Published Jul 06, 2016Dev Hynes was wearing a T-shirt memorializing the lives of Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin when he and his then-girlfriend, Samantha Urbani, were attacked, allegedly by three Lollapalooza security guards, in 2014.
Hynes, the mastermind behind the adventurous pop-R&B-jazz hybrid Blood Orange, was wearing the shirt onstage when he played the festival earlier that day; he'd given a speech about racism. Hynes' patella was torn, his body "bruised up" by the encounter. He weighed in with a tweet the next day, on August 2: "I can't believe it. I'm so upset. Why is this still happening? I just want to make music."
It's a sentiment that pops up repeatedly in conversation with Hynes. One of the first things that comes up is a 60-minute mix he created in early 2015, just to "give it out to friends." The subject matter, he says, was less filtered, "more intense" than the music he'd released to date. "It's the record of new music in between that no one's heard, which I made at home, all on cassette." Though it was fully written and recorded, the tape didn't feel right as a Blood Orange release, so it stayed among friends. It wasn't the only recording Hynes shelved, either.
A year-and-a-half earlier, on July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Hynes told his friend Julian Casablancas — in a conversation that would later be published, unedited, on Casablancas's website — that he "went home, and that week wrote a whole album of songs that were just about how I was feeling about the entire thing. My goal was to create a fake email account and email it to publications for free to put out, because I wanted it to be out. This is a problem that I have in general, but I didn't want me to be the aesthetic. I didn't want myself to be in the way of what I was thinking and what I wanted to say."
Though he decided not to release the album, it was the beginning of a fertile creative period that found the already-prolific Hynes confronting race more explicitly than ever before. He released singles "Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?" and "Sandra's Smile" in 2015, in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Sandra Bland.
The Trayvon album and his 60-minute tape were outliers in the Blood Orange canon. Though the two singles were released under that moniker, Hynes included a message on the "Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?" SoundCloud page, just to be clear: "This is not from my forthcoming album, just some things on my mind."
That album was Freetown Sound, Hynes' third full-length as Blood Orange. In a recent Red Bull Music Academy interview with friend and musical peer Kindness, he referred to it as him "taking a step out and being like, 'Oh, I am a black man living in America.'" But where his unreleased material from the past few years was his rawest yet, Freetown Sound, Hynes says, "is more streamlined."
With Freetown, he wanted to be more explicit, but not at the cost of his grander vision: expressing strong, personal ideas, but without centring himself as the voice of a generation or community. With those "intense" songs, Hynes says, "the music I made after that [Trayvon Martin] non-judgment, there was actually a message. I was saying a point of view. Freetown has a point of view, but it's more just someone talking to me, rather than me talking to them. With this one, I wanted to create the world, but then I wanted to disappear in it, whereas before, the world already existed, and I wanted to disappear in it — but I didn't know how to do that."
Before finding the perfect balance between music and politics, self and community, Hynes needed to find a way to get out of the message's way first — that is, if he wanted to share a message at all.
Devonté Hynes has been making music professionally since 2004, when he joined UK dance-punk outfit Test Icicles as a teenager. Before that, he'd mostly played in metal bands; after, he wrote solo, but collaborated often, first under the guise of Lightspeed Champion, then as Blood Orange. On the side, Hynes composed a film score, and wrote and produced for Solange Knowles, Sky Ferreira, Kylie Minogue, FKA twigs, Kindness, Heems and Carly Rae Jepsen, among many others.
Hynes was born to a Guyanese mother and Sierra Leonean father in England's East London suburbs, where he spent the majority of his youth and was met with frequent, intense bullying.
"It was an especially confusing thing, growing up," Hynes confides now. "The place I went to school, the biggest population there is Islamic and Sikh, and yet the BNP [British National Party] was always in power. There was this awful thing where I'd be walking home and if I saw the Union Jack outside of a pub, I'd cross the street. It's insane to grow up in a place and see the flag of that country and think, 'Oh shit, I have to cross the street.'"
Though being an excellent athlete helped Hynes fit in at school, it was music in which he found real solace.
"My dad listened to classical a lot, and my mom was more a fan of pop like Sade, Simply Red and Annie Lennox." As the youngest sibling, Hynes absorbed much of what his siblings listened to as well: "My sister was a big Nirvana and Blur fan, and my brother was into rap. Then I got into metal. That's how I learned guitar; I learned guitar through playing in metal bands."
At 18, Hynes left Essex school Chadwell Heath Academy to join Test Icicles, a dance-punk trio capitalizing on the success of New York City bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars and the Rapture. Dev wrote, sang and played keyboards and guitar on the well-received For Screening Purposes Only in late 2005, but by February 2006, the group had disbanded. Hynes later told NME that "We were never, ever that keen on the music. I understand that people liked it, but we personally, er, didn't."
In 2007, he moved to New York to pursue a solo career as Lightspeed Champion; his debut, Falling Off the Lavender Bridge, was released in January 2008. Today, Hynes looks back fondly on the record. "The first Lightspeed album is similar, I think, to [Freetown Sound]. That was about a lot of race stuff and displacement in regard to living in London."
It also marked the beginning of his collaborative streak; at various points, his touring band included members of Arctic Monkeys, the Horrors and We Are Scientists, as well as Florence and the Machine leader Florence Welch. He spent the next year touring before undergoing a throat operation in early 2009 that pushed back the writing of a second album, but by the time he released Life is Sweet! Nice to Meet You in early 2010, he'd already begun performing new songs as Blood Orange.
After a debut single in January 2011, Hynes released the first Blood Orange album, Coastal Grooves, with Domino in August. It was Hynes' first with producer Ariel Rechtshaid, with whom he'd later write for Carly Rae Jepsen and others. Throat surgery had softened his voice, and though it retained a hint of his more angular Test Icicles days, Hynes was playing a guitar-heavy R&B style that evoked Prince as much as the New York indie rock scene. It was received somewhat tepidly, but Hynes' stock would skyrocket in 2012 with the release of Solange Knowles' True EP, which the two wrote and produced together.
It was a preview of what was to come on his eclectic, sprawling 2013 opus, Cupid Deluxe. Enlisting collaborators like Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth, Clams Casino, Skepta and Chairlift's Caroline Polachek, the album blended R&B, hip-hop and disco, Michael Jackson, Prince and Sade, into 11 perfectly arranged pop songs that earned Hynes universal critical acclaim. The album confronted the same thorny issues — race, gender, orientation and class — that Freetown Sound does, but even on "Uncle Ace," a song about displaced and homeless LGBTQ folks in New York City, it was latent, implicit.
Cupid Deluxe cemented the Blood Orange name and established Hynes as a premiere pop songwriter. Based on his reputation, Hynes was tapped to contribute two songs to Britney Spears' forthcoming Britney Jean. Both songs would be rejected, but Hynes' fans considered it her loss.
The Trayvon Martin verdict was pivotal for Hynes. After shelving his response album, he started work on a new one that would more explicitly address the issues confronting black people in America. He took a page from the book of artists who had meant the most to him: "The best stuff, to me, isn't the stuff they felt I needed to hear; it's the stuff they felt they needed to make."
So, he says, "I put pressure on myself. There's so much content nowadays, so much stuff around. It made me think, more than usual, about what it is I was going to be putting out into the world."
Hynes wanted to make space on Freetown Sound, "a world for people that they're able to be free in — to be themselves, to talk in. I just felt like that was such an important part."
He found the voices of others that inspired him, and used them to cut clean through the metaphors of his previous work: "Hands Up," a song about self-love, ends with Black Lives Matter protestors shouting "Hands up, don't shoot"; a De La Soul sample at the end of "Thank You" claims "A meteor has more rights than my people"; the sparkling, sax-fuelled "Love Ya" begins with a J Dilla siren, and closes with author Ta-Nehisi Coates wondering how to dress to avoid everyday violence.
The album begins with "By Ourselves," a track that samples poet Ashlee Haze's "For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem)," which urges the importance of feminism and seeing women like Missy Elliott — "someone who looks like them" — succeeding in the music industry, love and life.
That directness, though it's coming from other voices, "is a reflection of who I am, too," says Hynes. "I've become a more straightforward person. I really let a lot of things slide when I was younger, and was trying to be cool, follow trends and stuff. Now, I just don't have the energy. I think that's kind of worn off on the music I've made."
Hynes himself delivers plenty of poignant moments on Freetown Sound, but he's modest and pragmatic about when to use his voice: "I'm very aware of what it can and can't do. I'm more than happy to use other people's voices to take the music to a place." Empress Of leads the danceable "Best to You"; Nelly Furtado guests on the gorgeous, harmony-laden "Hadron Collider"; Debbie Harry also appears, as do newcomers BEA1991 and Kelsey Lu.
Freetown Sound is characterized by a loose, mixtape feel that jumps from genre to genre between, and even within, songs. Hynes compares the record to producers' beat tapes: "It's sort of like that, where you can essentially start anywhere in the middle of the tape and you'll know what it is. That's how I always felt about [the Beastie Boys'] Paul's Boutique; you can start that anywhere. You can start anywhere and you're in their world. There's no mistaking that you're in something they've created."
For all he's been through, and despite the stakes, the world Hynes has created is one of love, not anger; Freetown Sound channels the world's horrors into beauty.
"That's always been my thing. I've always believed that shouting isn't really the best approach to get your point across. When I was growing up, being bullied so much, I embraced a silent competitiveness: if I could become the best of who I am, then there was nothing anyone could ever say. I've never kicked and screamed; I'd rather sit back and try to do the best that I can. If you do the best that you can do, and you're completely happy with what it is, then no one can ever say anything to you."