Dev Hynes On Pop, Politics and "New York Girls" Memes

The musician shares his thoughts on the reactions to his new album, changing identities and his secret meme-filled Instagram account.

text by Sandra Song / photography by Marcus Cooper

In the wake of heightened racial tensions and xenophobia that's swept the globe, few cultural commentaries seem to have resonated quite like Dev Hynes's third studio album under the name Blood Orange, Freetown Sound. But Hynes says that many of the media narratives surrounding his critically acclaimed album are strange to him, particularly the refrain by multiple music outlets that Freetown Sound is his “most political and personal work yet." He muses, “I think it's because every album needs a thing. And I get why people say 'political,' because it makes it easier for people to understand something."

Then again, when you juxtapose a set of remarkably accessible, '80s-inspired pop sounds with samples of the powerful black femme poetry of Ashlee Haze, the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates from a panel called “Is Violence A Function Of Our Culture?" and a subversion of St. Augustine's story made to fit the contemporary queer experience, perhaps “political" isn't too far off base after all. Hynes, though, prefers to think of Freetown Sound as a document of his growth as a songwriter and human being, not to mention a reflection of his identity as a black British child of immigrants who eschews labels -- sexual or otherwise -- and now occupies a pretty unique niche straddling New York's underground music scene and the industry's global mainstream. And while he acknowledges that his perspective could easily “come across as political" because “I'm saying things people aren't saying" about race and sexual orientation, it's only because the underrepresented personal is inherently political. “I'm just kind of talking about myself and how I feel, drawing references and just making this tapestry of the past and things around me and people I care about and look to and draw from and love," he smiles. “That's really all I'm doing."

So I was watching some footage of your Pitchfork Festival performance the other day -- it looked pretty insane -- like you know shit's real when it gets to shirt-off levels of intensity.

Yeah, I played with my shirt off the whole show. It's kind of a metaphor for me, I guess. But the only reason I play shirtless is because I didn't know what shirt to wear. It wasn't a confidence thing, it literally was just like, "I didn't know what to wear."

See, and here I thought maybe it was just hot.

Well, that's usually why I'm shirtless in photos and videos too, because I'm such a weird, paranoid person and really don't like having my photo taken. It makes me feel insane. It's funny because I feel it comes across as the opposite, but I usually prefer just to be in my own skin.

That seems like an interesting way to think about it since, physically-speaking, being "completely exposed" is typically something you'd associate with being very vulnerable.

Yeah, I wonder what it is, but I've thought about it recently, and I think it's because I have a sport and dance background, and so I feel really comfortable in my physicality almost. But the idea of [my] image being sort of a [culmination] of things I'm wearing is so weird, and I don't like to give people opportunities [to make assumptions], so I'm comfortable in my flesh because of that.

Right. It's definitely difficult to question the flesh. Can't really write a mean article about your physicality.

Well, you wouldn't do it to me. But if I was a girl, they would. It sucks. It's actually so fucked. It's like if Seth Rogen can pose naked, it's like a cool story...No shade to the Apatow crowd, but...

There's definitely like a hierarchy of things that you're allowed to get away with. Anyway, circling back to the album, was there a particular reason you decided to drop it a few days ahead of the scheduled release?

Yeah, that was always planned because I thought it was funny. That's really all it is. We just never talked before because I don't fully like the element of surprise, but I like the idea of being somewhat misleading. So I think it's kind fun to be like, "This is coming out this day, and be like, 'No. Here is it actually.'"

"Misleading" is an interesting word to use...

I like it in the context of treating people. Not in a mean way, but I like it in [the sense that it feels like I'm] giving people gifts. It's funny being like, "here's a small box," but inside are keys to a car. I like that concept...Because the surprise is not like, "Here's a car," it's like "Here are the keys."

On Twitter recently, you responded to someone about why more of your songs weren't about relationships. And then you went on to say that only like three out of hundreds of songs are actually about romance, which is kind of interesting because love and relationships and all that kind of shit is songwriting 101.

They Tweeted asking about "It Is What It Is." Honestly, I can count [the number of love songs I've written] on one hand. That was like a rough guess, but it will be around... probably honestly between three or five. I think five actually sounds way too high. It always kind of bugs me. I never have the energy to really discuss it. But I think it's funny that people think all my songs are love songs.

I guess people will project what they want.

I think it's also because of the aesthetic. They think it's just instantly going to be a love song or about relationships. But no, it's not. And it's not like an arrogant reason or anything. I just don't write about relationships. It's just not on my mind. They are never on my mind. Like if they're going well, they're not on my mind. If they're not going well, it's because my mind isn't there.

There has also been a lot of writing about your album being intensely political. What do you make of that? Is than an accurate description in your mind?

I think that's pretty interesting...I get why people say political because, again, it makes it easier for people to understand something, but I think it's just a normal, personal album. I mean maybe I'm saying things people aren't saying, so it comes across as political, but I don't know, would you call YG's album political? He literally has a song called "Fuck Donald Trump." If anything, his record is more political than mine. I'm not saying political is a bad thing, but I just mean it's interesting again. It's also another case of how within the black community people want to focus on aesthetics and how things are being presented...But I'm just talking about my life as a black person and as someone who has been bullied [their entire life] because of sexual preferences and race. It's not like I'm making a political statement, I'm just talking about myself and my friends and who I know. But I get it, people need to say that something is...

But it's also frustrating as a queer person of color that you're automatically assigned certain narratives and then everything you do is inherently political.

That's what I'm saying. It's pretty frustrating because it's not "Oh, whatever." I can't control how people see things. And again, like I said, I don't think political is a bad term. I just think it has really specific connotations.

What connotations do you want to distance yourself from?

Well political statements kind of have a connotation of preaching. And I don't have a point I'm trying to get across. I'm just kind of talking about myself and how I feel, and drawing references and just making this tapestry of past and things around me and people I care about and look to and draw from and love. That's really all I'm doing. But I guess maybe the flip side of that is that maybe doing something like that is a statement in itself because maybe that is something that people don't do. So I can see that.

I guess people also like to assign a lot of external circumstances to your body of work, especially since these past few months have obviously been a shit show to say the least. But do you think it's fair to use your work as a starting point for a conversation on that?

Yeah. Insanity going on…[And] I mean they can. I think it's cool. Like I like that I've seen articles written from the album, which is crazy to me, but it's cool. That's not something I ever thought about. The other thing as well, which is sort of funny about the album, is that I worked really hard to make it listenable. I spent more time doing that than anything else. I spent more time on the production and trying to cut things and make it move quickly. I think [the album] is really poppy. I really tried, but I think I must have succeeded though because I think if people are talking about the themes and lyrics and stuff, then I think it's because I succeeded in making everything quick and catchy. Because I think if I didn't, that stuff wouldn't shine through.

Okay, I'm gonna do a 180 here and ask if you have any favorite memes at the moment?

Memes? I'm like a crazy memer...In fact, not to brag, Kehlani said that I sent her the best memes she has ever seen in her life.

Wow. Your phone storage must be so full.

It's really fucked. I have a secret Instagram [that I described] to someone recently as kind of the lowest of the low because it's actually 90 percent memes. So I essentially have a secret meme account, which you can't get lower than that.

So what's the current meme du jour for you? I'm sure you've moved far beyond Mr. Krabs at this point.

I don't know actually...Mine are pretty crazy right now. My favorite thing right now is have you ever seen the memes that are about New York girls. Have you seen those?

Like the Timbs with the heels?

Yeah shit like that. I love that shit. Or I don't know if this would even translate, but there's this one where it would be like "You hit a girl's g-spot and she busts a Jadakiss laugh." Shit like that. Or "Come over my guy. I'm done moist crack my shit." I love the idea of New York girls just being tough as shit. That is the power of New York. It really fucking toughens you up. But it's pretty funny.

Is that why you're here instead of London?

I guess so. I just prefer New York, basically. I do love London though. I kind of want to spend some time there again. Not live there but maybe go back for a month.

Do you think that being British changes how you perceive and interact with the African-American experience?

Yeah I think it does. Definitely. Just around the world, that experience changes constantly. James Baldwin said he didn't see America until he moved to Paris. I think when you're in something, it's hard to see it. Like I think I could see England better now that I don't live there. And I think I see America in a very specific way because I'm not from here. That's another thing that I'm not sure if people are aware of, but it's interesting, especially the fact that I moved here when I was 21. Now I'm 30. So my whole 20s are in America, which is a crazy thing.

And New York specifically, which is the place to be in your 20s.

Yeah, exactly. Growing up in England and having my 20s in New York, I've seen some shit. I've seen how some interactions go down and how people are viewed and how I've been viewed in my life and the variations of that. So you know it's weird because I think my viewpoint is kind of unique in that regard, but on top of that, I think there's a lot of shared experiences and maybe that's what people connect with because I don't ever claim to experience what I haven't experienced. And I think through that, there are threads that people can pick up on.

Dev wears shorts by G-Unit throughout

Grooming by Akihisa Yamaguchi using Bumble and Bumble and Weleda

Location: Dune Studios


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