‘The most interesting time is now’, Leeds Arts University chancellor Skin of Skunk Anansie tells students

As she takes up her role as chancellor of Leeds Arts University, Skin, iconic frontwoman of British rock band Skunk Anansie, talks to Stephanie Smith about her own student days - and how she dealt with the “subtle ways” of racism..

Skin of Skunk Anansie has been appointed chancellor of Leeds Arts University. Picture: Marco Ovando, Styling: Ladyfag, Make-up: Ayami Nishimura , Grey top: Robert Wun

Skin remembers the day Judi Dench and a troupe of RSC actors came to her south London high school to give a performance of Macbeth. “They were all in a circle, dressed in black, there were no props at all, and us kids just sat on the floor kind of around them,” she says. “It was just incredible. I was just mesmerised by it because I had never seen anything like it before.”

A long and startling scream by Dench had a profound impact. Skin says: “It lasted about 30 seconds and I remember thinking, God, I’d love to be able to do that, just be so open and unworried about what everyone else at school was thinking and just let out a scream like that.”

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It sparked the idea that she wanted to unleash something herself. As frontwoman of rock band Skunk Anansie, her own remarkable voice has been described as “delicate as gossamer and vicious as a wild cat”. The band formed in 1994. In the era of Britpop, for many at the time – and certainly looking back – Skunk Anansie stood out as a far more energetic and politically charged antidote to all that parka-clad laddishness. Their first single, Little Baby Swastikkka, explored the pernicious reach of fascism – “You rope them in young, so small, so innocent, so young”. Debut album Paranoid and Sunburnt was released in 1995, spawning two top 20 UK singles “Weak” and “Charity”. Skunk Anansie became the first international multi-racial band to tour South Africa and later performed at Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday concert. They (and they are Skin, Cass (Richard Lewis), Ace (Martin Kent) and Mark Richardson) disbanded in 2001 but re-united in 2009. There have been six studio albums, two live albums and a compilation album. In 2019, they released the single “What You Do For Love”, along with a mesmerising on-stage video.

Skin of Skunk Anansie says fashion and music go hand in hand and students need to understand how all the arts are connected. Picture: Tom Barnes

Skin – real name Deborah Anne Dyer – was born in 1967 of Jamaican heritage and raised in Brixton. Her mum worked in local government and her granddad had a club in the basement of his house, at a time when black people were not welcome in the local pubs or clubs. It was visited by Bob Marley and introduced the young Skin (it’s simply short for her nickname Skinny) to a world of music.

Fast forward to 2021 and singer, songwriter, author, fashion icon, DJ, actor and polymathic creative Skin has this month accepted the post of chancellor of Leeds Arts University (LAU). It is an ambassadorial role, speaking up for the university and the arts. To be a songwriter, you have to have something to say, she told LAU students on a visit to Leeds before lockdown. “Yes, it’s f***ing political”, to quote the 1996 Skunk Anansie song.

Skin was a student herself when she began singing with a band in Middlesbrough, where she was studying BA (Hons) Interior Architecture & Design at Teesside (it became a university in 1992 and awarded her a Master of Arts in 2000). “I think every kid should leave home by the time they get to 18, 19. If you can. It’s not so easy as it used to be back in our days when you were getting free education and housing paid for. I think that is one of the saddest things of modern times, not getting free education.”

There were almost no black people in Middlesbrough, except fellow students. “We started our own little club, because there were a lot of African students and I noted that they were almost like a separate entity in the university,” she says. She encountered a different type of racism from what she was used to in London. “Definitely, there was a kind of unawareness, of like, ‘oh, what are we supposed to say and do with these black people because we’ve never had them up here before?’” But there was also local prejudice against students, she says. “So you had negativity because you were a student but you also had negativity because you were black – you didn’t know which one it was, sometimes. I would just go and talk to locals. I had friends that were locals. I discovered that, if you actually make an effort with people and you don’t walk into a room with this ‘they’re all going to hate me because I’m a student’ attitude, then that washes away quite quickly.”

Skin with Skunk Anansie band members, Mark Richardson, Cass Lewis and Ace. Picture: Tom Barnes

She discovered Middlesbrough’s gay scene and its gay club. “You used to knock on this door and this little thing used to slide across and they’d have a look at you and, if you were with someone that they knew, then they’d let you in. I had fun diving into the underbelly of Middlesbrough.”

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She became the students’ union entertainments officer, joined a band and got involved in student politics, all of which affected her studies, so she left the band to focus on her course and did well. Any comments or advice dished out with a dash of racism were “water off a duck’s back”. She took what was relevant – “and I threw the rest in the bin”, she says, adding: “That’s normal, that’s survival and that’s getting on with it.

“As a black person, it’s something that you just learn to live with because, if you’re crushed by every negative comment that comes your way, you won’t be able to cope with life and you won’t be able to do anything in your life.

Skin with students of Leeds Arts University on a visit that took place before the first lockdown. Photo: Martine Lund.

“Racism is everywhere and it’s been there all the time and you see it in lots of subtle ways. If you point out every time someone is being racist, then you spend your whole time just dealing with that issue.”

She says she was chosen by LAU to be its chancellor because of the way she talks about political issues. “Students now are very politically astute and very politically aware,” she says. She believes the arts have to take a lead on the issues many students are dealing with now – “racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia,” she says. “Politically, the arts are always underfunded.

“Having somebody like me makes a very big statement to the world. No one has ever asked me to do this before. They usually ask white middle-aged businessmen with lots of money, so it’s about representation, it’s about being the right image and sending out the right message to the students and to the rest of the world and the educational parts of government, too.”

Skin points out that she is interested in many areas of the arts. She has been deeply involved with fashion for many years, working with her stylist Kim Howells and up-and-coming British designers (she insists on paying them, unlike others). “I do think fashion and music and being on stage are hand in hand,” she says. “You don’t just walk on stage in something you do the washing up in. My look developed over time as we got more of a budget and more of an understanding. One of the things I worked out very early on is that there is no point being the girl next door because I don’t look like the girl next door.”

Skin with students of Leeds Arts University, on a visit that took place before the first lockdown. Skin has since been appointed LAU chancellor. Photo: Martine Lund

The Ramones style rock look did not work for her, she says. “I kind of blended in and I felt like I was stripping away all the things that were interesting about me, trying to look like everybody else, so then I went in the opposite direction, the David Bowie school of walking on stage and doing something completely original and different and almost like making up a personality on stage. And that worked better because I found in the early days that we had to be five times better than everybody else to get the same amount of column inches. As time went on, it just got bigger and the lights got brighter and the stage show got bigger.”

There have been acting roles over the years, including in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, and Skin would love to do more – a sci-fi alien appeals, she says. A film project in the pipeline is now sadly on hold.

“I specialise in music and song writing but I also understand how everything is connected,” she says. “I am also very much aware of how that affects all the other arts forms in the university, like art in terms of album covers, animation, videos, movies, getting the whole thing together. They all kind of touch, writing up your PR stuff, writing up your lyrics. You need skills and awareness of all of them. You can’t just write songs and think that’s it. Those days are over.”

As lead singer of Skunk Anansie, Skin was the first black Brit and the first black woman to headline Glastonbury back in 1999, long before Stormzy and Beyonce – something she has had to remind the media of. Last year, she published her memoir It Takes Blood and Guts, written with friend, Leeds University-educated Lucy O’Brien, and published by Simon and Schuster – the paperback is due out later this year and Skin hopes to have a book tour. In writing it, she has played her part in redressing a balance, not least in highlighting the achievements of Skunk Anansie, largely overlooked in favour of contemporaries such as Oasis and Blur, another example of the airbrushing of Black history. She wrote it, she says, “so that people could have a better perspective of what it was like being a lead singer of a band at the time. In writing my history I seem to have written a history of a lot of people.” There will be more books, she says. Skunk Anansie is due to tour this year, including Leeds in June, but who knows?

Home is still London but Skin is speaking to me from the house of her fiancee, Lady - her “other half”- in New York, where she has been living for most of lockdown (on Netflix they have been watching Pretend It’s a City, the wandering New York documentary series following writer and humorist Fran Lebowitz and directed by Martin Scorsese; German neo-noir television series Babylon Berlin, and House of Cards). There has been a party atmosphere in the city, she says, since Trump got booted out, but she worries how Biden will contain the white supremacists in the US. “It’s like a few hundred years ago, somebody got a glass filled with racism and then poured it into the soil so you can’t take it out. This country was formed on the death of a whole race of people.”

She worries too about her mum at home (her mum calls her Debbie). “Even if I was there, I wouldn’t be able to go and see her. I think it’s very difficult for people like her and for the elderly.”

Photographer: Marco Ovando, Styling: Ladyfag, Make-up: Ayami Nishimura, Grey top: Robert Wun

Last February, Skin surprised everyone, including her mum, when she was revealed as Duck in ITV’s The Masked Singer UK, dressed in a huge yellow costume and singing Stormzy’s Blinded By Your Grace and Madonna’s Like A Virgin, for which Duck wore a conical bra. “You spend a lot of time by yourself in a room so it’s perfect for Covid because you don’t see anyone,” she says. “It was really mad.

“In England people just see me as this very aggressive, overtly political, not funny, very tall and scary character, so it was really fun to just sing some pop songs and be someone completely different,” she says. “People were so shocked and surprised. Not even my mum guessed it. She just watched it because it was fun. She didn’t know it was me until I took off the duck head. “She said ‘I nearly fell over’.”

Skin has always liked to surprise, shock, reinvent, break stereotypes. Now she hopes to inspire LAU students to do the same.

“I would like them to take away the fact that they can invent their own world and invent their own way of doing their own things,” she says. “If I can do it, someone as weird looking and different as me, in a completely different world from the world that I was raised in, I hope that gives them hope that they can do the same thing, too. The most interesting and artistic time in history is now, because it’s the one time that everything is open to everybody. I hope they will take that on board and find the parts of their characters that are different and are interesting.”

Skin hopes there might be a book tour later this year when the paperback of her menoir It Takes Blood and Guts is published. Photographer: Arved Colvin-Smith