today is Charlie Big Potato.
How do you feel when you hear one of your songs playing on the radio?
It is always an exciting thing. Always exciting. It never gets old.
Are there any memories about your time singing with Luciano Pavarotti for Pavarotti & Friends for Cambodia and Tibet in 2000, you would like to share?
Oh, yeah, sure. It was really lovely, Pavarotti’s wife Nicoletta invited me to their house in Modena, Italy, and Luciano Pavarotti cooked pasta con le vongole, pasta with clams, and he gave me some singing lessons, he taught me some tricks about breathing, about where to hold my voice. And then he cooked, and then he also introduced me to vintage balsamic vinegar.
You were introduced to balsamic vinegar by Pavarotti in person?
You know, before that, I thought that vinegar was something you would put on salads, and then I found out that this 60-year-old was putting balsamic vinegar on strawberries, and we all tasted it, and it was an eye-opener. It opened my eyes to Italian cuisine. You know, I still have a bottle in my house now.
Do you think there will ever be some follow-up project regarding music for Tibet?
I don’t think so. No, I don’t know what’s happening with that but I think what we did back in the day was a wonderful thing to do. I don’t know if they’re continuing to work in that way, though.
Do you think a band could potentially never split? What does it take to stick together?
I think you have to be really good friends in the first place. Personality is everything. It’s all about finding your people, being in a band and loving each other and genuinely being friends. I think a lot of bands break up because they don’t really like each other, and they grow apart. And they grow apart musically, and they grow apart as friends and they’re not in each other’s lives and families, whereas I’m saying that we’re gonna be in each other’s lives whether we are in a band or not. And then yeah, the secret is really to continue to make new music that’s good. That’s the secret to always be looking at what you are doing to be fresh-looking from what you have done before.
What do you think of the current state of music?
I’m just very inspired by what’s going on musically at the moment… there’s so much wonderful new music, there’s actually not enough time to listen to it all! At the same time, I think that’s because people had a lot of time in the last year-and-a-half during Covid, the quality is really really really high. And I’m talking about the quality of music and the quality of the artworks and the quality of the lyrics. I think that we’re living in a bit of a kind of musical boom right now and I do think part of it is just because people have lived through Covid and took their time to just wait to be able to release music – whereas before, you had all this rushing, you would go down by events. So yeah, I mean, I think that artistically music is really booming now and there’s a lot of incredible music around. But I think that what’s really sad is to not have that backed up and supported by the government.
How do you think your country’s government handled the music industry crisis?
I think the music industry is really suffering in terms of music venues, in terms of people being able to go to gigs, and being able to go back to life in general. I feel that the British government have really done incredibly badly, almost as badly as it could have done, looking at Covid. And I think that we’ve lost a lot of music venues, we’ve lost a lot of awesome record shops. We’ve lost a lot, so I think it’s going to take us a minute to build things back up again. But the music is there, you know, the music is there.
Since we’re discussing the UK government, what do you think of Brexit?
Brexit is a disaster.
That’s so kind of you. Thanks.
Brexit is a fucking disaster. Right now, we are beginning to see the effects of what we have created. I was speaking to my Italian tutor yesterday, and he’s leaving. He’s been in the UK for over 10 years, and he’s leaving because he can’t do the kind of work that he used to do and he wants to do because there aren’t enough people coming in there. He can teach English too, but there’s not enough Italians coming into the country, he can teach English too, but now, all of his students that were here and he was teaching to have all gone back to Italy, to Germany, to Spain and to other countries to try to make a living. And his boyfriend is the same, you know, and that’s what happens: a lot of people are leaving the country, especially migrants. But you know, people have this negativity around the words “migrants” and “immigrants”, but they’re just people from all classes, all different people that used to come to England bringing their incredible talents and work experience, and also their desire to work and to make money, but now they’re not coming to England anymore.
Well, the change in the air after Brexit was enormous for us.
Yeah, and so if you now look at the statistics, there are not enough people to fill the jobs that a lot of industries have. What did they fucking think was going to happen? What the fuck did they think was going to happen? Of course, because we all know that a lot of English people don’t want to do those jobs. And the thing is, I’m not just talking about, you know, picking fruit – which is a stupid example everybody likes to be talking about – I’m talking about doctors. And scientists. And surgeons. I mean, all the way through for all the classes, you know, as I said, people wanting to teach other people languages. I’m talking about high-quality chefs – you know, you have to train for a long time to be able to be a good chef. I’m talking about high-quality staff working in the restaurants, in hospitality, in the creative industries, now having to default their weeks. It’s ridiculous. And I think Brexit was the worst thing to happen to England, and now you’ve seen that there are just jobs that English people do not want to do because they don’t want to fucking work, they’re lazy sons of bitches.
There are also jobs they are not actually qualified to do.
You know, all my Italian friends feel the same, they’re all leaving. Italians love coming in, and they want to be with their friends, but now they’re leaving because of the negativity and racism they’re having to experience living in this country because of the stupid English.
Because we are on the topic and you talked a lot about American politics in other interviews, why do you think the Black Lives Matter movement say they lack representation in America, after their country had a black president for 8 years?
You know, that’s an incredibly simplistic viewpoint to say “well, how can racism exist if we had a black president?” You know, the thing is that the whole time during the Obama presidency there was a white nationalist movement, or a white supremacy movement, trying to move against him, because one thing that you have in America is deep-rooted, centric-old, racism, like all through the dirty, nasty “we want our guards to protect ourselves from the fact that we stole this patchy from somewhere else, from another people”: racism, and that doesn’t get eradicated. When Obama became president, that was the good people trying to get there, and that just fired up, and the racists just tried even more to get black people away from power, because even though Obama was black, he didn’t have the Congress. So, the reason why you have this racism movement is the same reason why you have the Black Lives Matter movement, because some of these people that were raised as white supremacists have become police officers. And when you’re wearing your white outfit with your pointy head, then obviously nobody knows…
Are you referring to the Klu Klux Klan?
Yes, some of them did the very clever thing to get into the police and hide the other people that were like them and with the same kind of Nazi viewpoint. Right? And so that’s why you have the Klu Klux Klan and worship services, and police that can control the country. And that’s the scariest thing about America, and that’s what they’ve been working on for 30 years. So, people think that, you know, just because the US had a black person as a president, racism is over, but that actually means shit. Having a black president was just America trying to do the right thing, but it doesn’t mean that racism is suddenly over, because Americans have racism so deeply ingrained in their society, it’s almost like, well – how do you cut out one grain of wood from another grain of wood? It’s impossible.
Switching back to our continent, how did it feel for you to grow up in the London area of Brixton during the Thatcher era?
I think Brixton is one of the most exciting places in London, Brixton has always been somewhere that has attracted lots of different cultures and lots of different people from all over the planet because of the Brixton Market. Brixton is a fantastic place to live. I think what’s really sad though, is that a lot of marketing people realised that in the 1990s, you know, after all the Brixton riots, they were like “Hold on, this place is great! Let’s try to chase it for ourselves”. Now, in the last 15 years, there was gentrification of Brixton, because you know, when we were growing up there and we were all black people, there was no infrastructure that was being invested in: there weren’t investing in houses, they weren’t investing in shops, they weren’t invested in anything. Back then, you didn’t give a fuck about what was going on in Brixton, and Margaret Thatcher wasn’t interested in Brixton either.
How has it changed today?
The wonderful thing about Brixton was that it kept its diversity, but the sad thing now is that this diversity is kind of almost being wrestled away by marketing people and by the white wealthy class who are like “we want this for ourselves, we want their houses, we want the culture, we want the kind of diversity” – this is on the edge, but in reality, they really just want their property, and they are like “we want to put our shops in there because we don’t want to buy food at the Brixton Market”, so they don’t want that too. And it’s really sad to see what’s happened to Brixton, to see how people that have lived there for generations are being pushed out, and their houses have been taken and sold to people who don’t really care about all of that and just want a nice house that wouldn’t cost too much money in a nice area. Generally speaking, gentrification is horrible. I mean, the thing is that it is always going to happen and you are always going to have that, you know, people moving in and out, and that’s all wonderful. But once this only happens at the expense of the people who have lived there for centuries, or the people who have lived there for decades, then you know, it’s just the mentality of like “yeah, we like what you have it, but want we want it for ourselves and we don’t want you to have it, so we’re going to make it impossible for you to buy houses here, and we’re going to make it impossible for you to run your own businesses here, and we’re going to make it easier for us and our friends to have businesses there”. I think some of the Brixton diversity is still there, but we’re really having to fight hard to keep it like that. It’s always a fight.
Would you like to add anything else at all? New projects, new plans?
My book It Takes Blood and Guts will be released as a paperback in September and Skunk Anansie are set to tour in 2022… we’re going to make 36 live dates all across Europe and the UK!
★ If you love music from the 1990s and 2000s, you may also like our interviews with Tom Higgenson of Plain White T’s (remember Hey There Delilah?), The Offspring, Maxim of The Prodigy, The Brand New Heavies, Skye Edwards from Morcheeba and electronic music legend Moby who also performed for the Dalai Lama and also talked about Tibet
★ For more opinions about Brexit, also see our interviews with the author of Trainspotting Irvine Welsh, legendary Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, Amy Macdonald, Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock, Jah Wobble, Stephen Emmer, Imelda May, Suzi Quatro, HM Johnsen, Ozark Henry, and Katrina from Katrina and The Waves
★ In our interview, Stone the Crows’ Maggie Bell also talked about Nina Simone
★ Prince’s musical director of 20 years Morris Hayes, Mr ‘American Pie’ Don McLean and US concert promoter Danny Zelisko have also widely discussed American society and issues in our interviews