“I Think That If You Grew Up In The UK, You’re Racist”. Joy Crookes On Identity & Her Album Skin

Photo by Carlotta Guerrero.
“Hey! Talking about skin, I would like to keep mine!” It’s an unusual morning to say the least. I’m mid Zoom call with Joy Crookes – she’s on the sofa of her London flat, tucking into a meatless meatball Pret pot (she tells me she’s allergic to gluten, so no pastries for her) – when a mischievous black shadow whips across the screen, bared teeth making a beeline for her hand. “This is embarrassing!” she scolds. “I’m doing an interview!” 
After some wrestling, Diego – her cat – who “gets like that when he’s hungry”, skulks away and we resume our conversation. What were we talking about? Skin.
It’s the telling name of the debut album from the 23-year-old musician. A triumphant body of work, it delves into the very DNA of the artist: her lived experiences as a woman but also as a south Londoner with Irish-Bangladeshi heritage, and as a young person living in the UK, working in the music industry. 
“Biologically and scientifically your skin is one of the strongest organs in your body,” she continues. “But socially and externally, your identity is something that can be used against you. I like that juxtaposition between strong and weak, and it’s something that I grapple with a lot on the album.”
Tender and soulful, Joy’s music feels like an intimate conversation between friends at that hazy point of the night that meets the morning, where words are hushed and impassioned and the floor is an open forum for honesty. Through her vulnerable storytelling she offers a nuanced exploration of her multiracial identity, while observing 21st century anxieties and issues, which in a year like the one we’ve just had, is affirming. 
It’s no surprise that she has garnered a steadfast fanbase. With just one album under the belt, she is a speakerphone for generational discontent and, whether or not people want to admit it, the face of what Britain looks like now. In between taking to the stage at The BRITs in a lehenga (a traditional Indian garment), singing about mental health, abuses of power and casual sex, and even penning a scathing song the day after the Conservative party won the last general election, her music is positioned to engage in the world around and galvanise. 
“I think a lot of people think I rinse the Bangladeshi thing but the two times I’ve done it have been for a political statement or there’s been a reason behind it,” she says matter-of-factly when I ask her about The BRITs. “The fact I can be in a space like this and guarantee that no one else is wearing this, doesn't that say something about the nature of this industry?” 
In her music video for “Feet Don't Fail Me Now", exhaust fumes billow behind Joy as she revs a motorbike adorned in gajras (Indian flower garlands) while wearing a white saree. “I was using a lot of references to my Bangladeshi heritage because I was commenting on how men in the community are capable of making women feel like they're powerless,” she explains. “A white saree is to show that we're a widow. And I don't like the fact that you're defined by your husband's death as opposed to your life. So it's all about rewriting narratives really. Recognising my identity is important because it makes me feel like I deserve to put my foot where I want to.” 

I think that if you grew up in the UK, you're racist, whether you want to agree with it or not. You grew up with the British curriculum. We just have to admit – before we make any progress – we're all shit, and be okay with making mistakes.

At 14, Joy would sit on YouTube trawling through videos of female jazz powerhouses throughout time: Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Eartha Kitt, Billie Holiday. She was in awe of incendiary political songs such as Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, woeful songs that told stories of injustices of the time, searing hot with indignation. “It was the baddest bitch energy I’ve ever seen,” she tells me. Later it was unapologetic British artists such as Lily Allen and Kate Nash who a young Joy would idolise as she taught herself to play the guitar and piano, and produce. At 15, a YouTube video of a baby-faced Joy and a friend covering “Hit The Road Jack” caught the attention of a music manager, and by 19 she had signed with an imprint of Sony Music.
Skin album artwork
Like her heroes, her most condemning songs have been the ones to win her widespread acclaim, such as rhythmic, Motown-esque anthem “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now”, a critique of social media activism amid the Black Lives Matter protests last year. “The beauty about a song is you can immortalise that moment in time,” she says. “I was having conversations with my friends who were traumatised at the time and I was thinking, how do I be the best ally but also how do I make sure that I'm not making anything necessarily about me? How am I making sure that I'm using empathy as a fuel to fight and also, why the fuck is this person from my school pretending that they care when I know full well that something dodgy or racist would have happened to me in front of this person? Everyone is guilty of it, and there are times where I definitely haven't said things and plenty of times that I should have. I think that if you grew up in the UK, you're racist, whether you want to agree with it or not. You grew up with the British curriculum. We just have to admit – before we make any progress – we're all shit, and be okay with making mistakes.”

I feel like a very large majority of women have experienced some form of sexual abuse... and it’s about the work that happens afterwards. But as long as the work's being done, and I'm unlearning, then I am not becoming bitter. Then I am not defined by my trauma.

Also on the album is “Kingdom”, her biting track written and uploaded straight to Instagram in reaction to the last general election, with lyrics denouncing her perceived bleakness of the future: “No such thing as a Kingdom when tomorrow's done for the children.” When I bring up the motive for the creation of the song, she is impassioned and furious, like so many others. “I think it’s just fucked up because it's been, what, 12 years of Tory austerity? It's got to end at some point. But at the same time, the reality of it ending is…” she pauses, trying to gather her words. “No one fucking likes Keir Starmer. There's no opposition. For me, it really feels like there's no hope. Like I really can't keep relying on Stormzy to be sending Black people to Oxford.” She turns to her friend, who is sitting next to her offscreen, and incredulous laughter erupts from them both as Joy positions herself next to a window to smoke a rolled cigarette.“Why is Stormzy doing the work? Is that not fucking insane – and Marcus Rashford? That in our country, with one of the highest GDPs in the world and crazy rates of poverty at the very same time – you're telling me that footballers and rappers are feeding kids and sending kids to school? That is an indication of a fucked country.”
Joy tells me the oldest song on Skin was penned when she was just 15. Much has changed since then – she is, like everyone else, after all, the sum total of everything that has ever happened to her. For her, the willingness to be frank about traumatic situations has also afforded her the ability to heal but serves to remind other survivors that they are not alone. “Unlearn You”, a simmering, piano-led contemplation of trauma, started as a song about a relationship but after some thought eventually unpacked Joy’s own personal experiences with sexual assault and abuse. The lyrics pertinent to the pervasive culture of victim-blaming currently in the press: “I didn’t ever wear a dress / in case you thought I was asking for it.”
“I feel like a very large majority of women have experienced some form of sexual abuse,” she says. “And so for me, it's just an honest encounter with that, and it’s about the work that happens afterwards. And that can last a lifetime. But as long as the work's being done, and I'm unlearning, then I am not becoming bitter. Then I am not defined by my trauma.”
Joy has a busy year ahead of her – not to say that she hasn’t been going at a million miles an hour already. In a short period of time, she has dropped three EPs as well as several singles, also making the 2020 shortlist for the BRIT Rising Star Award, a prize earmarking the top British acts tipped to achieve big things in years to come. She also has her UK and European tours coming in the next months, with several dates already sold out. 
She hasn’t started working on new music yet but has been into “writing ideas and stuff”, namely covering songs again, almost a return to her YouTube roots. She tells me that the night before our conversation, she was playing around with an old country song called “Neon Moon” by Brooks & Dunn, which has since been covered by Kacey Musgraves and Cigarettes After Sex. Billie Holiday’s “You Go To My Head” has also had the Joy treatment. When I ask her if she would ever make country music, she tells me she would never write it off. “What it always comes down to is if the song is good,” she confirms.
Joy Crookes is poised to be the voice of a generation. It’s evident the music and the messages spill out of her as a matter of urgency – and whether she’s up for the job, there’s no doubt about it. “I just really like the idea of longevity. And I'd like my music to get more unapologetic.” She pauses in thought. “There are people that make honest music for this generation, it's just few and far between. And I think it's really important for me to take that position. Because of the person I am.”
Joy Crookes' debut album Skin is out on 15th October

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