The opening track on Devonte “Blood Orange” Hynes’ new album, Negro Swan, wraps with a defiant interlude from writer and activist Janet Mock. “It’s an insult,” an annoyed Mock says, when people tell others “you’re doing too much.” The slight is most often used to dim the light and actions of anyone attempting to progress or express at a rate faster than two paces ahead of a slug’s. “You know what?” she asks Hynes with spite coating her tongue. “My eternal resolution will be to do too much.”
Swan essentially functions as an audio journey through the slush of Dev’s murky past — grade-school beatdowns from bullies, racism, lost love and a lack of validation from external forces. On Friday at the Greek Theater for the Los Angeles leg of his Negro Swan Tour, those sentiments played out onstage, where even the hues chosen to illuminate the man and his band seemed to be dampened and suppressed into a lower wattage.
In a white tee tucked into knee-high Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshorts, a Black bandana wrapped around his locks and a matching guitar slung over his shoulder, Hynes tried his best to dance through the struggles chronicled in his music. His movements were both rigid and fluid, like a student of vogue and ballroom culture with a minor in freestyle hip-hop.
Bathed in dull red light, he started with Swan’s “Saint,” a track dedicated to a lost black boy. A foggy purple came for “Charcoal Baby,” a cut about the loneliness that comes with having dark skin. “No one wants to be the negro swan,” he sang.
Throughout his 90-minute set, I felt several pangs of sadness for him, having to truck this suitcase of heart-wrenching records from state to state. Though it’s said that getting things off your chest is relieving, sharing the depths of his sorrows must be an excruciating nightly exercise. In the coming days, he’ll do it all again in Toronto before unpacking this sadness in Europe.
A melancholy orange rained as “Augustine” from 2016’s Freetown Sound album dropped. On “Chewing Gum” he sounded exhausted while asking “What you want from me?” “You’re Not Good Enough,” a doozy that reflects on a failed relationship’s on-and-off nature, came after. “Dagenham Dream” next. “This song is directly about one of the moments when I got jumped as a kid,” he recently told Pitchfork of the song.
“I was in the hospital, and when I got out I cut all my hair off, stopped painting my nails, wearing makeup, all this other shit. I stopped it all.” He wasn’t the classic rough-and-tumble boy, so he suffered for it. Red and blue lights flickered on Hynes as the lyrics oozed from him — the same colors that come when bruises reveal themselves on the skin. “Broken teeth and bloody nose,” he sang. “…Had to act just like the others to get around.”
Followers and fans of Hynes’ know he’s never been one to be pinned down to any one sexual preference, nor gender norms, and that he is an ally of the LGBTQ community. Mock herself is a resolute trans woman who came out in her adult years. It’s no wonder her words are peppered throughout the album. Assumedly, he admires her fierce spirit.
As on Swan, the concert came to an end with hope appearing in the form of healing. ”The sun comes in,” he sang from album closer “Smoke” alongside his two background singers. “My heart fulfills within.” For someone who may have earned his greatest pains by looking for acceptance from others only to be excluded, Dev realizing that he can fix himself is a conclusion followers should appreciate. Happy endings don’t come often enough for the hurt. Fittingly, the strongest light of the evening — a white front-and-center beam — shined on Hynes. Even if the moment was fleeting, it was nice to see Dev glow for once.