Photo: Nick Harwood

Blood Orange Forgoes Hit-Making For Music Activism

Reflecting on past trauma & the effects of bullying, Dev Hynes finds hope in the darkness.

The steps to success are well-trodden and simple. Essentially they boil down to setting a goal, committing energy to it, and persevering until you’ve accomplished it. Not many people simply fall into a career in music, headlining festivals and amassing millions of streams on Spotify. But somehow, that’s kind of what happened for Hynes.

“Making music has always been something I just do,” says Hynes. “I think it forced its way to the front. I didn’t intentionally force it – it very naturally rose to the top of what I do. But I never actively sought anything out. I’ve worked really hard, but the situations have always just happened. [Music] is what I think about the most, which is why I never thought about it.”

Though music isn’t something Hynes consciously strove towards, it’s provided a backbone of support throughout his entire life. Professionally, he got his start as part of the indie/emo-hardcore band Test Icicles before branching into a solo career under the name Lightspeed Champion. The results of this project were albums Falling Off the Lavender Bridge (2008) and Life is Sweet! Nice to Meet You (2010). Just a year later, Coastal Grooves was released, his first album as Blood Orange.

“I’m very project-based,” he says. “I could explain visual ideas for every single project I’ve ever done. And it changes like that – it’s not particularly like Lightspeed and then Blood Orange. For example, the second Lightspeed album and the first Blood Orange album were written and recorded at the exact same time. I just separated them because I understand how it works, in that people can’t take things like that.”

Hynes is set apart by his ability to see the bigger picture. He knows what he wants to create, and has a distinct end goal in mind throughout his whole creative process.

“One thing that’s kind of weird is that everything is kind of happening at the same time,” says Hynes. “All these songs were pretty much being worked on at the same time, almost like a huge tapestry, rather than song by song. I tend to bounce between them all, all at the same time. There’s people I show stuff to while I’m making it, but they have to somewhat understand me. It’s hard for me to just play a song for someone because it probably won’t make sense and it most certainly won’t be the finished version of the song. I tend to finish everything at the same time. And I’m so big on track listings, and I really want the track list to make sense. Every decision track list wise is thought out like 50 times. [This order] just made sense. It’s hard to explain, but it just like… made sense.”

Negro Swan (2018), like his others, was a concept album. Hynes is a storyteller, weaving ideas together from song to song in order to form a coherent whole. Here, he’s helped by Janet Mock, who serves as a sort-of narrator throughout the album, giving voice to Hynes’s internal monologue and providing grounds for the track list to “make sense.” If you’re paying attention, you can trace back this pattern of purpose throughout his whole career.

According to Hynes, “everything is super intentional.” So although Life is Sweet! Nice to Meet You and Coastal Grooves were produced at the same time, there must have been motivation behind the decision to release them under separate pseudonyms, as different versions of himself.

“I changed my name because I was heavily aware of connotation,” he explains. “I’ve actively tried to remove myself from what I make, in a way that I don’t want people to have this image of a person while listening to what I do. So I wanted to kill off, at that moment, that idea. That’s not necessarily something I would do now, but in that period of time, that’s something I was really thinking about. It was more of a hatred for English press than anything. That was actually the last time I ever read anything that reviewed my music. None of it matters, you know? If a stranger walks up to you and says they hate your shoes, it doesn’t mean anything, but you’ll think about it next time you put those shoes on. It might make you not wear them, or it might make you buy another pair. But it will effectively change everything. Same go if someone says ‘Your shoes are incredible and I’ve never seen shoes like that before in my life, and how could you ever wear another pair of shoes?’ That would also fuck you up.”

By shedding his name and adopting a new one, Hynes enabled himself to speak his truth without ascribing that truth to his sense of self. Of course, his writing draws from his own lived experiences, but the goal is to write from such a personal place that “anyone who wants to take something from it is able to do that.” Negro Swan has a recurring theme of existing within a space, whether that’s showing all the way up or shrinking parts of oneself to fit in, and it stems from a place of trauma – as a child, Hynes was bullied relentlessly. He wasn’t allowed to fit in. Only decades later is he examining the residual effects of those experiences left over in his psyche.

“I definitely would rather not, if I’m honest,” he laughs. “But it happened naturally and, for me, it’s a means to something that makes sense. I think our childhood traumas effectively can muck up the rest of our lives and be somewhat detrimental, so I think all of those things led me to look deeper into my childhood than I had before. Probably mainly because I’m far enough away now that I can look at things in a way that is critical. I can look at the scars a bit more clearly now.”

For Hynes, some of those scars run deep. He lives with a lingering sense of displacement, and it laces itself throughout this album’s tracks. “There were some pretty intense fucking moments. I was put in hospital a few times from bullying. That’s something I was definitely looking at a lot [on Negro Swan].”

Having worked with such notable names as Solange, Florence and the Machine, A$AP Rocky, and Blondie, it would be easy for Hynes to become a radio-hit maker. Clearly, he’s well-versed in what it takes to write a catchy single. Instead, what he creates is introspective and existential, laced with intention and often with sadness. Hynes writes from a place of deep awareness, both of self and of society; his music serves simultaneously as a diary entry and as a commentary on the world around him. But despite the hardships he examines, his music is underscored by something brighter; within darkness, there is always hope.

*This article was originally published in Sept. 2018