Dev Hynes, who performs as Blood Orange, pushes with his words, music, and indeterminate identity against rigid definitions of race, sexuality, and culture. His unstructured aesthetic is his one consistency, whether he’s producing tracks for Solange Knowles, FKA Twigs, A$AP Rocky, or himself. His acclaimed 2018 album, Negro Swan, which has been streamed 40 million times, could be the soundtrack for today’s anxious, fractured, gender-fluid times—insider music for every outsider.
Fast Company: There’s a quote attributed to you that’s hard to shake. You said that you’re always surprised when you meet someone who hasn’t been punched in the face.
Dev Hynes: Growing up [in East London], there were some severe bullying moments. It was pretty dark back then, and I’d like to think things have gotten better for kids now–I can’t fully speak to that. Negro Swan is a response to that. I tried to evoke [it] sonically. I’ve always felt when I meet people that I can tell—I don’t wish for people to be punched in the face, but it does something, it changes you.
FC: Your work offers a refreshing alternative to machismo culture and the traditional definition of manhood, or how to be a man.
DH: If my music does that, it’s amazing. There were definitely bands when I was growing up that did that for me. I was recently listening to the [early ’90s British] group Placebo. I never really thought about what positive impact their second album had on me, particularly the song “Nancy Boy.” Mansun, another [male] ’90s band, also flouted gender–they even had an amazing song called “Being a Girl.” And, more famously, Prince. That stuff was very important to me.
FC: Your music blurs so many boundaries. How do you get it to hang together?
DH: There’s a lot of study and research, but within that, it’s loose. For example, I knew the title would be Negro Swan, [and] I started piecing together visually and mood-wise what that was evoking for me. It was a lot of neoclassical, romantic- style things mixed with early images of successful black men in pop culture back in 2000, when I was 14. I liked that these people were taking charge of their images. So paintings by Caravaggio mixed with Lil Wayne. [Laughs] What I’m reading plays a role in the language I use.
FC: What were you reading?
DH: I tend to reread [James Baldwin’s] Giovanni’s Room a lot, which is rare–I don’t often reread books. And then Moise and the World of Reason, a comic novel by Tennessee Williams. The Cocktail Party by T. S. Eliot. Oh, and Kathleen Collins’s Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?.
FC: Were you listening to music, too?
DH: I create a soundtrack for every album I make. It’s pretty intense; usually it’s about five hours long, but the one for Negro Swan was 15 hours! [Laughs] I make the soundtrack before I start writing, so it’s always going around in my head. I’ll name just some of the artists on this one–and these people tend to influence whatever I do: Cocteau Twins, Malcolm McLaren, Kate Bush, Arthur Russell, David Bowie, Robert Wyatt, Prefab Sprout, Talking Heads, Womack & Womack, Massive Attack, Goldie, Alice Coltrane.
FC: Was there classical music?
DH: Yeah. Puccini, but mainly from his opera Turandot. All my preparation is about the need to keep learning–that’s more important than what I’m actually doing or making. Continuing to take in information, to learn about myself and the world–I always hope that will trickle down into my work.
FC: Do you think definitions of race, gender, and culture will ever dissolve?
DH: It could get there. I don’t know if I’ll be alive for it. [Laughs] I do think entertainment helps to dissolve those boundaries. If another person is different from me but can pick up a sense of being themselves from what I’ve done, that’s great. It’s the one thing I hope people get from my music. That and a cool drum sound.