A lot of things clicked for me when I heard/saw Devonté Hynes and his band perform songs from Freetown Sound, the latest album released under Hynes’s Blood Orange moniker, at the Greek Theater in Berkeley on Saturday night. The choice of who was on stage with Hynes and the movements/dance moves in which he partook signalled that this was a performance inspired by—and for—queer and trans people and/or black women, lending the songs of Freetown Sound a new air of utopian possibility. In its LP format, Freetown Sound is not an easy listen. Clocking in at 58 minutes, the album is considerably longer than the usual 40-minute standard length for comparable “indie” albums. It is also a heavy album, one that Hynes has described as “for everyone told they’re not BLACK enough, Too BLACK, Too QUEER, not QUEER the right way, the underappreciated.” The album, especially during the second half, has this long, slowly-drawn out heaviness (lots of reverb and amplified bass) that materially attests to the never-ending daily struggles of the black, queer, female, and/or trans people that Hynes centers on the album. In capturing the relentless rhythms of these quotidian struggles, it at times becomes difficult to hold onto the fragile hope that opens the album in the form of spoken word poetry from Ashlee Haze, who powerfully declares on the first song on the album, “I will tell you right now there are a million/ black girls just waiting to see someone who looks like them.”
At the Berkeley show, Hynes and company opened with “By Ourselves,” the opening track from Freetown Sound. Where Hynes contributes vocals on the album version, in concert he sat down and played his keyboard while the two female backup singers standing to his right sang all of the vocals themselves. The two singers appear to be black and white—which, given the presence of white women on Blood Orange’s previous album, Cupid Deluxe, and the shift in emphasis to black women on Freetown Sound, was fitting and likely intentional on Hynes’s part. During this opening song at the Berkeley performance, Hynes provides the background music for the women’s voices. The setup on state visually reinforces this sonically centering their voices. At the Greek Theater, the black female singer stands tall in between Hynes to her left and the white female backup singer to her right. At the end of the clip, Hynes turns towards the black female singer (*edit, 9/1/16: who, after some further research, I believe is Ava Raiin, the singer featured on multiple songs on Freetown Sound), looking her directly in the eye. This is for her—and for the black women in the audience—in a special way that it is not necessarily for everyone else. Later, when Hynes is up at center stage and dancing around, he turns towards the group of young black women at the literal front and center of the audience and gestures in acknowledgement towards them. The young women react with joy and glee as they point back towards him back and then ecstatically turn towards their friends. In a weekend where Rihanna and Beyoncé, holding it down for black women, made the MTV Video Music Awards suddenly not as irrelevant as it has been the past few years, this was a significant moment.
Later in the set, Hynes and the band perform “Better Than Me,” another song from Freetown Sound. The structure of the song is one where Hynes mumble-sings the verses over some very 80s synths (that practically drown out his vocals on the recorded version)—and then vocally turns up the volume once he reaches the chorus. When he reaches the chorus version in the performance at the Greek Theater, he harmonizes with the backup singers for the first two lines (“Know my worth and fake the blame/ But I know she’s better than me”) instead of taking the lead. During the next vocal couplet, Hynes lets the backup singers sing the first line and then comes in to harmonize with them on the second. Hynes and the backup singers go through the latter singing distribution twice more (with Hynes singing at a higher vocal register each time) to close out the chorus. As the backup singers and he get ready to vocally release again, Hynes spins about on stage and does movements that I would categorize as voguing-esque and the dancer and performance studies scholar with whom I chatted with while waiting in line to enter the venue would describe as dancing alone in his bedroom moves. Where Hynes provided the music for the backup singers during “By Ourselves,” it is the female singers who give Hynes the soundtrack for his moves during “Better Than Me.” While Hynes notoriously maintains large amounts of creative control over his albums (the liner notes for Freetown Sound, for example, credit him with “production, engineering, mixing; main instrumentation: vocals, keyboards, synths, piano, guitar, bass, synth guitar, clarinet, cello, drums, percussion, composition, arrangement”), the performance of “By Ourselves” on stage, with other people, becomes a space for imagining a collectivity that centers the experiences of black women—and queer/trans people.
Released on June 28, 2016, Freetown Sound is in good company with a wave of albums that have come out since early 2015 that politicize some combination of blackness, maleness, femaleness, femininity, queerness and/or transness. On a more mainstream level, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, released on March 15, 2015 and April 23, 2016, respectively, have provided endless talking points about black masculinity and black femaleness in particular. These albums and the subsequent performances of some of their songs have raised their share of questions of who’s missing, such as where black women were (besides as dancers) in Kendrick Lamar’s performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” at the 2016 Grammys and where Big Freedia—or any trans person, for that matter—was in the visual album for Beyoncé’s Lemonade. For Blood Orange, black (and Latina) queerness and increasingly transness have been at the center of his musical project. As Hynes famously declared in an interview with Interview Magazine in 2010, “The whole aesthetic of Blood Orange is basically a celebration of gay culture.” As a result, both music critics and fans alike have often read Hynes as queer on account of his feminine gender presentation and engagement with queer and trans culture. While Hynes has largely skirted questions about his sexuality in the media, he has nevertheless remained steadfast in his commitment to queer/trans people and culture.
This is most immediately clear on the Freetown Sound track “Desirée,” on which Hynes samples sound bites of Venus Xtravagnza (who, granted, was not black—but was a trans woman of color) talking to (white lesbian) director Jenny Livingston in Paris Is Burning, the documentary on late 1980s ball culture in New York City. On the album, this song immediately transitions to “Hands Up,” an ode to those who have been literal or figurative victims of anti-black police violence. “Desirée” and “Hands Up” are two of the most explicit songs about trans women and black people murdered by the police that Hynes—and most other contemporary artists—have ever written. I was extremely surprised to not hear either of these songs in the set on Saturday night (although I wonder how much of that was Hynes worrying about trying not to rattle those in the audience only there for Grace Jones too much). Instead, we heard two of the strongest songs from Cupid Deluxe, “Chamakay” and “Uncle Ace,” both of which in terms of dance or lyrics reference queerness. The music video for “Chamakay” features some of Hynes’s first forays into what I (and others) have termed vouging-esque movement. “Uncle Ace,” meanwhile, has been described by Hynes as a song about how queer and trans youth who lived along and rode the A, C, and E trains. At the Greek Theater, these songs were strategically positioned near the end of the set, with “Uncle Ace” Blood Orange’s last song for the night. For those unfamiliar with Dev Hyne’s work before Freetown Sound (or at all), this queer and trans connection likely went unnoticed. But for those of us at the front who were there just as much for Blood Orange as we were for Grace Jones, we fucking got it—and danced our asses off as a result. This was a space the young women and men’s blackness and my queerness.
On vacation from Austin, which is the whitest place of anywhere I’ve ever lived (Jersey City, Philly, and Brooklyn are considerably more diverse than the supposed pool of blue in a state of red city that is my current home), it was beyond refreshing to be surrounded by so many queers and/or people of color in the audience. At the risk of making some race, gender, and sexuality assumptions, this is who was (presumably) surrounding me: the before-mentioned group of young black women and men directly in front of me, two middle-aged black women with nose piercings, spiked up hair, and lots of Grace Jones-esque makeup to my northeast, a group of white (and other fair-skinned) queer women (and possibly also some genderqueer folks) to my right, a southeast Asian couple to my southeast, a black man in his mid-30s (with whom I nerded out about music) behind me, a group of middle-aged white gay men to my left, and a Latinx couple to my northwest. But, because even the concert space for a Grace Jones and Blood Orange is not completely safe from the perils of the outside world, all was not completely utopian. In between sets, a middle-age white gay man swooped in from my southwest and tried to push his way up to the front. Once he told one of the women near me to “Die, bitch,” all of us standing in her direct proximity starting screaming at security until they ejected him from the venue. In another existence, this white queer woman who was pseudo-chatting me up posed to take some fetishizing photos with the aforementioned middle-aged black women with the piercings and makeup (and I subsequently starting fading myself out from that conversation).
Blood Orange’s set was an opening, a queer, black, trans, and feminine space within the bigger space of the Grace Jones show that was arguably already hospitable to those things in its own way. Even after acknowledging all of that, I must say that I felt much more connected to Dev Hynes’s set than that of Grace Jones, which is at least partially a result of he and I being around the same age and therefore growing up as part of the same generation. The music of Blood Orange has also been a huge part of my life since I began grad school three years ago. There have many times where I’ve felt that I’ve been grappling with questions of queerness, femininity and androgyny along with Hynes (and with questions about my whiteness and cisgender-ness on my own in relation to all of that). These are all positive and generative things. Nevertheless, I am left wondering about what the possible repercussions of accessing black femaleness and transness through the performances of someone who was born—and identifies—as male are. This is a huge question that I will not even attempt to begin to answer in a 2,000 word blog post. One thing I can say about Dev Hynes (in stark contrast to Beyoncé, for example) is that he continuously talks about the queer, black, and/or trans people and culture from which he draws inspiration constantly in all of his interviews. That he feels like he has to keep talking about them illuminates how much carrying on the utopian possibility of performances such as Blood Orange’s requires that we continue the conversation after the show is over—and that we carry this spirit over to attempting to make political and cultural interventions of our own.