Rise Up Sweet Woman Child: Skin of Skunk Anansie

I first heard of Skunk Anansie during grad school in the early/mid-2000s. I remember this because I would listen to a two-part program from Soul Patrol Times/Black Rock Coalition that featured covers from Black rock artists. Skunk Anansie joined Lenny Kravitz for a cover of Betty Davis’ “Anti-Love Song,” which was all kinds of awesome. Still it was a while before I finally got into Skunk Anansie. I think I downloaded a few songs some time around 2010 after the group reunited following an eight-year hiatus.

Even then, I really didn’t know what lead singer Skin (born Deborah Anne Dyer in 1967) looked like. Nor did I know her name. Which makes me wonder why I never heard of Skunk Anansie until after they broke up in 2001 with only three studio albums under their belt at the time. Having formed in 1994 and released their first album in 1995, Skunk Anansie came at a time when I should definitely have seen them on one of many music outlets available here at the time. While my interest in both MTV and BET were declining at the time, I still avidly watched VH1, which would have been a prime outlet for the Brit rockers, especially with acts such as Oasis, The Verve and others out of Britain bringing in a new British invasion at the time.

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Yet, Skunk Anansie somehow didn’t translate across the pond. As Skin explains in the foreword of What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, “It seemed like every time we visited a record company we’d be forced to meet the head of urban music. A [Black] person couldn’t come in the door without meeting the lone [Black] executive, and as a rock band we would have absolutely nothing to talk about with them” (p. 11). She explains that she is a Black woman with a shaven head fronting an intense rock band. Skin went against the perceptions of what a Black woman should look and sound like.

However, it is this bucking of conventions that drew me to the group. Skin comes across as an artist who happens to be a singer rather than a vocalist who always had intentions of finding a career in music. She says as much herself: “I see myself as an artist more than a musician, not only because I play guitar worse than a deaf camel, but because being in a band has always required a lot more skills than just songwriting and singing.”

I had no idea what Skin looked like when I first heard “Anti-Love Song”” in the early 2000s. I don’t think I ever knew until I became more entrenched in social media and her presence became more prominent in my world. And she is indeed striking. More importantly than that, she is a hell of a vocalist, perfect for fronting a hard rock band. Also, their name is a reference to the Anansi spider frequently found in Akann (West Africa) folktales. The skunk – to make the name nastier.

I forget exactly when I started listening to their music. But it wasn’t through hearing a complete album or going through their discography. No. It was through downloads, so all the phases of their career run together for me. However, I did find that three of the songs I found at the time came from their 1995 debut Paranoid & Sunburnt: “I Can Dream,” “It Takes Blood & Guts to Be This Cool But I’m Still Just a Cliché” and “Rise Up.” The band recorded it in just six weeks after playing their first gig in 1994. However, I later learned that the stand out track from that album was the one causing most confusion among listeners: “Little Baby Swastikkka.”

You see the track caused some confusion among those who had no idea Skunk Anansie was an interracial rock band fronted by a Black woman. The assumption was that they were a white supremacist group. In the book, Skin explains an awkward radio interview in which they learned of a campaign to get them banned because of that assumption. Apparently they also didn’t see a track on the album called “Intellectualise My Blackness…”

What they also missed was Skin’s own description of the band’s sound. She calls it “clit-rock: an amalgam of heavy metal and [B]lack feminist rage.” But perhaps this Black feminist rage is part of the reason the American markets stayed very, very far away from Skunk Anansie. Exactly how does a country with a history of erasing blackness from its very creations reconcile with a hard rock band fronted by a Black feminist even if they are British? This is not to say that the group went completely ignored in the US. The lead song off the album, “Selling Jesus” and the track “Feed” were prominently featured in the 1996 scifi film Strange Days.

That same year, the group followed up Paranoid & Sunburnt with Stoosh. This is the album that features my favorite Skunk Anansie song. Incidentally, it’s an intense ballad rather than the hard driving rock for which the group is known. No, “Infidelity (Only You)” is the type of string-infused longing that causes divisions among rock and heavy metal fans. However, Skin’s vocals and the lyrics make it a stand out for me, perhaps because I’m a sucker for a sad love song anyway.

But fans of the hard sound had nothing to worry about as there are plenty of heavier tracks on the album. One of them is “Milk Is My Sugar.” “Hedonism (Just Because You Feel Good) and “She’s My Heroine” also come to mind. Stoosh would be the second and final album the band did for the One Little Indian label. By 1999, they were signed to Virgin and made a great album before their 2001 breakup.

Post Orgasmic Chill came during the years industrial had made it to the mainstream, putting them into the same circle as heavyweights like Nine Inch Nails and the Rollins Band. Among tracks like “On My Hotel T.V.,” the band also included ballads such as the hard rocking “Lately” and the much softer “Secretly,” which apparently confuses some fans. How could the hard rocking Skunk Anansie possibly perform such a trite, soft love song when they were the same band who shattered windows on Paranoid & Sunburnt?

Whatever the reason, Skunk Anansie disbanded two years later. However, each member had their own side projects. Skin’s was two solo albums, Fleshwounds (2003) and Fake Chemical State (2006). Interestingly, some of the songs off the albums were not as heavy as the music she had performed with the band. Yet ballads like “Lost” and mid-tempo tracks like “Purple” were not exactly out of line with the Skunk Anansie sound. Skin was still very much performing as a rock vocalist. After all, “Lost” is quite comparable to “You’ll Follow Me Down” from the band’s last album.

Furthermore, Skin co-wrote Fleshwounds with her then longtime partner Len Arran. (It’s also worth noting that guitarist Ace collaborated with both Shingai Shoniwa of the Noisettes and Skye of Morcheeba during the band’s hiatus.) She also worked with Cass, who played various instruments, on this album. Unsurprisingly, given the name of the album, most of the tracks are angsty and agonizing. However, in an interesting turn, Skin is also seen wearing short hairstyles rather than her trademark bald head in may videos.

While never officially released as a single, the track “Nothing But” from the Fake Chemical State album continued Skin’s angst-driven mood with a video that looks to take place in an asylum even though the overall album presented a happier tone. Unfortunately, Skin’s solo career did not receive the same support as her work with the band. Many were not receptive to the toned down nature of the work and the third single planned for release from Fleshwounds was pulled. But the albums reflected her mood at the time. She explains, “…I was sad and melancholy, I’d had a relationship that fell apart.”

Yet Skin wasn’t to stay in this place of dark-mooded videos by her lonesome. Fake Chemical State was more upbeat than its predecessor and hinted at things to come. In 2008, drummer Mark Richardson confirmed the rumors the bad was reuniting. In April 2009, the band set up two shows under the alias SCAM, an acronym for the names of each band member (Skin, Cass, Ace and Mark). The show sold out in a matter of minutes. Five to be exact. They followed up six months later with a European tour and a greatest hits album later in November.

The single “My Ugly Boy” announced the band’s fifth album Wonderlustre in 2010. The band followed two years later with Black Traffic. The lead single “Sad Sad Sad” found Skunk Anansie back in form with good old-fashioned hard rock. The 2013 live album An Acoustic Skunk Anansie Live in London was released with a companion DVD performance, convenient for those of us who will never have the chance to see the group live in any incarnation.

This year the group released Anarchytecture. In 20 years, Skunk Anansie still knows how to create a strong rock album. And Skin remains one of the most enigmatic and essential frontwomen in rock music. Her onstage presence is validating for many Black women whether or not we rock the stage or the audience.

As author Mavis Bayton declares in her book on women in the British music scene Frock Rock: Women Performing Popular Music, Skin is among several women who serve as “crucial role models for future generations of [B]lack women.” Her importance extends beyond her work on music. Skin is one of few openly bisexual Black women in any realm of entertainment. In 2013, she entered a civil partnership with Christiana Wyly, which hopefully helped get her past that dark patch that inspired the Fleshwounds album.

Furthermore, Skin has established herself as more than a rock singer, taking on other endeavors including modeling. She says, “You have to dip your fingers in other art forms (like film, theatre, books) in order to create something wonderful from the clash of egos which are part of being in a great band.” Apparently, her dipping into other art forms also included dipping into other music genres as well. Even though she eventually became one of Britain’s premier frontwomen in rock, she has done session work in other genres such as soul. Interestingly, she also started out with a focus in interior design, which may have something to do with her unique sense of style.

While I more than likely “discovered” Skunk Anansie during their eight-year disbandment, I still get a sense of the impact the group had as part of the 90s Britrock movement. Unfortunately, they did not reap the full rewards of this new British Invasion as did some of their contemporaries. But unlike those contemporaries, Skunk Anansie seems not to have imploded. After all, whatever happened to Oasis, Blur and The Verve?

And Skin’s influence continues to show in a number of Black women fronting rock bands in all rock’s many subgenres. Kayla Philips, Alexis Brown and Cammie Gilbert have made Bleed the Pigs, Straight Line Stitch and Oceans of Slumber some of the most compelling groups in the genre. Militia Vox and Sophia Ramos have been doing the damn thing for years, decades really. Shannon Fuchess of Light Asylum practically defies genre and gender expectations.

And in a roundabout way, we can compare Skin to the American harbinger of neo-soul, the bald, bisexual Meshell Ndegeocello.

Of course, Skin is an original. She carries forth a legacy of women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Betty Davis (with her claim of “in yer face” sexuality but apparently not in a “girly, wimpy” way) in the States and Poly Styrene in the UK. I may have missed the early years of Skunk Anansie, but with more than 20 years and no signs of stopping, they show it’s never too late to get into a good thing.

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