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05 VV Brown Rose Eye COLOUR

The beautiful and terrifying life of V V Brown

08 May 2023, 12:30

Six years after stepping away from the music industry, V V Brown is back with her most uncompromising statement yet. She talks to Alan Pedder in depth about how going back to her roots inspired her upcoming album Am I British Yet?.

By her own admission, V V Brown has always been “a bit mouthy.” With her new multimedia project Am I British Yet?, she’s found the ideal vehicle for really sounding off.

Driven by a genuine desire to spark important conversations about what it means to be Black in modern Britain, it’s a defiant, celebratory and provocative work that digs into the marrow of an identity that we still hear too little about. “There’s a lot of talk about the Black experience in America, but being Black British is its own thing,” says Brown. “It’s a really interesting dichotomy that I wanted to dive into.”

Born in Northampton to a Jamaican mother and Puerto Rican father, Brown describes her parents as “classic Windrush generation” who were raised in fragmented family units, separated from their own parents for years. Her mother grew up in Leeds, while her father was sent to the much smaller town of Northampton, where there was only one other Black family at the time. Inevitably, both experienced a lot of racism growing up – “I have stories for days about that,” she says, recalling the ugly rhetoric of Tory MP Enoch Powell, whose ghoulish ‘rivers of blood’ speech spurred a wave of racist hysteria at the end of the ‘60s – but went on to establish their own private school in 1983, “unheard of at the time, but it’s still running today.”

Brown was born that same year – the first of six kids – and credits her inspirational parents for giving her the freedom and space to chase her wildest dreams. “They always taught us to think outside of the box and to not be a statistic,” she explains. “There’s sometimes this idea of what it means to be Black and that you have to fit yourself into that box, but my mum always encouraged us to just be ourselves. To be proud in our Blackness, but to challenge what that means and not conform.”


Growing up, Brown was an avid hip hop fan, played trumpet in jazz bands, sang gospel songs at church, and headbanged to punk songs in her spare time. She also loved neo-soul, especially Erykah Badu, and at age 21 was briefly signed to Polydor Records as Vanessa Brown, R&B star in waiting. Shipped out to LA, she made an album with big-name writers and producers, but was ill-equipped for the experience. Finding her own vision crowded out by the egos of others, she spiralled into a deep depression and a sleeping pill addiction. It was only after ending a disastrous relationship and selling her keyboard for plane fare that she was able to go home.

Determined to try again, she played every London venue that would have her, and by age 25 she was back on a major label and a star on her own terms. Or at least some of them. Her debut album Travelling Like the Light was originally meant to be a punk record, rather than the fizzy, retro-styled ‘musical mashed potatoes’ that sold by the truckload in 2009. “Obviously it ended up sounding very different, but if I played you my demos you would be shocked,” she says, laughing. “I mean, thank god for ‘Shark in the Water’ because it’s still paying the mortgage, but at heart I was still that girl who was out there playing shows, barefoot and rolling on the floor of pubs in Camden.”

Now a mother of two young girls, aged seven and four, Brown is more likely to be collapsing into a sofa at the end of the day than channelling her inner Poly Styrene. But the punk spirit is still there. When we meet at her manager’s flat, she’s keen for me to know she’s made an effort. “I wore these just for you,” she says, grinning and wiggling her feet to show off some chunky, blue-soled boots she’d bought especially for the trip to London. “I’m normally rocking up to the school run looking like a nightmare in Crocs with saggy tits and joggers with holes in, covered in paint.”

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Brown left London in 2016, moving closer to her family in Northampton, and shortly after decided she was done with music altogether. After 15 years at the grist mill of the music industry, motherhood had given her an out and she grabbed it. Posting on Instagram to “put a peace sign up and say thanks for the ride”, she bowed out with love. Looking back now, Brown knows that part of it was the post-partum depression speaking, and that what she meant was not an ending but a pause.

“In the six years since then, I really feel like I've found my most authentic self, psychologically speaking,” she says, explaining how she used the time to reconnect with all the music she loved as a child. “I was going to the studio, but only sporadically. Obviously I didn’t have much time, but also I didn’t think I was good enough. I thought everything I made was so shit. But I kept going every now and then, more for the therapy of it than anything else.”

It was only when she stopped breastfeeding her youngest daughter that studio time became more of a need than a want. She called up a friend for advice, which led to her being introduced to Australian hip hop producer Sensible J, who sent her a bundle of bed tracks that he’d been working on. She lived with them “for ages,” listening while doing household chores and letting her mind wander and eventually something clicked.


“Suddenly I tilted my head and thought, ‘Right, okay,’ then sat down with my laptop and wrote the whole song ‘Black British’ in 25 minutes,” she says. “I listened back to it in the car on the way to pick up the children and was playing it really loudly outside the school gates, with all these very middle-class parents walking past. Then I called my husband and told him, ‘I feel like this is it!’”

In many ways, the Am I British Yet? project picks up where Brown’s last single “Sacrifice” from 2016 left off. In the self-directed video for that song, Brown used whiteface to make a bold statement about how being Black in Britain can feel performative. “I’ve always wanted to be an activist in my music,” she says. “I remember when I was making Travelling Like the Light, I went into a label meeting with four songs, and one was about slavery. The all-male A&R team were like, ‘This cannot go out.’”

With Am I British Yet?, Brown says she feels like the music was not just allowing her to talk about such topics but telling her to do it. Having experienced synesthesia while writing for her last album Glitch, she says the spark for her latest work came in a similar way. “I was seeing a lot of browns and cocoas and silhouettes of people, a lot of chatter and conversation. I was like, ‘Okay, this is the beginning of something more...”

BEST FIT: Did the title “Black British” come at the same time, or is that something you thought of later?

V V BROWN: It was very immediate. I find it really difficult to write lyrics. Honestly, they just come out like vomit. I’ve just been diagnosed with ADHD, which might explain why I’ve never been very good at being the kind of songwriter who spends time waiting. I can’t sit still. So the words just come out pretty quickly, and the title “Black British” is what the sounds felt like to me.

To me, the bassline had a groove that reminded me of my days of being at church and singing gospel music. It also reminded me of Soul II Soul records and music of that era. I started thinking about my grandmother, my parents, and obviously everything that happened off the back of Black Lives Matter, which had penetrated the zeitgeist and the social consciousness so deeply. I felt really excited by that, as an artist. I wanted to dive deep into this conversation.

How much of that was you educating yourself in the process?

I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t know that much about the Black British movement before making the album, and I’m still navigating through all that history. I’ve really had to take a step back and look at my own understanding of what’s happened in this country. Of course, I know about my family history. I know about the history of the Windrush generation – I’ve lived it, I feel it, I see it. But we’re not taught much about the activists who actually tried to make a difference.

Darcus Howe is someone that I really look up to. He was one of the founders of the British Black Panther Movement and, weirdly, he’s the father of a guy I worked with at Island Records, Darcus Beese. I was in awe when I found that out.

I see this album as an exploration of my identity, and part of that is recognising the things that I don’t know. I feel like all the albums I’ve ever written about been some kind of investigation, but Am I British Yet? is a bit like doing a master’s degree in sociology and music combined.

I’m really open to learning. If someone hears something on the record and says, ‘Hey, that’s actually historically inaccurate,’ then I’m open to changing it. Maybe I will need to make edits along the way, but the important thing about this album is that it’s about community and conversation. I want to have that dialogue. Let’s all talk together and learn from each other.

Well, you certainly started a conversation off the back of the single artwork.

Yes. Oh my, I didn’t expect it to be that big, if I’m honest. I was actually quite nervous when I started to see the comments coming in because there were a lot of very angry people who thought that I was deliberately vomiting on the British flag.

There is a reason to that artwork, which I’m going to write an essay about, but I can just tell you what it is.

How about I give you my interpretation and you can tell me if I’m way off?

Yeah, please!

I see it almost like food poisoning. British culture feeds you but it also makes you sick.

Literally, that’s what it is! It’s like she’s trying to digest the culture. She wants to digest the culture, but she can’t and it makes her sick. After I received all of these racist comments, I was like, ‘This is it! This right here is why she’s being sick! The irony!’

So, yeah, I was nervous when I first saw the comments. I remember saying to my manager, ‘Oh god, did we make a mistake?’ and wondering if I should take it down. I mean, I’m an artist, I like to look at or listen to things that sometimes make me uncomfortable. I love that process of being made to look a bit deeper. But I don't want to hurt anybody. I don’t want people to think that being British isn’t important to me.

Later I realised the feeling I was having – all that second guessing and feeling like I have to mute myself – was the exact same experience we have all the time as Black people in this culture, accommodating the feelings of others just to feel like we can belong.

It’s so fascinating hearing people’s opinions. Some of my Black British friends didn’t get it, other people don’t get it, but you got it, and I think that’s interesting. That’s the beauty of the conversation. If someone doesn’t understand, you can say, well, let me explain it to you and maybe you’ll see my point of view.

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Would you describe the album as some sort of journey?

Not a consecutive journey, no. It’s a twelve-track essay from the perspective of a marginalised Black woman. But it’s not just about a Black woman. I think when you feel marginalised a lot of the same feelings apply. When you’re listening to “Black British”, it’s of course coming from my perspective, but a lot of the lyrics can apply to any group that has felt marginalised, whether it’s the Black community, the trans community, the wider LGBTQ+ community.

I find it really difficult to write lyrics. I’ve recently been diagnosed with ADHD, which might explain why I’ve never been very good at sitting still and focusing. Honestly, the words just come out like vomit. I’ve actually written a book that will come out with the album, and I’m writing some essays that will come out as well. I hope that people will start to get a real understanding of the depth of the songs and what they mean.

And you are working on a documentary as well?

Yes! There have been a lot of documentaries about Black Britishness, but I really want to shine a light on the Black alternative scene and the people who are out there shattering stereotypes in Black British culture.

I remember having a massive argument on Twitter with one Black commentator. She was saying that to be Black you have to be a certain way, and that made me really angry because there are so many young Black artists who are in their rooms making punk records, electronic records, classical records, everything! Things that aren’t necessarily ‘urban’ – ugh, I hate that word – and I want to speak for them.

When we were growing up, pretty much the only visible Black woman in British alternative music was Skin from Skunk Anansie.

Yeah, she was it. I think she’s brilliant. She has so many interesting things to say about her experiences. It was fascinating when they announced Stormzy as the first Black person to headline Glastonbury, and she was like, ‘Well, actually it was me.’ Unbelievable! I didn’t even know that!

I feel like what we are talking about now is very much part of the current conversation. We had Arlo Parks speaking out recently about people trying to keep her in one artistic box. We have Rachel Chinouriri constantly having to fight to be recognised for the artist she is and not the artist people think she should be. And Laura Mvula, too.

There’s a lot of talent out there, and I love it when people are actively challenging the status quo. We can’t move forward as a culture unless we challenge our limiting ideas of Blackness. Art and culture are supposed to penetrate a sense of feeling comfortable by putting up a mirror to things that aren’t quite right. Taking the box and shaking it up! Because we’ve got to move past and shatter all these social constructs that are preventing people from just being themselves.

Going back to “Black British” and the lyrics, you say you're just vomiting them out but there’s a lot of food for thought there. I keep thinking about the line “navigating through the beautiful and terrifying life of Black British,” which I think sums up the album – or what I’ve heard of it so far – incredibly well. Do you feel like, since having your kids, that the world is even scarier than ever?

In a lot of ways, yes. Becoming a mother, the first thing that changed was a huge shift in my priorities. When I was in my twenties, I was worried and anxious about myself. And now I have children I am worried and anxious about them. It’s like I exist but I don’t really. Because I’m living for them, in a way. The things I was worrying about in my early days feel like nothing now. I am more terrified and more aware of this world, because of them. And I am constantly navigating through the beautiful and terrifying life, for them.

At the same time, I do feel a calmness now that I never had before. And there’s a beauty to that, but it’s scary too. And the world is looking scarier, just in general. We’re moving away from nature and into an age of narcissism on crack. I feel so blessed to have learned to think about others more. I wouldn’t say I was a selfish person beforehand, but being a parent is a whole new level of self-sacrifice and that gives you humility and perspective. It grounds you and makes you think about the things that are important.

Honestly, I think this is the healthiest place I’ve ever been in my life. For years the music industry has told me what I should define as happiness and success, and it was always attached to toxic things that don’t mean anything and don’t really exist. Now I’ve learned to define what I think is successful, what I think is peace, and what I think is joy. And those things are nature and my family, and creating a real connection with people like the one we are having right now. If anyone loves my music, I’m so grateful. But at the end of the day, I’ll still be going home to my husband and my kids. I’ll still be sitting in the garden and listening to the birds.

Speaking of being terrified, I remember your Twitter posts from the day you first took the new album to the Universal office. You were so nervous!

I was literally shaking. To go back into that building after releasing Samson & Delilah and Glitch independently, I was dead scared.

I was nervous about them trying to tell me to change it, but I was so surprised. Everyone just loved it and told me to just trust my own instincts, and that was really refreshing. I’d never had had that kind of support from a label before. When I released my first single “Whipped”, almost 20 years ago, it was a time when as a Black artist, and especially as a Black woman artist, you really had to play the game to be successful.

What’s changed for me is that I’m not nervous about what happens next. I honestly have no expectations about this record. I don’t know if it’s going to be streamed two times or two million times. I just don’t think about things in that way anymore. I’m just glad that I was given the opportunity to create again. That’s what feels good.

"For years the music industry has told me what I should define as happiness and success, and it was always attached to toxic things that don’t mean anything and don’t really exist."

Each of your albums has been so distinct from the last, and Am I British Yet? is no exception. One thing that ties everything together really nicely is your use of samples, not just of landmark speeches but also more everyday things like community gatherings. Was that something you knew you wanted to include from the start?

Not at all. I kind of stumbled upon that. When I’m writing, the first thing I think of is, ‘What does this song make me feel? What am I seeing when I think about this song?’

For me, the music and the visuals are very much intertwined. Sometimes I see a music video before I even see the end of a song. For this album, I was going on YouTube and through online archives absorbing everything I could find about Black British culture, and through exploring those themes I started to think about including some of that archive footage.

It’s a hip hop record, so it’s already in a world of sample culture. It’s really amazing and interesting to dive into all that stuff and see what historical audio is out there for anyone to use for free.

Let’s talk about “Twisted”, which feels to me like an important statement on the appropriation of Black art and culture. You’re talking about people like Elvis, the King of white privilege, among other things.

That’s going to be the next single, actually! And yeah, it’s about cultural appropriation. The definition that we all know. I’m talking about this sort of twisted celebration of Black culture that’s everywhere. This hypocritical space where Black art is held up but there’s a silent hatred of it at the same time. I think the lyrics are quite blunt, so I hope that people get what I’m talking about. And the music video is very blunt.

Ha! I can’t wait to see it. Is it another one that you've made with your husband?

Yeah, even though we are releasing the album in a partnership with Universal, everything about this album is indie. It’s real kitchen shit. I’ve done all the artwork and made the website myself, and we’ve both directed and made the videos together.

I love creating with my husband. I think he’s a genius. And I think it’s interesting that I felt nervous about it at first. But that’s the beauty of being in a mixed relationship in which the other person embraces your Blackness completely. I’m not muted in his presence in any way, and that made realise that it was okay to collaborate.

I think when you are so passionate about Blackness and you are very honest about the history of it, you can sometimes feel a bit guilty that you fell in love with a white person. But the kind of honesty that we have with each other is exactly how it should be. I’m like a wild hurricane sometimes and he’s my calming waters. He’s slowly taught me about listening and being still, looking at the world in detail.

Sometimes it feels like people see me as ‘lucky’ because I’m with a white man. Since we moved to the countryside, I have had this a few times. And, because our kids are quite light-skinned, people have often assumed that I’m their nanny. I remember being at one play date and some women kept asking me questions like how long had I been working for the family, and when I said, ‘No, no, these are my children,’ they looked at me and said, ‘But you’re quite dark, aren’t ya?’ In the moment, I was like, wow, but when you’re in that environment with kids around, you don’t want any tension or conflict. I just want my kids to have peace.

I remember reading your article for The Guardian in 2020 about the challenges of being Black in the countryside, and just how few Black families there are. It struck a nerve with me at the time, as a gay person about to move to a rural community, though I have to say I have felt very welcomed.

Right? That goes back to what we were saying earlier. Everybody’s journey and stories are different, and I wouldn’t want to paint them all with the same brush, but there are similarities in the feelings of different marginalised groups.

Even though I grew up in the countryside, moving back there as an adult I definitely came across things that didn’t sit well with me.

I wanted to talk about that, actually. There’s a line in your new song “Philosophy” where you sing “I’m living my life / decided that I’m no longer negro,” and that reminded me of what you’d written about being in the countryside and encountering words you thought had died out of polite society. That must have been horrible.

I was very shocked at first, but I've learned to sort of look at it with more compassion and education. I used to be more militant at the beginning. I’d be like, ‘I’m gonna Malcolm X you!’ but now I’ve learned to be more like Martin Luther King with a dash of James Baldwin.

I’m never going to mute my feelings when I hear people using words like that, but a lot of these people are from a different time. I’m like, how can I talk to them in a way that they understand that what they said isn’t right, but we can still be friends afterwards?

“Philosophy” seems to me very much about setting healthy boundaries, and also seems to touch on your own mental health struggles.

I think I can be quite ambiguous in my lyrics and sometimes people might think it’s just gibberish, but you are really seeing it. The song is about all those things, and also about the sexualisation of Black women and being a survivor of sexual trauma. There’s a line that goes “I’m no longer inclined to deliver your needs / to sex your ego,” and that’s very much about how you overcome that trauma or that constant objectification.

You wrote another very passionate piece in The Guardian about that awful article Jeremy Clarkson wrote about Meghan Markle last December. It was obviously very triggering for you.

Yeah, honestly, that was really painful. You know, when someone’s a dickhead to you personally, they’re just a dickhead. But when culture magnifies that behaviour and normalises it in a national newspaper, that’s the thing that really hurts.

That whole thing really scared me and made me really question who we are as a nation. As a woman, you are always going to have dickheads like Clarkson say horribly unkind things about you, but to have that go through a female editor and taken to that very public level, that’s the part where you start to wonder if everyone with power in this country is actually a psychopath. I was so angry.

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Your new song “History” is sort of in the same spirit of fighting back, particularly in terms of generational trauma and the need to shake that off.

Yeah, you got that perfectly. I don’t want to go too deeply into this here, but I definitely feel like there’s a lot of generational trauma that runs in families – not just in the Black community – and it’s up to our generation and the younger generations to break it.

I fell out with my mum last year and didn’t speak to her for a while, which was really sad. For me, a part of that was standing my ground because I felt like there was an honesty that we needed to have together about breaking these emotional attachments to old-fashioned values, and now we’re in the best place ever with each other.

“History” is also a nod to those who have died and to those who risked their lives to pave the way so that my generation could be who we are. James Baldwin is my hero. He was so fucking brave, so unapologetically brave, not only as a Black man but as a Black gay man. Honestly, the amount of breakage he created in communities plagued by generational trauma on both those levels… I just love him.

It's also about us as a Black British community rewriting our history, to celebrate all the great things that we’ve done and moving into the future. It’s time to shake off all the lies, shake off the generational trauma, shake off the homophobia and the religion that has put us in bondage. It’s time to shake off whatever is limiting us from being our true selves, whether you’re Black or trans or gay. Shake off all of that shit!

I love that. I don’t have kids, but it’s something we should all be working on anyway. And it ties nicely into the last of the five songs I’ve heard so far, “Be It”. Now that feels very much like a song about passing on healthier values to children.

Absolutely, yes. It’s definitely about the positive reproduction of values in Black culture. I’m a real believer in words and in manifesting, and I think there’s a power in saying “Be it,” and letting whoever it is feel empowered to be themselves fully without limitations.

It's interesting that you picked up that it was for the kids, because I was very much thinking of them when I wrote it. Even the middle eight is quite nursery rhyme-esque. I deliberately wanted that to feel like I was sitting in a library in front of a whole load of children, almost singing to them.

I think, as a marginalised individual, you are sort of plopped into this aquarium of bullshit, and it’s about how you navigate through that. It’s about how you swim through all these feelings of helplessness and alienation. By masking and hiding yourself? That can cause a psychological turbulence in you, and you need good people around you to help you shake that shit out.

For me, “Be It” is a song that happens kind of towards the end of that process, when you step out of the aquarium and can finally breathe.

You’re planning your first live show in years. How are you feeling about that? What can people expect?

I think it’s going to just focus on the new album. I did battle with the idea of doing old stuff as well, because it’s been so long and I didn’t really get to tour the Glitch album, but I think it’s better to create this very focused musical experience. I’ll have a ten-piece choir and some wonderful poets that I’ve worked with through my charity, the Say Something Collective, which supports Black creators in rural areas.

To be honest, this is how I want to do shows going forward. I want to tour in a way where it’s not just me on stage performing to a crowd. I’d love to do something a bit more curated where I’m not the centre of attention, basically. I’d love to develop some kind of workshop and go around galleries and community centres. To offer people the chance to come away from the show with more than just music.

I still get anxious about the way that the music industry and fame feeds the ego. I think that side of it is so unhealthy, and it’s something that I’ve struggled with a lot over the years. It’s not normal, so if I can find ways to dilute the bullshit and make it more about creativity and community, that’s what I want to do.

And if anyone tells you otherwise?

[laughs] I’m gonna tell them no! I’m 40 this year. I’m, like, a grown ass woman. There’s no way I’m doing things I don’t want to do. In this industry, you’ve got to protect your mental health.

Am I British Yet? and the accompanying book and documentary will be released later in 2023. The single "Black British" is out now.

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