By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
It was a habit that annoyed all of her roommates, she says, a personal quirk she just couldn't curtail. But for years, Skin -- the imposing mouthpiece for militant U.K. funk-metal combo Skunk Anansie -- used to sing along to her Walkman, no matter where she happened to be. At the top of her lungs, she'd wail through household chores or while cruising the streets of her native Brixton, one of the toughest neighborhoods in London. Once, while wah-oohing to a Boyz II Men ballad, she was overheard by the Boyz themselves who were in town for a concert. They laughed at the loud, shaven-headed black woman and walked on.
In college, Skin was equally vocal. Upfront about her politics (far left) and her sexuality (lesbian), she became a student representative and was heavily involved in school politics. "I got rid of two lecturers who were appalling," she says with don't-fuck-with-me-boys bravado. "I got the students to get up in arms about them. One was basically a lech -- he was running after little girls all the time, and the other one was always coming in drunk and stealing students' interior designs for his own company.
"So I got both of 'em fired," Skin continues. "And there was another right-wing guy who was supposed to be teaching freshman studies, but he'd come in and spout all his right-wing political ideas and used his job to try and indoctrinate people into his own beliefs. So I got rid of him as well." She snorts noisily.
Sooner or later, though, it had to happen: Strolling across campus one day, crooning at maximum volume to some cassette, Skin was approached by a guitarist. How about putting that megaphone voice and keen political outlook to use onstage? he asked. After a few false starts, Skin wound up fronting the multiracial quartet Skunk Anansie (a name nicked from Jamaican folklore) and began to raise controversial questions that sent even other leftist politicos scuttling off to their cubbyholes. In short, Skin finally found her ultimate forum, if the new Paranoid and Sunburnt (Epic/One Little Indian) is any indication.
Scan the video for "Selling Jesus," the quartet's anti-evangelism headbanger, and you'll understand why film director Kathryn Bigelow immediately hired Skunk Anansie for the recent Strange Days project upon seeing said clip. A lithe and muscular amazon, Skin shudders to axeman Ace's cock-rock riffs through a roomful of live sheep. Her face is painted chin to forehead with a white cross; her eyes burn bright and feral. And when she snarls/screams about greedy TV missionaries, it's hard to ignore her even if she's not the first artist to hit this easy target: "That kind of God is always man-made/ They made him up then wrote a book to keep you on your knees .../ They want your soul and your money and your blood and your votes." Bigelow said she felt the band represented the intangible, millennial dread that's been creeping up on society and cast Skunk as the party entertainment for New Year's Eve, 1999.
Appropriately then, Skin, too, thinks that "something's gonna happen, that it's all gonna blow" soon. "Everything seems to be getting very extreme," she says, "to the point where nothing is extreme anymore. And then you've got your Christian right coming up with things like, 'You can be a virgin again.' ... You can supposedly still have sex now, but you can have your virginity back as long as you don't have sex until you marry again." Another condescending snort. "It's a mind trick isn't it? Every girl wants to be a virgin, so it kind of plays on that insecurity." Lioness, one; Christians, zip.
Nothing seems to scare Skin, least of all the sensitive issue of coming out. "I decided when I got a band together that I didn't want to be denying anything," she says matter-of-factly. "I didn't want to feel like I was lying to myself or that fans wouldn't really know what I was about. People think it's so radical, but it's not -- I simply chose not to hide my sexuality, not to deny it."
As a teen-ager in working-class Brixton, Skin says, she had to learn how to physically defend herself. "Otherwise," she sighs, "you'd get beaten up all the time." Maybe that's why now, at 28, she seems to enjoy a good verbal row. Even her song titles are meant to provoke, like "It Takes Blood & Guts to Be This Cool But I'm Still Just a Cliche." "Little Baby SwastiKKKa" attacks Britain's neofascist Nationalist Party; "And Here I Stand" documents the racial tension pulsing through London's East End; and on the ferocious "Intellectualize My Blackness," Skin slashes away at a fellow student-body rep who was "Always tryin' to make up for his little slips/ The joke about the nigga and the yellow nip/ Then he tells me I'm so different from those other shits .../ Motherfucker, don't you lecturize me." True story, Skin swears.
"He was someone I went to college with, who, I discovered over a period of time, wasn't really into politics," she explains. "He was just using it as a means to become a very powerful person, and he'd learned what to say and how to say it."