Skindred’s Benji Webbe on bringing unity through music and refusing to leave his hometown of Newport

  • “If I can’t encourage, motivate and uplift people, what am I making music for? It’s pointless”

He has played in front of crowds three times the size of Glastonbury and sold half a million albums globally.

But sitting down with Skindred’s frontman Benji Webbe in his hometown of Newport, you realise the music he makes, to him, is more than the sales and the sell-out gigs. 

Ask the simple question of what kind of music is Skindred, don't expect a simple answer. 

'Heabernativetalggae Rock' is how one internet user tried to describe it on Reddit. 

Skindred hope to tour again in October 2021 Credit: PA

The unique fusion of genres of punk rock, heavy metal and reggae is a deliberate choice - a “bridge building” exercise and a way to bring people together in a society that has arguably never been more divided, Benji passionately explains. 

Being one of the only black families on his council estate, the Skindred frontman has been heavily influenced by his childhood experiences.

  • "A lot of it was people not knowing the culture of black people in the town”

"Living in Ringland in the 70s was a challenge”, Benji says. 

“Being one of the only black families in the area, you learn quickly that there was a divide - and you learn to dodge the snakes and the ladders. A lot of it was people not knowing the culture of black people in the town.

"But growing up in Newport, it was a beautiful place because it wasn’t like black and white, it was more wrong and right."

After losing both his parents by the age of twelve, Benji was raised by his brother and sister - and it was through his brothers’ love of reggae, he started to explore his own musical tastes.

He told ITV News seeing black musicians represented on television was what made him realise he could do something similar.

“Where we’re filming this today it used to be the old Odeon cinema. I remember breaking into here with my friends with a coat hanger and sitting down and watching a film.

“They showed a trailer for a film called Dance Craze which was all about the British ska movement at the time. I saw these black guys on stage with these white guys, and I’m just blown away. Because these guys looked like they were from a council estate like me.

"It was like ‘Wow, if they can do that kind of stuff, then I can do that kind of stuff'."

Skindred performed in more than 30 countries during their last tour Credit: PA

While his brothers were listening to reggae, rock became Benji's music of choice.

"Growing up in an area where you had Rastas, punk rockers, it was a big influence on me", he said.

"One of my brother’s friends was a Rasta and came into my house and asked to borrow my Sex Pistols CD. I was blown away that this guy who was black like me, wanted the punk rock stuff. I was made up he wanted it!

"I look at my music as a bridge-building music. I feel that’s something I’ve been blessed with to do that - to bring it all together. 

  • “If I can’t encourage, motivate and uplift people, what am I making music for? It’s pointless”

Benji’s passion to entertain others through music continued to grow, and he helped form his first band Dub War in the early 90s which was a clash of punk rock and reggae. 

“We’d go on stage and you could see the band looking at us trying to suss us out.

“One thing that stood us apart is that we were good and we delivered a live show.”

He went on to form the band Skindred which has seen huge success all over the world.

“We’ve played big shows but one of the biggest ones was in front of 750,000 people in Poland", Benji says.

Skindred performing in front of 750,000 people at the Pol'And'Rock Festival Credit: Pol'And'Rock Festival (formerly Woodstock Festival) 2011

“I want to take people on a journey. When you come to a Skindred show you see a 60-year-old guy with bald head and tattoos and you see six young girls windin’ up - to the same song!”

“I’ve had the same line up for twenty years - so we must be doing something right! We are able to keep it fresh and move with the times”, Webbe said. 

“The message of unity is so important to us. What I find is I get a lot of emails from people who have been downtrodden and they feel encouraged by the lyrics I write.”

“If I can’t encourage, motivate and uplift people, what am I making music for? It’s pointless”

Benji Webbe said fans are "taken on a journey" during their live performances Credit: PA

The knuckleduster Benji dons which spells out 'SHOW TIME' is a symbol of his desire to perform. He says the coronavirus pandemic has “beat the hell” out of him. 

“It’s a sad state of affairs. We had Australia booked, Japan - and it’s all gone - and we don’t know when we’re going to be able to do that again.

“As a band, we get royalties but the boys in my crew, they’re feeling it more than ever. They set up the stage - and when there’s no stages to set up, they don’t eat.”

  • "Keeping it real is better than fame. It's important to be a beacon of light"

Benji spent five years living in America, but was keen to return to his roots in Newport. 

“Keeping it real is better than fame. I love Newport, because I feel comfortable here. 

“I’ve known my neighbour for over 50 years. I live in a decent neighbourhood - it’s not the best neighbourhood but I choose to live in trouble because it’s important to be a beacon of light. 

"Show people they can be strong in their own community. I want people to say ‘if he can do it and he’s grounded, why can’t I?' And I don’t want to hide my light under the bed, I want it for the world to see - and that’s Newport, that’s Pill.”

Benji described the exposure of racism in America following the death of George Floyd as "heart wrenching".

“The killing of George Floyd was the catalyst that made America explode - and this stuff has been happening for so long.

"I’m glad my side is on the side of love, never mind about colour - it’s about the people.

"I’ve been writing about this stuff for years. It’s heart wrenching and I wish there was some sort of way people would come together.

"The fact people are pushed down because of what they are - is a shame. We should be judging people on the conduct of their character not the colour of their skin, or their sexuality. 

"Hate hate hate hate hate. It’s always going to be there - but for me, it’s all about love, and I’ve got the opportunity with Skindred to speak about love."