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The vital importance of Skunk Anansie headlining Glastonbury in 1999

Given Sir Lenny Henry’s recent comments regarding the lack of Black representation at Glastonbury, we decided to take a trip down memory lane to what is arguably the most pivotal moment in the festival’s existence, when British rockers Skunk Anansie headlined in 1999. 

But first, it is critical to heed Sir Lenny’s full statement. “It’s interesting to watch Glastonbury and look at the audience and not see any black people there.” He expressed, “I’m always surprised by the lack of black and brown faces at festivals. I think, ‘Wow, that’s still very much a dominant culture thing’.”

Lenny Henry is right, Black representation at Glastonbury is incredibly low. Although this year, things seem to be changing even more. They have secured another Black headliner to add to their small list, the rapper Kendrick Lamar, which will hopefully go some way in showing to the community that it is a place for BAME people as well. 

Added to this, just on the festival’s main stage, The Pyramid, there are also Ziggy Marley, Les Amazones D’Afrique, AJ Tracey, Diana Ross and Herbie Hancock, as the festival seems to have made a conscious decision to up Black representation further. In addition to this, Megan Thee Stallion and Burna Boy are the two final acts on The Other Stage on Saturday, showing just how far the BAME community has come in its struggle to be represented at the Somerset festival. Maybe, just maybe, this year Lenny Henry will be pleasantly surprised by what he sees.

How Skunk Anansie got their name

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Obviously, there is much still to be done, but the festival has come a long way in its 50 years. Before this year, Stormzy’s 2019 headline appearance, and Jay-Z’s in 2008, when Skunk Anansie took to The Pyramid Stage on the Sunday night of 1999, they made history. Frontwoman Skin became the first Black British headliner of the festival, something that would not be repeated for 20 years when Stormzy graced the stage with his iconic bulletproof vest. 

Appearing on Edith Bowman’s Play Next podcast in 2020, Skin maintained that the backlash against her headlining was double what American hip-hop hero Jay-Z faced before his headline slot in 2008. 

“So we really did walk on that stage feeling like we had something to prove,” she explained. “But those Glastonbury audiences, they went off, and it was like I was the match and there was a field full of gunpowder. It was one of the best moments of my life.”

“It didn’t even occur to me that I was the first British black woman to headline Glastonbury, it wasn’t kind of cool to talk about it in those days, it wasn’t something that people wanted to hear”, she continued. “Now it’s wonderful because obviously, we can say that. I think that things are changing, they’re changing slowly but we’re moving on. Different times.”

Skin then said that she faced double standards in the music industry because of her race. She elucidates on this experience in her 2020 memoir It Takes Blood And Guts, discussing why headlining Glastonbury was such a monumental moment for her career and society as a whole.

She said: “The set is featured in the BBC documentary Glastonbury’s Greatest Headliners, but back then, there was grumbling in the music press that our ‘stadium punk’ wasn’t right for headlining the festival. In the late 1990s, Britpop bands had dominated the Pyramid Stage for some years, and even though we were a hugely successful band by this point, we still felt we had to prove ourselves worthy.” 

Skin explained: “Part of the reason I think there have been so few POC headliners at Glastonbury is because diehard fans and sections of the press and music industry think only rock or indie bands deserve the slot. We were rock through and through, but to some people, having a black front woman and a groove to our sound meant we weren’t rock ‘enough’. Festival organiser Michael Eavis did something special when he gave us a seat at the table, letting it be known to all that Glastonbury would have a more diverse future. He was ready to take a risk and withstand the backlash. His daughter Emily followed suit in 2008, when she put Jay Z in the top spot.”

Interestingly, in the Edith Bowman podcast, Skin also revealed that rock music is regarded as “white”, and that it’s a fact that she probably wouldn’t have been comfortable airing in public if it wasn’t for the Black Lives Matter movement which spread like wildfire after the racist murder of George Floyd in 2020.

She told Bowman: “I guess if Black Lives Matter hadn’t happened, maybe I’d still be keeping that to myself, because whenever I’ve said that people have been like ‘yeah, but no that’s not the issue…’ – actually it is.”

This is why Skunk Anansie’s headline performance at Glastonbury 1999 was so significant. Not only did it start a conversation, but it railed against the double standards that Skin faced daily, whilst also starting the festival on its long road to equal representation. A truly remarkable feat.

Whilst the journey isn’t over, as Sir Lenny Henry’s observations attest, you cannot doubt that the moment Skin walked on stage, things started to change for Glastonbury, for the better.

Be sure to catch the band on The Other Stage on Saturday at 14.15.

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