Brixton is my barometer

Music editor Dave Randall on a musical autobiography that begins with a tribute to Brixton and is a good read from there to the end

Poster advertising Skin on Atlantic Road in Brixton

I feel very fortunate that one of the last gigs I attended before the March lockdown was a benefit for Deptford’s excellent Midi Music Company, held at the legendary 100 Club on Oxford Street.

Various students, alumni and other associates of the organisation took to the stage throughout the evening.

A succession of talented MCs and singers got the party started before the excellent Barbarella’s Bang Bang switched things up several gears.

And then it was the turn of the guest of honour – Skin, who performed unplugged versions of three of her hits accompanied by two female acoustic guitarists.

I’ve been a fan of Skin’s band Skunk Anansie ever since their first tours in the mid-nineties.

They immediately stood out against a backdrop of boorish white-bloke dominated Britpop. Here, at last, was a British rock band to get excited about – multi-racial; shaven-headed queer female singer; big riffs; political lyrics and great melodies.

Then, in the late nineties, I shared a few European festival stages with them when I was playing guitar for Faithless and both bands were riding waves of success across the continent.

But in the intervening years I had somehow forgotten just how awesome Skin and her songs are.

As I stood a few feet from the stage at the 100 Club earlier this year, I was struck again by her incredible voice control, those emotionally raw lyrics and that stellar stage-presence.

When it comes to British talent, Skin is the real deal.

And let’s not forget that contrary to common confusion, it is she, rather than Stormzy, who became the first Black British artist to headline Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage (with Skunk Anansie), way back in 1999 – a full 20 years before Stormzy’s now legendary set.

For all these reasons I was delighted to learn that Skin has written an autobiography – It Takes Blood And Guts – with additional input from her friend, music writer Lucy O’Brien. I’m also delighted to report that it’s a great read.

Skin comes across as thoughtful, curious and politically principled throughout. It begins with a tribute to Brixton:

“No matter how far I travel, I’m always a Brixton girl. I can be drinking a mezcal while listening to Bob Marley in Mexico, or eating a pizza in Napoli at 4am, but in my head I’m that child back home in Brixton Market, skipping between market stalls catching snippets of ‘big people’ conversations. Brixton is my barometer – always has been, always will be …”

She goes on to describe a Brixton childhood rich in music, the flavours of the Caribbean and memorable characters – including her Grandad Bertie, who once ran a drinking club in the basement of his home in Acre Lane known as the Effra Residential Club.

It became a favourite spot for Jamaican and Irish merrymakers and boasted visits from Muhammad Ali, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and independent Jamaica’s first prime-minister Norman Manley.

But Brixton was also a place in which a young Skin witnessed racism, riots and homophobic harassment. She also endured an abusive relationship and a violent assault – episodes discussed in the book with sensitivity, openness and clarity.

Skunk Anansie’s rapid rise from the North London pub circuit to major festival headliners makes for an exhilarating read.

There is all the glamour, celebrity gossip and haute couture you might expect from a rockstar and fashion icon. But there are fascinating social and political insights too. Her description of the anti-apartheid struggle and Nelson Mandela, who she met in 1998, is particularly moving, and so too is her campaigning work around the issue of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation).

Conversely, the racism the band has experienced while on tour – notably in Russia, and while supporting the Sex Pistols in Australia in 1996 – is particularly appalling.

Perhaps the finest achievement of this autobiography is Skin’s ability to share her personal highs and heartaches in an honest and tender way that helps the reader reflect on their own life.

It has all the thrills, spills and decibels you might expect of a life in rock & roll, but ultimately it is quietly life-affirming.

Dave Randall is a musician and author of Sound System: The Political Power of Music