After a six-year hiatus, artist, writer, producer and activist VV Brown has released her highly-anticipated new album, Am I British Yet?
Released on October 27 via her own YOY Records label (in a services partnership with Virgin Music), the project was launched in March this year with the single Black British, a track which explores what it means to be Black and British in today’s society, a subject that has permeated Brown’s music.
To promote Am I British Yet?, rather than following the traditional route of touring, Brown is collaborating with the Arts Council on a project which will feature a curated exhibition mirroring the themes of the record, constructed around tracks like Black British, Twisted, Marginalised, No Fear and History.
To celebrate the upcoming release, we meet VV Brown to talk about the story behind her new album, speaking her truth and how she really felt about returning to the industry…
Congrats on the new album. Am I British Yet? is such a powerful title, what does it mean to you?
“I am so relieved that I have got to a place where I can explore and demonstrate a part of my identity that I have muted for so long. I set up my record label in 2013 so I had creative freedom there, where I was releasing my own record, but there was still a fear of allowing my authentic Blackness to come through because there was still this element of ‘playing the game’, not wanting to be too intimidating and not wanting to shout too loudly about my Blackness.
“I'm a bit of a product of the industry because I came in a long time ago. I got signed when I was 17 and I'm 40 now, so I've been socialised to mute my Blackness. So with this record, it's such a joy. What it is saying is, even now with the shift of consciousness, there is still a disenfranchisement when you're Black and British, a sense of, ‘Do you truly belong?’
“There's a nod to the Windrush Scandal [in the record], or me living in the countryside and immediately being asked where I'm from, rather than just an acceptance that I was born here. This album is exploring all those concepts of disenfranchisement, belonging and identity. Even being first generation here, because my mum came here when she was four, my dad came when he was 15, [I’m asking], ‘What does it mean for me where I have a slight disconnection to Jamaica that is very different from my parents?’ This is a sociological study on Black Britishness and trying to debate it through sound on so many levels.”
When you say you feel relieved that you can speak your truth now, was it self-censorship? Or were you expected not to speak about your Blackness?
“I was expected not to speak, I remember going to meetings presenting songs that would talk about these kinds of concepts and being told that it wouldn't get played on radio, or it was too political or it might offend people. When I first started, it was very much about a commercial pop record, we were aiming to get onto Radio 1, but now that I'm a bit older, I'm not really concerned about those spaces anymore. I'm more concerned about the message and it being organic.
“People that really know me, Vanessa Louise Brown, know that I'm an activist. I'm the person on Facebook that is ranting, I'm the essay writer in my spare time, I'm the girl that goes to the rallies and no one knows I'm there because I've got my hoodie on and I'm in the background shouting and marching. That's the Vanessa Louise Brown that no one really saw during Shark In The Water, and the Marks & Spencer’s campaign. For this record – it might be my last, who knows – I needed for people to see Vanessa Louise Brown, the artist that has rice and peas and chicken on Sundays, whose dad cooks ackee and saltfish, and whose Uncle Earl is in the corner shuffling with his shiny shoes. So I hope that the community, my original fan base and the industry get a sense of that. This isn’t VV. This is Vanessa.”
You said “everything with this album, from the artwork to the lyrics and music videos is about starting a conversation. I don't care if anyone's offended. Art should make you feel uncomfortable, sad, scared, insulted. The last thing I ever want to do is to make people feel nothing”. What were the specific, perhaps uncomfortable, questions that you were hoping to pose on this album?
“Am I British Yet? Am I good enough for you? Do you embrace me? Am I your equal? Does your institutionalised racism affect my children, making them feel less than? Do you influence my socio-economic status and how I rise through this industry? Are these spaces safe? All of these things are wrapped up in that first piece of artwork where there's a Black woman vomiting on a British flag. For me, that was a powerful piece of art. That represented everything I'm saying, and it was interesting seeing different perspectives when it came out, from the Black community and from the white community.
“The white community naturally thought, ‘How dare she vomit on our British flag?’ There was nationalism exuding from their bones as if there was hatred towards us even daring to talk about colonialism, [whereas] from the Black community, they almost understood it a bit more. Then when I revealed what the message was, people kind of went quiet and thought, ‘Oh right.’ I'm ingesting British culture into my body. It isn't giving me what I need as a Black woman and so because of that, I'm sick. British culture is making me vomit. It's not giving me the sociological nutrients I need.
“Every piece of artwork we've released has a message, a story. I'm really unafraid to dive in deep with that. And if you feel uncomfortable, I'm glad, it's good. The people who feel uncomfortable, they're going through the process. It's like a malfunction, they need to go through it to get to the other side. So let's just talk. Be uncomfortable. It’s great. Love it.”
It's interesting that you've chosen not to tour to promote the album. Instead you’re working with the Arts Council on a carefully curated exhibition that mirrors the themes on the album. What was the inspiration behind that?
“Childcare! Straight up, childcare. I'm a mother in music. I have a four-year-old and I have a seven-year-old, I'm very engaged with their life and I love picking them up from school. So I was thinking, how can I tour in a way that allows me to still be a mum and in the industry? Doing something with the Arts Council, like a gallery tour, means that I can perform in the afternoon. I can curate something with all these amazing artists and have dedicated performances that work for me, on my terms, with my family life. I don't really want to go back into that whole late night tour bus culture, it's just not for me. So I have to think outside the box, especially as an independent artist where touring is very expensive.
“Even with the next record, I'm going to be thinking about how I can create something that is multifaceted, that isn’t just music. Maybe the next project [will be] about synaesthesia; the relationship with colour and sounds. Maybe the record after that is all about sex, where the music evokes sexuality and everything can be met with a curated exhibition. So you're bringing music, culture and art together. That's kind of where I'm headed. It goes beyond this space of relying on radio and traditional touring. It's bigger than that.”
Am I British Yet? is your first album in six years. What’s it been like returning to the industry as an artist after all this time?
“I was so nervous to come back in. During that six-year period there were so many times I was like, ‘I'm gonna do an album. No, I'm not.’ I got offered record deals, which I said no to because I was really scared. I left the industry when I was pregnant, and I remember putting a statement out where I basically said I wasn't coming back and needed time for my mental health. I had gone through a lot with postnatal depression, and when I was in the industry in my 20s, I went through quite a lot of things that really affected me as a person.
“I think a lot of artists go through a lot and some people turn to drugs, some turn to alcohol, some turn to eating disorders to cope. So, I was scared that, after having all the therapy and finding stability and a sense of safety, that I was putting myself in a dangerous environment that would trigger all those things again.
“I remember the first meeting I had at Universal, who licensed the record, and I was terrified. We were all sitting around this big, long table and I realised that it had changed so much. There was a sense of awareness about wellness and more artist collaboration, it just felt so different from before. I was pleasantly surprised, and I left the meeting feeling like, ‘Wow, it's really nice to know that artists are coming into this kind of space now.’ The industry has definitely evolved. I've been loving working with Virgin Universal with this deal. They've been incredible.”
Do you think that artists get enough support with mental health?
“During my experience of being in the industry, there was nothing. In fact, the idea of mental health and the word ‘wellness’ did not exist. But in the last six months, when we put out the artwork for Black British, we got over a million views and something like 15,000 comments on the ‘vomiting’ post. There was so much racism in the comments. I was getting DMs, like, ‘I’m gonna kill you, ‘You Black monkey’, ‘I'm going to lynch you.’ I was getting quite scared, I'll be honest. But within minutes of Universal seeing this they put me in touch with a therapist, and I thought to myself, ‘My God it's evolved.’ I was so impressed by that. It did feel really nice to know how proactive, specifically Vanessa Bosåen [Virgin president], was in making sure that I felt safe. They were calling me, asking me how I am. I was just so impressed.”
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INTERVIEW: COLLEEN HARRIS