By Sanna Hamid BA History and International Relations
Joy Crookes’ debut album is a beautiful storytelling of her upbringing and the people in her life, be it parents, grandparents or ex-lovers. It is an emotional journey into her identity and heritage as a young British woman of Bangladeshi Irish descent. ‘Skin’ has 13 remarkable songs (some of which she’s written from the age of 15!), with musical influences from her South London upbringing scattered throughout the rich production, such as from Ghanaian guitarist Ebo Taylor. With her angelic voice she touches on relationships, heartbreak, and self-love. She also makes the political personal whilst gracefully threading it all together on a touching journey about what life is like through her ‘skin.’
The first thing I have to say is thank you to Spotify for listening to Adele when she requested that they remove the default shuffle button on albums because the transition between the first song ‘I don’t mind’ and ‘19th Floor’ on this album is one of the smoothest transitions I’ve ever heard. I had to triple check it wasn’t all one song. Similar to other artists, especially from South London, Joy Crookes uses voice notes from family members to share with the world what a normal mundane conversation in a day in the life looks like, adding some context to the art. As a British Asian myself, I resonated with the sweet voice note she added between these two songs of her visiting her grandmother at her flat. Coming from a culture that places such emphasis on taking care of and respecting elders, it evokes a warm familiar feeling. I feel it’s especially important for diaspora communities to connect with their elders who would’ve gone through so much to give us the lives we’re blessed with now.
On the track ‘Trouble’ she battles with rifts in parental relationships (supposedly with her father after watching the music video). But she takes a spin on the usual narrative, instead focusing on the misunderstanding they both face when arguing because their ‘trouble’s the same.’ It’s about her realisation that no matter how often their clashes were, ‘really we’re the same’ and ‘birds of feather fly together,’ which exposes how deep down they just wish the best for each other, even if in the heat of the moment it doesn’t feel like it. But I think it definitely needs to be studied – why are parents expert nit pickers at whatever their children do? But actually, the answer is right in our faces, ironically as cliche as it is, they want the best for us! They’re rare souls on this planet who (mostly, if you’re lucky enough) want you to flourish more than them. Maybe they just need to move away from nagging as their plan of action for the beautiful, selfless mentality they innately possess. Anyways my mum is going to read this, so swiftly moving on…
‘Was it love or nicotine?’ she sings about her first heartbreak, a love story that unfolded in Brixton in the summer of ‘16, when the man she was with ended up being gay. Personally, I can’t relate, but ‘When you were mine’ is a banger nonetheless! In the song she expresses her bittersweet happiness for him, because she still wishes ‘someone better love me like that someday.’ The instrumental is a messy brass section inspired by Ebo Taylor. She describes Brixton as her ‘stomping ground’ growing up, the lyric ‘smile with the Brixton shine’ celebrates the vibrant and diverse life that comes from the community there. Several other songs also touch on love such as ‘I don’t mind,’ ‘Unlearn you,’ ‘To Lose Someone’ and ‘Wild Jasmine.’
Her more political songs are ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Feet don’t fail me now,’ one of my favourite tracks on this album. She refers to the corruption and incompetence of the current conservative government in ‘Kingdom’ and how it’s all linked with colonialism and perhaps climate change too.
‘Feet don’t fail me now’ is a song written with an ironic perspective in relation to the BLM movement and protests last summer. The song is written as if it was an ignorant character for whom it’s the first time in their life, they are having to tackle the subject of race head on, whilst for others their skin makes it a lived reality every single day. It draws out the performative activism but also has aspects that almost every non-Black person (including herself) would’ve struggled with – articulating themselves as being on the right side of history, or unfortunately not. As someone who went to a sixth form that had a strong white middle-class presence, I remember comments from some people along the lines of ‘why can’t we just leave slavery in the past?’ which shocked me, but it plays to the lyrics of this song to a T, ‘the dark side of my privilege.’ The music video is also a vibrant and interesting piece. The first time I watched it I couldn’t help but think it was referencing the silent majority mindset of anti-Blackness which is sadly present in the Asian community, but it’s also about visually challenging stereotypes of Asian women as submissive and voiceless.
In ‘Power,’ she sings softly ‘If you really want to free me, tell my mummy that she’s pretty, melanin is not your enemy.’ This could allude to the colourism present in lots of ethnic backgrounds due to the negative effects of colonialism, where people from colonised countries start to view whiteness as the ultimate beauty standard and associate fair skin with being a compliment. Growing up I’ve experienced this firsthand, and I’m glad the idea is gradually fading away, because it’s a ridiculous notion.
“It’s only after you’ve heard the whole album, that you can really appreciate the way the theme ‘skin’ is beautifully embedded in so many different ways in almost all the songs.”
Joy comforts a lover with their mental health, ‘The skin that you’re given was made to be lived in, you’ve got a life worth living.’ I hope no one is feeling this way, but it is a beautiful message for anyone feeling down. It’s only after you’ve heard the whole album, that you can really appreciate the way the theme ‘skin’ is beautifully embedded in so many different ways in almost all the songs. There’s so much more I could’ve said because there’s so much to pick out from this album, so if you haven’t already, go and listen for yourself!
Photo Caption: Joy Crookes on the set of her music video for ‘When You Were Mine’ (Credit: Chad Mclean via Trench).