Blood Orange: An Artist and An Activist

Dev Hynes as “Blood Orange” released his fourth album Negro Swan, on August 24, 2018. It is his most intimate, political, masterful album yet. The sounds are heavily influenced by the jazz, funk, soul, dance-pop of the ‘80s, but it takes on a contemporary R&B vibe with a range of styles and genres present. Perhaps unironically, black swans are historically prized for their exotic, unparalleled beauty. However, European colonizers regarded them as ugly and evil because of their color.

Hynes celebrates, claims, and breathes life into the historically unrecognized beauty in blackness, but also acknowledges the depression it has caused him. On “Charcoal Baby,” he sings that “no one wants to be a negro swan,” allowing a societal hyper-awareness guided by guitar riffs to transcend the construction of time and space. He is able to incite the importance of anti-racism in an elegant, profound metaphor. This line is a powerful plea to the white world to recognize its faults, oppressive nature, and exclusive ideals. His depression, caused by the identity he inhabits, is something tactile, physical, and painful— insight into his traumatic memories, childhood, and experiences as a queer, black male. There is power in his story-telling, directless. He opens “Orlando” by detailing the abuse he suffered at the hands of his peers as a kid, singing that his “first kiss was the floor,” a brutal comparison of violence and intimacy, evidence that experience and existence shape our worldview and perceptions.

Though the subject matter is politically motivated, gloomy, even heartbreaking, the production is flawless. The tracks include various elements of guitar, synth, jazz to generate closeness and hope. The “abstract, melancholic, disjointed” nature of the album will frustrate those seeking more structured pop, according to Jason King. Instead of his usual, upbeat hooks, there are moments of contemporary soul, such as on “Nappy Wonder,” where he claims “feelings never had no ethics.” One can feel the weight of a lifetime guided by conversation, experience, poetry, desire, muses, idols, confusion.

Puff Daddy, a feature on “Hope,” sings that a past lover “brings hope when [they] come around, [he] still smiles when [they] come around,” a ray of light that only the vulnerability of love can bring to an album of sadness and grief. Moments like these contrast the overarching anxiety that existence in America has caused Hynes.

Hynes does not allow his depression to detract from the empowering nature of blackness, too. Negro Swan’s musical influences come from “jazz, soul music, Memphis rap, and gospel.” For example, on “Chewing Gum,” Memphis-rapper Project Pat crafts a “head-bobbing rhythm” complemented by Hynes’ soft “tell me what you want from me.” All of Blood Orange’s songs on the album, though carefully produced, seem raw and authentic. The closing track “Smoke” ends with the refrain “The sun comes in, my heart fulfills within,” a wishful sort of optimism that Hynes is forced to cling to. Negro Swan is a timeless experimentation and analysis of intersectionality— in Hynes’ case, blackness and queerness— and Blood Orange masters his artistic ability and becomes one of the most influential and insightful voices in music. His exploration and journey in sound and lyric remains a politicized, argumentative act.

Now more than ever, America needs the artistic, charismatic vision of artists like Blood Orange. In the past year, America has hosted events such as Charlottesville, a white supremacy rally that championed Nazi and Confederate flags; racially-motivated crimes comprised nearly 60 percent of overall crimes; our President perpetuated division and exclusion through language and policy; NFL players were criticized for their choice to kneel during the National Anthem. These events lead us to question: what has America become?

Blood Orange, one of many artists and activists, is to thank for the empathy that music provides. He exposes and illuminates the power of words, of speaking, of creating purpose. Negro Swan is a brilliant work of art that will remain ageless, sincere, and relevant. Through the work of different mediums of art— visual, performance, conceptual— societies and narratives are able to be altered so that humanity can continue to exist.

– Chloe Tomblin ’19

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