Earlier this year, I went to a talk on the history of gospel music with Alvin Hall, a BBC reporter and the host of the miniseries The Gospel Truth. Hall spoke about the important relationship between the church, gospel music, and the black civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s. The church served as a safe haven while the music, like Mavis Staples' “We Shall Not Be Moved,” acknowledged the struggle and gave listeners the courage to keep going.
Today's movement is Black Lives Matter and safe havens are found through Black Twitter hashtags. And the resilient background score, according to Hall, has shifted from gospel music to hip hop with songs like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and J.Cole’s “Be Free” alongside black musicians like Beyoncé (“Freedom” or “Formation”) and D'Angelo (Black Messiah).
Enter Blood Orange. Dev Hynes, who performs under the moniker, released his third studio album Freetown Sound last week. Hynes is a crop-top wearing black man from London with parents from Sierra Leone and Guyana. He doesn’t identify as straight or gay. He protests in the streets of New York City and speaks out about his experiences with racism. In October, he released “Sandra Smiles,” dedicated to Sandra Bland and the struggles of living a normal life as a black person in a time of police brutality.
What makes Blood Orange's groovy album Freetown Sound so important is that it goes where hip hop and gospel music rarely do—it explores black thought through the lens of womanhood and queerness.
“My album is for everyone told they're not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the under appreciated. It’s a clap-back,” Hynes wrote in an Instagram post.
On Freetown Sound, women help deliver his message. “I use women singers because there’s a lot of emotions that I want that I can’t get to," Hynes told Pitchfork. "The woman’s voice, and not necessarily just her singing voice, is powerful and needs to be heard. It’s the most important voice in general, and that can’t be denied. And on a musical level, I just prefer it. It sounds better.”
The album features Ashlee Haze, a poet from Atlanta whose “For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem)” explores feminism as a black girl and is sampled on “By Ourselves.” Late transgender performer Venus Extravaganza's Paris Is Burning monologue appears on “Desirée,” where she talks about getting money from men for sex work and using it for gender reassignment surgery. Zuri Marley, the granddaughter of Bob Marley, sings on “Love Ya." Latina indie pop star Empress Of, who released a song about street harassment last year, is on “Best Of You.”
That list doesn't even include Debbie Harry of Blondie, Ava Raiin, Carly Rae Jepsen, Nelly Furtado, and Bea1991 who all appear on the album. Even the cover art from photographer Deana Lawson’s 2009 photograph “Binky & Tony Forever” presents black bodies in a tender and vulnerable state of intimacy.
Freetown Sound is full of Hynes’ inner monologues. “Hands Up,” dwells on the idea of feeling safe in your daily routine—sleeping with the lights off, wearing a sweatshirt—while the prevalence of police violence is something to fear. On “But You,” he sings about walking down the street alone as black man pondering why he’s so concerned with crossing the street to make a white girl feel safe. And on “Better Than Me,” Hynes struggles with jealousy and self-doubt, as he told Entertainment Weekly:
That song is about a weird jealousy with being—kind of what I said [about feeling] not black enough or not queer enough. That song is about that dark moment when you look around. You can visualize the person. It’s the moment when you slip into that doubt and that weird jealousy.
While nightclubs, churches, and other safe spaces for the LGBT community and people of color are threatened, Hynes presents a glimmer of hope. He looks through the melancholy lens of life and still finds a way to feel free. Freetown Sound offers something to dance to while trying to collect your thoughts. A moment to realize you aren’t alone in your agony. A recognition that although your voice isn’t always heard, it still matters.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.