Blood Orange, Black Lives Matter, and the Cost of Political Art

“Sandra’s Smile” is a powerful statement of weariness.

Blood Orange / YouTube

Blood Orange is the recording name of Dev Hynes, an R&B producer who has worked with the likes of Solange Knowles, Carly Rae Jepsen, and the Chemical Brothers. Today, he released a new song called “Sandra’s Smile,” a slowly swaying ballad whose lyrics are about black people killed in police custody.

The Sandra of the song title is Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old woman found hanging in a Florida jail cell after a traffic stop earlier this year. Most of the images of her online do indeed show her smiling. Hynes posted one of these photos along with the song’s lyrics, which begin, “Who taught you how to breathe / then took away your speech?”

As the song goes on, the focus turns inwards, toward the narrator’s own feelings. Hyne’s vocals are smooth, but the words are drawn out, mournful, tired: “Can you see it in my face? I’ve had enough for today.” Later, he mentions Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton, who has said that she has not forgiven the man who killed her son:

Look, about an hour ago
I read Sybrina’s quote.
Why should she forgive?
Do we lose you if we don’t?

As the Black Lives Matter movement has risen, there have been two competing narratives about the cultural response to it. One asks about why more prominent musicians and artists haven’t spoken up; it wants to know where the protest music has gone, and what happened to hip-hop’s political streak. The other narrative points out the performers that have made songs clearly meant to reflect the headlines—the D’Angelos and Janelle Monaes and J. Coles and Killer Mikes and Kendrick Lamars—while also noting that music can, and often is, political even when it doesn’t sling obvious slogans.

Dev Hynes’s work and public statements over the last year or so help reconcile these two points of view. To follow him on social media is to be reminded of how painful, how draining it can be to try and maintain conscientiousness and make art that addresses intractable problems. In a published conversation between himself and Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, Hynes talked about facing racial harassment when playing clubs, festivals, and abroad. He also talked about the difficulty of releasing music about it. After attending a Trayvon Martin rally in New York’s Union Square, Hynes said, he wrote a “whole album of songs that were just about how I was feeling about the entire thing.” But, he continued,

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 … and 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.

His wariness about associating his recording persona with politics is a reminder that speaking up is not a neutral act—it can have consequences for one’s career, safety, and mental health. Kanye West, not known for staying silent on his opinions, has said he refrained from commenting on the death of Michael Brown because West’s father asked him not to, explaining, “He was just trying to be protective of his son.” Questlove has invoked the Bush-era backlash to the Dixie Chicks when talking about the challenges of making protest songs: “We were like, ‘Man, if a white woman can lose her career in the United States for speaking up for what’s right, then shit, we’ll get the electric chair.’”

In Hynes’s case, it seems, there came a point when he couldn’t hold back anymore. In the wake of the Charleston church shooting earlier this year, he released an 11-minute track called “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?” Greg Cwik at Vulture called it “less a protest song ... than a self-vivisection”; in it, Hynes speaks about the fact that his last name is a slave name, derived from the Irish word for “servant.” And as for what moved him to release the track, Hynes posted this explanation:

America is in the middle of an act of terrorism right now, and black people are being attacked and killed every day. Every day I wake up and it becomes harder for me to interact with my friends and the world around me. I am scared, scared for myself, for my family, for my brothers & for my sisters ... It is an incredible sadness & heaviness. Being told that we do not matter on and on and on day to day to day. America likes to act like a super human yet continues to blame human error for these horrific acts. I don’t know what to do anymore.

His music on the topic is less about solutions to or causes of injustice than the psychic cost of having to think about it all the time. Often it’s said that artists have an obligation to speak up politically, but reading Hynes’s words you can see just how much of a loaded statement that is. Art can help escape, it can help distract. Using art instead to amplify one’s own pain and delve into huge problems is a choice, and it often isn’t one that can be made easily.