In 1923, Harry Pace, a Harlem-based music publisher, was fighting for the survival of his jazz label, Black Swan Records. While capitalist endeavors are regularly rising and falling in America, what made Pace’s struggle unique is that Black Swan was the first label to be owned by, run by, and made for African Americans. Unlike his contemporaries, Pace saw music as a force for progressive change — believing that commercial success of a black-owned venture naturally translates to social and economic mobility.
Facing mounting competition from larger companies and the proliferation of radio, Pace wrote to his board of directors, “How could we survive…?”. Months later, at the height of jazz’s popularity, Black Swan Records, arguably America’s first challenge to the white-male hegemony that dominated American music, shuttered its doors and sold to Paramount Records.
In philosophy, the black swan is best known as a metaphor for the problem of induction — or, in simpler terms, the idea that knowledge built from subjective observations can never be absolute. If one were to reason that “all swans are white” because they have only ever seen white swans, they would never be able to claim unequivocal truth (i.e., no person can say they have seen every swan in existence). The black swan, in this metaphor, is therefore seen as a disruptor — a single variable that shakes the foundations of what is believed to be true. Though with time and observation, the disruptor is adopted into the reality it initially undermined.
Black Swan Records was that disruptor, as it dared to reform how we consume music. The central value of music, Pace believed, is not just that it is aesthetically pleasing, but that it creates a bridge for empathy — for listeners to understand the strife or joy catalyzing the voice. But before Pace could realize his potential, his record label, like the metaphorical black swan, was absorbed and inescapably exploited by the dominant culture. Implicitly, Pace was being told that black music, and the stories that come with it, can turn a profit as long as the rewards do not funnel into the pockets of its creators.
Almost a century after the demise of Black Swan Records, Devonté Hynes, a London-born/New York City-based musical wunderkind, released his fourth full-length record under his most well-known avatar, Blood Orange. In it, he examines themes of alienation and identity in a social climate that, while acknowledging the existence of the other, refuses to value it. Hynes, an artist who writes music about not being “black enough, too black, too queer, [or] not queer the right way,” layers the record with a sense of anxiety that comes from feeling stuck. It’s a reflection of being assigned to a cultural limbo where his art is fetishized, but his presence is irrelevant. It’s likely happenstance, but for those who enjoy a bit of kismet, it’s interesting to note that the name of Hynes’ record, one that confronts the same power structure that Black Swan succumbed to, is a more direct allusion to America’s shameless history of racial depravity. The title? Negro Swan.
On “Jewelry,” the fifth track off of Negro Swan, trans activist Janet Mock opens the song with a spoken word about her inability to belong based on the societal constructs that were not built for her. “People try to put us down by saying ‘She’s doing the most,’ or ‘He’s way too much.’ But, like, why would we want to do the least?” Mock’s words are equal part frustration and emancipation, and serve as Negro Swan‘s central premise — how does one function when the world is telling you that you don’t belong?
It took three records before Negro Swan for Hynes to gather the perspective to come to such a question. Specifically, 2013’s Cupid Deluxe is a love letter to heartbreak in New York City and feels like we’re watching Hynes write it for an unrequited love from the House of LaBeija. 2016’s Freetown Sound is ostensibly a votive to his ancestral roots in Sierra Leone and Guyana, but fills in the white space with a prescient subtext focused on black liberation in the face of structural oppression (Freetown Sound was released one day after the acquittal of the police officer arrested for the death of Freddie Gray). In both these albums, Hynes sounds confident when exploring his identity, both in his rejection of heteronormative standards and his belief that black is beautiful. It is at once a joyous embrace of being the other, as well as an affirming flame against racial injustice. Negro Swan, however, covers new ground as Hynes recognizes that being self-assured does not negate the inherent trauma that comes with knowing one’s place in the world.
In a recent New York Times profile by Lizzy Goodman, Hynes openly discusses his struggle with depression, and how a “darker and sadder” aspect reinformed not only his art but how feeling othered brings on a “different weight of life.” Such sentiments make it easy to imagine that Hynes is close to reaching a precipice — that something has got to give. Given the context, it comes to no surprise that Hynes, while promoting his headlining show at LA’s famed Greek Theatre with special guests Empress Of and MadeinTYO, commented on Instagram that he “has no plans to tour again after this show.” The jury is still out on whether or not this is a serious consideration, especially since Hynes is at the top of his game — although, the comment is a consequence of the exhaustion Hynes has incurred over the years and his desire to unstuck himself from piercing loneliness.
Nevertheless, once Hynes hit the stage at the Greek, swallowed by a backdrop reminiscent of purple rain, it’s apparent that whatever anxiety Hynes is burdened with gradually melts away as he gracefully glides from one end of the stage to the other. Dressed in a crisp, white t-shirt tucked into a pair of Abercrombie sweat shorts, Hynes’ reputation as the purveyor of normcore makes the fact that Hynes can dance like Michael Jackson all that much more endearingly confusing. Hynes’ physical energy translates in his capacity to string a set together from a catalog that is as eclectic as Jason Bentley’s record collection. Whether it’s the soothing resonance of “Augustine” or the funktastic grooves of “You’re Not Good Enough,” Hynes knows how to emote and relate to an adoring audience, forcing us to oscillate between wanting to dance and wanting to cry. And this is the ultimate irony — what makes Hynes such a pleasure to watch on stage is the diversity of genres that have coalesced into Blood Orange’s signature sound. But his penchant for exploring variety is emblematic of his inability to conform to the constructs available to him. Not one sound or voice can speak for him, in the same way not one space, even the ones that he’s not invited to is familiar enough to call home.
The path between Black Swan and Negro Swan is a story of the intersection between resisting and existing, and how a revolution for a more equitable space, one that is made for everyone, requires both. For Harry Pace whose primary goal was to overcome an industry that didn’t want him, his quest towards social and economic mobility gradually evolved into a political act. In the time of Negro Swan, the mere act of existing is innately political. For Hynes, to live a life of authenticity is to acknowledge and negotiate with a history of violence that continues to extend in vocal pockets of vitriol. During his performance of “Charcoal Baby,” a bouncy jaunt that can set the mood at any summer barbeque, Hynes croons “No one wants to be the odd one out at times/No one wants to be the negro swan.”
When Hynes speaks about “black depression,” you can see the pain from these lyrics expressed through the folds of his face. Though, with the next lines, “Charcoal make it start and make me liked at times/Lick me till it cleans all of the world,” Hynes begins to effortlessly bounce to the groove as if all that is needed to erase the pain is an improvised two-step. Finally, the chorus crescendos with Hynes expressively asking, “Can you break sometimes?” as if he’s asking for permission to prioritize his self-preservation. Hynes quietly answers the question with a solemn “sometimes, sometimes,” leaving enough room for himself that someday the answer might turn into an unambiguous “yes.”
Words and photos by Eric Han