Blood Orange:
A Personal History

© Emmanuel Olunkwa

Words by:

Dev Hynes was supposed to spend his week filming scenes for a music video outside of New York’s legendary bar and LGBT rights monument Stonewall Inn. But last weekend, a tragic shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando left 49 dead. Having attended a Vigil at Stonewall two days before our meeting, his focus on the site has shifted.

“It was the day before Orlando that I had the idea,” Hynes says of the now-nixed shoot, which would have included a lip-sync scene involving the statues in the park directly outside of the Christopher Street bar. “It’s really crazy, the timing. Pride is always special, but I feel it’s gonna be an even more special situation.”

Via social media, the 30-year-old musician behind the moniker Blood Orange has become a trusted first-responder and cultural commenter as people unpack moments like these. He’s a community- focused artist who mourns with his fans and engages with political movements like #BlackLivesMatter, and the art he creates further reflects on collective pain. His standalone 2015 tracks Sandra’s Smile and Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?, for example, directly engaged with tragedies such as the death of Sandra Bland in her jail cell and other acts of the police’s racially-motivated violence against young black people in America.

On his new Blood Orange album Freetown Sound, Hynes mixes the personal and political, naming the album after the capital of his father’s home country Sierra Leone and placing himself in his parents’ shoes to reflect their experiences as twenty-something African immigrants who relocated to the UK. “I moved to New York around the same age they moved to London,” he explains, speaking tenderly about the people who raised him. “I’m trying to picture that period and also relate it to now. The album is more of an exercise in thinking about yourself and family and timelines and bloodlines.”

The exercise arrives at both a professional and personal apex for Hynes, whose name has become synonymous with left-field pop quality. He’s hitting nearly a decade of living in New York City, and alongside his work as Blood Orange, he’s found rare success as a behind-the-scenes songwriting and production genius for the likes of Sky Ferriera, Solange Knowles and his dear friend Adam Bainbridge, aka Kindness. For the first time in his career, he can feel the weight of that rise. “I’ve never made an album for myself where I’ve known that even if there’s a small fraction of people, they will listen to it,” he admits.

With Phillip Glass’ Words Without Music in hand, Hynes is dressed comfortably in a black basketball shirt and a t-shirt for the muggy Thursday evening he’s spending in DeSalvio Park, a bustling NoLita playground rife with teens and kids playing basketball in the small open corner that’s surrounded by Italian pubs and restaurants. Urban parks are an important part of his experience in Manhattan; he wrote lyrics for Freetown in DeSalvio and Washington Square Park, enjoying the happy medium between the hectic atmosphere of the city and the brief taste of nature.

“I like to sit in the city,” he muses. “I can’t go upstate, that gives me a panic attack. I’m happy to go to weirdly overcrowded parks.” As a resident of NYC, he’s found more unity here than in East London where he grew up. “There’s crazy racism where I’m from [and] I was bullied by black kids so I felt so displaced,” he tells me. “I really only recovered from that in the last few years.”

At a young age, a self-taught appreciation for black history turned out to be a source of solace, and Hynes wondered constantly if the bullying could have subsided if that history had been taught in his school, if the lessons could have unified his black classmates instead of making him feel displaced. “Even if it’s not taught in public schools here, there’s still an awareness of what people have been through,” he says of the difference between America and the UK’s approach to educating black history.

Still, his twenties being spent in America have been highlighted by the racial tension the country has experienced over that time, specifically the near-constant news stories of mass shootings and deaths of primarily young black men at the hands of white police officers. “There’s no real other place where you’re made to be aware of your place as a minority than in America,” he says. “That’s been interesting.”

While 2013’s Cupid Deluxe – Hynes’ acclaimed sophomore album as Blood Orange – served as a love letter to his adult home of NYC, his latest goes back to his familial roots and pays tribute to how childhood and his parents’ histories have shaped his perspective. Songs like Augustine blend tropes of West African Christianity with direct references to the death of Trayvon Martin. “Cry and burst my deafness,” he sings, directly quoting St. Augustine, “while Trayvon falls asleep.” Elsewhere, on the song Love Ya, he unites his parents musically by reworking a song by the artist Eddie Grant, who hails from Guyana just like Hynes’ mother, while also sampling a Freetown woman speaking in Krio about her faith in God as her village is destroyed by rebels.

“I won’t ever actually know what my mum and dad’s twenties were like,” he says while noting that he has not yet been to the city of his album’s namesake. “I’m imagining and trying to relate [their experience] back to mine.”

© Emmanuel Olunkwa

As an artist, Hynes has a rare balance of nostalgia and futurism. Beyond his parents and the black history he devoured as a kid, he’s a student of the music that preceded him without letting it overtake his vision. Freetown Sound is woven together with skit-like samples of cultural figures such as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, De La Soul and KRS-One while highlighting newer work like the piece For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem). Written by the young slam poet Ashlee Haze, whose performance of it went viral earlier this year, For Coloured Girls… sets the tone as the introduction to the album.

Hynes views this album as a kind of compilation, inspired somewhat by the Beastie Boys’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique – a record famous for its innovative, complex collage of samples. “I first heard the album when I was 14, back in my skating days in East London,” he recalls, picking up his pace while talking about the hip-hop classic. “I’ve listened to that album my whole life. I can put the tape on at any point, and I’m in that world that those guys created.”

Dev Hynes’ world, as it has been revealed to his fans, is a multi-textural one. The Blood Orange sound, which is often tender and melodically rich, is inspired by music played around Hynes’ household, ranging from his father’s appreciation for classical to his mother’s love for UK soul like Sade and UB-40. He’d hear his sister play Nirvana and Blur through his bedroom wall while his brother was a fan of hip-hop. Around the same time that he fell in love with Paul’s Boutique, he was beginning to formulate his own taste, becoming obsessed with British guitar bands like Mansun, Ash and The Bluetones while also morphing into a metalhead. As an artist whose back catalogue ranges from the adolescent screamo of his first band Test Icicles to the eloquent indie-folk of Lightspeed Champion, it’s no wonder that his musical education was so diverse.

"There's no real other place where you're made to be aware of your place as a minority than in America"

“Slipknot was probably my biggest obsession. I still am a huge Slipknot fan,” he says with a smile, making a mental note to listen to the masked nu-mental titans later that night. “There was a weird period six or so years ago when I was emailing with Shawn ‘Clown’ Crahan about doing something. It fell through somehow.”

In the interim, Hynes has established a solid crew of collaborators, though there is still time for Crahan to join. The artists he works with become not only his friends but an important member of a self-created, unofficial collective of individuals he can call up and continue working with. “There’s rarely people that I work with once,” Hynes says firmly. He’s been known to turn down work with artists he doesn’t click with, placing priority on developing a sense of trust and intimacy with his collaborators. “If it’s not that kind of vibe then I don’t care. I care about making friends, because then what you create is good. There’s no hard feelings in it. You’re not disappointed when you finish the creative aspect of it. It’s an ongoing process. That’s always what I want.”

Freetown Sound has Hynes working with new and old friends, including Bea1991, NYC multi-instrumentalist Kelsey Lu, Nelly Furtado, Debbie Harry and Carly Rae Jepsen. He’s collaborated with Jespen before, co-writing All That from her critically and commercially successful album Emotion. After their Freetown reunion, the pair have begun writing together again. “She’s just so good at writing pop songs,” he gushes. “She does things that I can’t do and that I can’t think about.”

When Hynes talks to me about Debbie Harry — a legend in reinventing what it means to be a cool New Yorker with both punk and pop sensibilities — it’s like he can’t quite contain his shock in being able to call the Blondie icon a friend. “We’ve become friends the last couple of years and have been hanging out in the studio,” he says, while revealing that he’s been working on some of her own material. “I think I was playing E.V.P for her and the idea for her singing came out while I was playing it. She was like ‘Yeah let’s do it!’”

“I wanna see if he makes the next one,” Hynes says, mid-thought. There’s a basketball game taking place on the court that hits the periphery of our vision. Hynes watches closely as a young boy makes a valiant effort to get the ball into the hoop.

The kid just hits the rim. Our conversation comes to a close, and Hynes decides he’ll stick around to watch the game, and even ponders joining. It seems that New York City, and this open corner with a clear view of the chaos surrounding it, is a place where, after years of searching, Dev Hynes feels truly at home.

Freetown Sound is out now via Domino Records

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