I’m only a couple of weeks into my third quarter-life crisis. I quit my stable job, again, at the end of June, with the hopes of creating a life of uncertainty and adventure. (Insert upside-down smiling emoji here.) When I make big changes like this, I tend to want to overhaul as much as I can around me, to reflect the change I’m seeking. In other words–it’s the perfect excuse to go shopping.
The Tuesday after Dev Hynes released Freetown Sound, his third album under the creative energies of his Blood Orange persona, I decided to implement change in the form of fly retro jackets and long-forgotten company baseball jerseys, courtesy of my neighborhood thrift store. I proceeded to shop, and pressed play for the first time. As I casually listened to the album on repeat, the buoyant sounds of the ‘80s matched the pieces of clothing I piled over my arm. Before I knew it, three hours had passed, every second filled with the manifestations of Hynes’ imagination and reality as a Sierra Leonean-Guyanese London native making his way in New York City.
I was hearing necessary truths being spoken–in relatable terms, like the opening track, “By Ourselves,” featuring the fiery Ashlee Haze’s spoken word piece “For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliot Poem)“–and also in ways in which I’m not familiar, like the song immediately following, “Augustine,” where Hynes boldly juxtaposes and intertwines Christianity and homoeroticism. It’s nearly impossible to grasp every element of this album, this early. The references, ranging from staple cult documentaries Paris Is Burning and Black Is… Black Ain’t, to contemporary commentary from resident rap cynic Vince Staples and the nation’s culture critic Ta-Nehisi Coates, are far-flung and wide, and up close and extremely personal.
Less than 24 hours after hearing the album for the first time, I received a text about Alton Sterling. All I needed was an unfamiliar first and last name to know that something awful had happened to yet another black body. I automatically reached back to Freetown Sound for the comfort and warmth I felt the first few times around. Instead, I almost immediately transitioned from hearing the album through the lens of a sexually fluid, complex, multi-faceted black woman living in Brooklyn, to hearing it loud and clear as just another nigga in America.
Same shit, different day.
Black men have long been emasculated, humiliated and/or decimated in front of my own two eyes. One of the earliest memories I have is also one of the most innocent–but it scares me more than it did a week ago. I couldn’t have been older than 10, nor was my sister. It was a warm night in my small Texas hometown, and my mom was driving our off-white, ‘80-something Buick Riviera, better known as Vanita. We weren’t far from home when we were abruptly pulled over. The police officers explained that they saw my teenage brother, riding shotgun, suspiciously reach into his back pocket. Through tinted windows. In the car our mom was driving. With his two little sisters in the backseat. I haven’t seen the latest video, but I know enough to understand that this benign memory is now forever tied to Philando Castile–yet another black man who was shot and killed by police, this time in his own car in front of his girlfriend and her young daughter, for reaching into his pocket for his concealed carry permit.
These memories, old and new, aren’t benign anymore. They don’t pass by fleetingly like they once did. Every minuscule exchange now lodges itself into my brain, whether I want it there or not. Because, what if?
Seeing the looks on the faces of my non-black friends and acquaintances now–expressions twisted in empathetic torment and delayed, but genuine, understanding–is like looking into a mirror on July 13, 2013: The day George Zimmerman was found not guilty on all counts after killing Trayvon Martin. It was at that moment that reality set in for me. As articulate and sharp and respectable as I, or my brother, could be, the beautiful color of our skin still intimidates to the point of death. I cried my eyes out for hours that day. Then, I dried them, pulled the wool off, and reinforced them with untouchable steel. I’d be lying if I said that steeliness hasn’t melted and warped since then; Mike Brown and Eric Garner made me feel again, even when I wasn’t ready to. But then, the steel hardened once more, sometime after Walter Scott. I’ve seen many more names and faces–more than mainstream media has acknowledged or is even aware of–but I choose to remain resolved and hardened, for the sake of self-preservation.
It’s tough being honest without sounding cold.
As are countless freedoms for LGBT individuals and people of color, the bliss of Hynes’ album was ripped away just hours after I first had a chance to experience and truly enjoy it. Through no fault of its own (or its creator’s), Freetown Sound transformed from a work of healing into a reverberating reminder of the dualities of life. It illustrates the ability to create and grow and move forward; the sound of what it truly means to self preserve. But the stagnancy of recurring injustices continues to serve as the weights of an unfair system, holding us all back.
In interviews, I’ve seen Hynes assert that Freetown Sound is not meant to be political: “I think the album will be seen as a political record, but it isn’t,” he told Jason King late last month for Pitchfork. “To me, it’s more like life—I can’t not think about this shit.”
With more and more art being birthed out of tragedies, what does it mean when messages like, “Can you see the nigger in my face?” are deemed apolitical by the artist, but clearly scream the opposite? What does it mean when musicians like Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce say enough is enough, and deliberately use their platforms and music to speak on injustice, but can’t shout in their own voices for fear of retaliation and lost endorsements?
Between the covert micro-aggressions I’ve felt wash over me ever since I can remember, and the inescapable black deaths that litter every space we seek solace–I can’t not think about this shit, either.