The sunlight needled my eyes while I laid out on the playground grass. Was it always this bright from down here?
Seconds before the lunch bell rang for us to return to class, my elementary school bully had dropped me on my back. I wish I could remember what I said that inspired him to hoist my duffel bag body over his head while his friends cackled aloud, but I’ll never forget the pain: throbbing, stabbing, like my own spine wanted to wriggle away through my neck from sheer embarrassment.
I looked up from the chlorophyll concrete and my brothers, skin as brown as mine and darker, pointed and laughed. I was in agony. Then the bell rang.
Whatever tears fell down my cheeks that day didn’t leave an imprint as I limped my way back to the cafeteria. I wasn’t sure why, but I wasn’t mad.
It was while reading Dev Hynes’ interview with Craig Jenkins of Vulture, in which they discuss Negro Swan, Hynes' fourth album under the name Blood Orange, that my mind became flooded with memories of that fateful afternoon at school. Their talk steered toward a childhood spent in East London where Hynes was often beaten up and spat on mostly by his fellow Black classmates simply for being queer and different, which he chalked up to an absent sense of community among Black Londoners in the early 2000s.
“Blackness is not as deeply rooted in England," Hynes explained. "It only goes back 50 or so years, in terms of the idea of cultures breeding and creating life. On top of that, you’re not taught anything. You have to learn it yourself. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I felt this kinship and relationship, which then helped me. I had insight to understand that upbringing and past. I never really blamed the kids that would beat me up. I didn’t hold any disdain for them because I think it was just a result of systemic situations.”
It is this fracture of context that led to situations like the one a 16-year-old Hynes deals with on Swan opening track “Orlando”: “To feel so numb that it’s deafening, walls’ll give in / After school, sucker punched down / Down and out / First kiss was the floor.” Suddenly, I returned to that quivering mess of a day, a fellow casualty of boredom and misunderstanding. The deceptively shimmering funk that drives the song brings me back to those red cafeteria double doors, where even more hopeful lines (“But, God, it won’t make a difference if you don’t get up”) are chased with the lingering scars these moments inflict on Black children the world over (“All that I know is taught to me young / Seen it all before”). Negro Swan had revealed its central message to me in its very first track; Hynes is flipping Ugly Duckling perceptions of Blackness like a soul sample and daring his listeners to find the joy, sadness, and history in being Black and/or queer in a world where, now more than ever, both are frying under the microscope of oppression.
Deep in the heart of late 20th-century Brownsville, Brooklyn, Kaseem “Ka” Ryan was kissing a few floors of his own. Born in 1972, Ryan basked in a sense of Black community that was fostered by the families of Hull Street, at least until the crack epidemic shook up priorities. Ryan watched as drug dealing took a greater hold on his community as desperation forced more and more people to the corners. He picked up rap around this time, going from banging out beats for his cousin to joining the group Natural Elements in 1993 and leaving near the turn of the millennium to focus on becoming a firefighter. He spent every waking moment penning rhymes in his head, a wordsmith whittling himself down to the essentials. Ka’s style is pensive and economical, chiseling poetry and morbid beats since at least 2008 out of leftover granite from an old New York unstuck in time, building dimly hopeful futures off of cold encounters and hard-earned truths from Brownsville’s past.
“Large crops or hard rocks, it’s like we all saw Medusa” is a marvel of concision from “Sirens,” the opening track of his latest work, Orpheus vs. The Sirens, a collaboration with producer Animoss under the name Hermit and the Recluse. Ryan has worked with themes before—2013’s The Night’s Gambit grounded life in chess, while 2016’s Honor Killed the Samurai saw through the eyes of the Bushido code—and Orpheus is no exception, using Greek mythology to project his own Black experience on a particularly epic scale.
“The Punishment of Sisyphus” evokes the king forced to forever roll a boulder up a steep hill to express how the sins of his past could benefit the kids of the future (“Did well not to fell, could tell seeds relied on me”). On “Golden Fleece,” flailing flutes and organ stabs soundtrack Ka’s prayers for any and all marginalized: “Direction for the misled, heat for the coldest / Love for the lonely, peace for the soldiers.” Wise words from a soldier lucky enough to dole out war stories after the fact.
Listening to Negro Swan and Orpheus vs. The Sirens back to back has formed a connective link across the Atlantic. Hynes and Ka are decades and half a world removed from each other, but both albums frame their childhoods around familiar stories to show how Blackness manifests itself across time and generations. Both projects are reflective, tried and true sounds and different ends of the New York experience to ethereal ends. Hynes is the “outsider living inside” of Black America from his 20s onward and using dream pop, R&B, and rap to find his reflection in subway windows and street corners, while Ka creates a how-to guide out of the old newspaper clippings of his life to guide the weary; and New York City ties it all together.
Both artists also lash out at the never-ending battle for their own validity. “No one wants to be the odd one out at times / No one wants to be the negro swan,” Hynes concludes halfway through “Charcoal Baby,” a sentiment that dovetails perfectly with Ka’s simmering ennui on “The Punishment of Sisyphus”: “Explain how I’m supposed to be calm when came from wild homes.”
The so-called “negro swan” has to fight from the margins for every scrap of life, from love (“Jewels that rain / Shine in your eyes / Black is the rain / Ruby, ebony inside” from Hynes’ “Jewelry”) to even just waking up on the right side of the bed (“Due to my ‘ville makeup, still wake every day surprised / My eyes open motion no longer hopin’ that my paper rise” from Ka’s “Hades”). The poetry, from both artists, unearths the nuance of the Black experience in 2018; the trap still keeps Black people on the edge of a system built to chew us up and spit us out; Black youth are still more likely to be suspended from school for bouts of aggression than any other race; both trans and cis Black youth are being openly shot and beaten to death in the streets just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both pain and strife flow through Hynes and Ka’s music, but there is also hope, and chances for us to glow like the gems and chains that shine so brightly throughout the video for "Jewelry."
Negro Swan leans on interludes from activist Janet Mock, Diddy, and A$AP Rocky to instill confidence into an overwhelmingly bleak story, but my favorite moment of solace on the record is when Dev himself finds a patch of light on early cut “Saint”: “Your skin's a flag that shines for us all / You said it before,” he coos triumphantly. “The brown that shines and lights your darkest thoughts.” Conversely, the first two bars on Orpheus vs. The Sirens opener “Sirens” lay bare Ka's intentions for the youth: “I think it's fine to relinquish mine for the life of our seeds / From weak moves these dudes eat your food like harpies.”
The pain is everlasting, but if we can fashion our own wings from the wax dumped at our feet, what’s stopping us?
Both Hynes and Ka have spent lifetimes searching for and regaining a sense of Black community, and over the course of Negro Swan and Orpheus vs. The Sirens, they etch them to digital wax. Authenticity is a stripe that must be earned in the world of Black music, but one that comes in more shades than some might care to admit.
Already a year to remember for explicitly Black storytelling, with Tierra Whack, Royce da 5’9”, and Kids See Ghosts, among others, Hynes and Ka delivered stories that are affecting on their own but with extra FUBU residue for those who know to sniff it out. Whether I’m on my back or taking my next steps forward, I’ll hold stories like these in my heart forever. The Negro Swan will always be beautiful.
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