Dev Hynes On Taking Time With His Music: 'I Want It To Be The Most Me'

Jun 30, 2016
Originally published on June 30, 2016 6:00 am

Listening to Dev Hynes' new album as Blood Orange, Freetown Sound, you might feel as if you're opening up a diary Hynes kept from his youth. The album explains one scar after another — growing up black in suburban England, being an outcast even within the black community, the pains of modern-day racism.

Hynes is the son of two immigrants to the U.K.: his father is from Sierra Leone, and his mother is from Guyana. They raised him in Essex, which Hynes describes as "the New Jersey of England." This sensitive, out-of-place young man found himself surrounded by a subset of Essex youth known as "boy racers": "basically, boys that are obsessed with cars and very big on sports, going out and getting wasted, fighting — it is somewhat like the guys in Jersey Shore," Hynes says.

Hynes spoke with NPR's David Greene about growing up different and about making music for people who feel underappreciated. Hear the interview above at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

David Greene: You've talked about being bullied a lot when you were growing up in Essex. You've spoken before about confronting issues about race, about gender, about sexuality. What exactly was going on when you were a boy?

Dev Hynes: People, especially in Essex and East London — maybe times are different now, a little bit – were very close-minded. The idea of being slightly different of some kind is a big no-no. It was hell. It was crazy moments – put in the hospital at times, knives pulled on me, gun pulled on me at one point, this one gang just relentlessly would attack me, spit on me on the bus. I remember growing up that if I saw the English flag or the Union Jack outside of a pub, I would cross the street.

In what way did they see you as different?

I think in black culture — I should add, as well, that I think 90 percent of the people bullying me were black, which was extremely confusing — there's such a big deal with a sense of negro masculinity, especially in a part of the world where the history of black people isn't particularly taught. Now it might be a little different, but back then everything that I ever learned was from going to the library. And so I think there was this sense of being afraid on their part, and a sense as well of trying to show their masculinity in the form of oppression, bullying and violence.

What was your release? Was there music you were listening to at that point to get through these times?

I was listening to music, but honestly, my release was sports. It's really the same now, in a way. I never thought about this till now, but I think for a lot of musicians, playing live is that kind of adrenaline release. I think for me it's playing football, soccer or basketball. I was never in my bedroom playing guitar in front of a mirror. That was not my thing.

Then what are you getting out of the music?

I mean, I love it. To me, music is like breathing. There's never a moment I don't know how to do it. And that is very therapeutic and feels great. But it's not an adrenaline release.

You did say that this album is for "everyone told they're not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the underappreciated." I listen to that and think of an artist like David Bowie and what he was known for: embracing everyone and being a door that was open to anyone who wanted to love his music in whatever way it happened.

That's a huge compliment to even be in that sentence. I'm a huge Bowie fan. Him — and Prince, and it's awful that we lost both of them within a year — but both those people were very influential in regards to being myself. Not even speaking musically, because I think that's very apparent. To me, the main influence is how they were the most themselves they could ever be. And what that does for people can't be understated. That is so huge for so many people, growing up.

For me to release music, for me to just be like, "This is me and I'm putting it out there" — it takes a minute. I had to get to a point where I truly loved every second of all of it. This album — I really want it to be the most me and the most enjoyable thing that I can do. Then, that is doing something for someone, somewhere.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Devonte Hynes remembers a connection to music from the time he was a little boy.

DEVONTE HYNES: My older sister would play piano. I would cry when she wasn't around, so my mom would put me in her piano lessons.

GREENE: No surprise - music is still a source of comfort all these years later, both for him and now for the people who listen to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BY OURSELVES")

BLOOD ORANGE: (Singing) So when you see her cry...

GREENE: Thirty-year-old Dev Hynes records under the name Blood Orange. He layers his music with instruments, vocals, street sounds. The tunes can be sad and soulful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BY OURSELVES")

BLOOD ORANGE: (Singing) ...By ourselves.

GREENE: They can be political. Or some of his songs are just all about getting out on the dance floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER THAN ME")

BLOOD ORANGE: (Singing) Know my worth and fake the blame. But I know she's better than me.

GREENE: Listen to his new album, "Freetown Sound," and you feel a little like you're opening up a diary Hynes might have kept from his youth - growing up black in suburban England, the emotional scars of being singled out and scrutinized and also much, much worse.

Dev Hynes is the son of two immigrants. His mom was from Guyana, his dad from Sierra Leone. He grew up in Essex, which he calls the Jersey of England, as in New Jersey, surrounded by a group of guys known as boy racers.

HYNES: Basically boys that are obsessed with cars and very big on sports going out and getting wasted and, like, fighting. It is somewhat like the guys in "Jersey Shore."

GREENE: Uh-huh. And were you in that scene?

HYNES: No (laughter)...

GREENE: OK.

HYNES: ...I wasn't. But I am insanely obsessed with sports, so I guess they got that from it.

GREENE: You've talked about being bullied a lot when you were growing up in Essex. And you've spoken before about confronting issues about race, about gender, about sexuality. I mean, what exactly was going on when you were a boy?

HYNES: People, especially in Essex and east London - maybe times are different now a little bit - but were very close-minded. And so the idea of being slightly different of some kind is a big no-no. I mean, it was hell. It was crazy moments - put in hospital at times, knives pulled on me, gun pulled on me at one point.

This one gang just kind of relentlessly would attack me, spit on me on the bus. And I remember growing up - if I saw the English flag or the Union Jack outside of a pub, I would cross the street.

GREENE: In what way did they see you as different?

HYNES: Well, you know, I think in black culture - I have to say that, as well - that say about 90 percent of the people bullying me were black, which was extremely confusing. There's such a big deal with a sense of, I guess, like, Negro masculinity.

And I think anything that - especially in a part of the world where, I think, history of black people isn't particularly taught. Now it might be a little different. But back then, everything I ever learnt was from going to the library.

And so I think there's this sense of, like, being afraid on their part and a sense, as well, of trying to show their masculinity in the form of oppression, bullying and violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW")

BLOOD ORANGE: (Singing) Choose your worth and say it's not there. Split your worries 'cause you know he won't care. Late nights hiding from the thoughts that scare. Choose your worth and say something.

GREENE: What was your release? Like, was there music you were listening to at that point to kind of get through these times? Or -

HYNES: I mean, I was listening to music. But honestly, my release was sports. And it's really the same now in a way. I mean - I mean, I guess I never thought about this until now. But I think a lot of musicians playing live is that kind of adrenaline release.

I think for me, it's playing football or basketball. I was never in my bedroom, like, playing guitar in front of a mirror. It wasn't even - that was not my thing.

GREENE: Then what are you getting out of the music?

HYNES: I mean, I love it. To me, music is like breathing. It's not even - there's never a moment I don't know how to do it. And that is very therapeutic and feels great. But it's not an adrenaline release.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "E.V.P.")

BLOOD ORANGE: (Singing) Don't lose my name. It makes me wonder. Will I ever be enough? Don't call again. I couldn't answer. My deviation sets it off.

GREENE: You did say that this album is for everyone told they're not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the underappreciated. I mean, I listen to that and I think of an artist like David Bowie and sort of what he was known for - just embracing everyone and being sort of a door that was open to anyone who wanted to love his music in whatever way it happened.

HYNES: That's a huge compliment to even be in that sentence or - I mean, I'm a huge Bowie fan - him and Prince. And it's awful that we lost both of them within a year. But both of those people were very influential, like, not even speaking musically because I think that's just very apparent.

But to me, the main influences - how they were the most themselves they could ever be. And what that does for people - it can't be understated. Like, that is so huge for so many people growing up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT YOU")

BLOOD ORANGE: (Singing) Can you feel the way they think about me? Through the years, told me I should just be myself.

HYNES: This album - I really want it to be the most me and the most enjoyable thing that I can do. Then that is doing something for someone somewhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT YOU")

BLOOD ORANGE: You are special in your own way. You are special in your own way.

GREENE: Well, Dev, thanks so much for talking to us. And best of luck with the album. It's really been a pleasure.

HYNES: Thank you. Thank you.

GREENE: That was Devonte Hynes, who goes by the name Blood Orange. His new album is called "Freetown Sound." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.