Music

“This Shit Is For Us”: How Solange, Beyoncé And Dev Hynes Portrayed Blackness In 2016

Representation isn’t just a buzzword for these artists, it’s a fact of life.

Some of the most powerful visions of blackness we’ve seen in 2016 have been of death. Black bodies being shot, denigrated, violated. This isn’t new. Black citizens in the US have been historically brutalised and mistreated, but it’s only now that we can see the footage minutes after it’s happened and immediately hear the blood-curdling accounts.

As if to counter this, some of the best black music of the year has been accompanied by equally powerful, but more autonomous, visions. Beyoncé’s tightly cornrowed hair, ears adorned with rings. Dev Hynes, in a hoodie and basketball shorts, being driven around New York City. And, most recently, Solange, her limbs tangled amongst those of other black women, eyelids framed with purple eyeshadow, pupils trained on the viewer.

Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’.

The albums that these images come from ­– Lemonade, Freetown Sound and A Seat at the Table, respectively — work as a sort of inadvertent trilogy, linked in the way they present unique and varied portraits of modern blackness, queerness and femininity. These are three works that don’t compromise complex identity in service of finding broad audiences.

Diverse Black Voices

Black women and queer black people have long been erased from film. There’s a section in a bell hooks essay where she quotes a black female cinema-goer: “I could always get pleasure from movies as long as I did not look too deep”. It’s a relatable sentiment for any marginalised person — if you look too long at something that you’ve been erased from, it’s easy to feel disenfranchised, forgotten.

The visual accompaniments for Lemonade, Freetown Sound and A Seat at the Table allow marginalised spectators to look, and look deep, at images of queer identity and black womanhood that have rarely been allowed to enter the mainstream. The albums themselves aren’t particularly connected sonically, but the visuals — Beyoncé’s Lemonade film and Blood Orange and Solange’s music videos — share the same universe.

This is a world where black people populate the foreground of the frame rather than the background, where everything is shot with a soft film grain and deep, bright colours.

The depiction of black people in these films is often easy and warm, representations of black identity created by black artists for black viewers, rather than to be commodified for white audiences. Less Dreamgirls and more Do The Right Thing.

As has been amply discussed, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, released in April this year, deftly looks at the way the actions and lives of black men manifest in black female identities. Beyoncé’s rage and sadness brought upon by her partner’s alleged infidelity is incisively mirrored with the sadness of the mothers of slain black men. It allows black women the same artistic catharsis that white audiences have had for decades.

Lemonade is, above all, a celebration of black femininity and power. The message is clear: black women will no longer be your objects. It is not only a diverse project but a truthful one — rather than serve audiences with the same stereotypes of black women that still populate mass culture, Beyoncé presents black women as they are, as she’s known them to be. It’s a common theme in all three projects — representation isn’t just a buzzword for these artists, it’s a fact of life.

Freetown Sound — the third album by NYC-via-London musician Dev Hynes — was released a few months after Lemonade, but seems to have been created with similar intent. It’s a paean to diverse representations of blackness like Lemonade. The album is, in Hynes’ words, “for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer in the right way”, and it shows.

Often, Hynes writes from a female perspective, as on ‘Better Than Me’. Sometimes, such as on lead single ‘Augustine’, he sings from a queer perspective, rewriting Saint Augustine’s work from this angle. More often than not, (and most notably on the chilling, beautiful ‘Hands Up’) Hynes presents like a guardian angel, speaking directly to an unseen ‘you’, providing advice and solace in a world that’s unfriendly to any kind of otherness.

Freetown Sound celebrates fluid identities and diversity. Halfway through the album, when Hynes begins to chant “you are special in your own way” — a classic primary school style anti-bullying platitude — it sounds genuine and heartfelt simply because of the way so many marginalised voices have been fit into the record. The statement becomes more truism than affirmation.

Freetown feels spiritually tied to A Seat at the Table and Lemonade in the way it sees healing and self-love as a political act. It’s not charged with the anger that say, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is — instead, all three albums are quietly revolutionary through their refusal to pander to non-black audiences.

Where Lemonade and Freetown Sound address the world, A Seat at the Table looks inward. It’s a quiet, powerful work; a piece of art about self-care and knowing yourself, about how simultaneously difficult and beautiful life can be. The album draws its title from a Langston Hughes poem titled ‘I, Too’, in which Hughes looks towards the end of racial inequality in America. It makes sense that Solange would find her album title in this poem, specifically: it, like the record, is about healing and patience, rather than violence or rage.

This finds Solange in a much darker place than on her 2012 EP True. There she dealt with the aftermath of a breakup; on A Seat at the Table, she grapples with the systemic racism and violence present in the US, with the quiet but potent incidents of bigotry that she’s experienced her whole life.

Like Beyoncé and Blood Orange, she embraces and celebrates blackness in all forms, and is even more explicit in asserting the album’s status as a work for black people. On ‘F.U.B.U’ (an acronym for ‘For Us, By Us’), she says this to the listener: “play this song and sing it on your terms / this shit is for us”.

Solange’s ‘Cranes In The Sky’ video.

Solange draws from a diverse range of black experiences through mining the sounds of recent black history. Its interludes are narrated by Chicago legend Master P and Solange’s parents. It draws from traditional styles like soul and jazz, but reaches further in finding modern sounds from the Diaspora: you can trace, for example, the earthy mysticism of ‘Weary’ from A Seat at the Table through to Afro-Cuban duo Ibeyi’s ‘River’, which in turn reaches back to sounds and concepts derived from Yoruba prayer rituals.

Instead of cheapening the experience of the album, this patchwork of black voices feels beautiful and reverential — much like Lemonade and Freetown Sound, A Seat at the Table finds its unique voice through channelling the voices of others.

A Physical Journey

This method of reclaiming and reinventing black sounds in this way is present on all three records, but is most explicit on Lemonade. The entire album feels like it’s cycling through black genres that have been appropriated: bluegrass on ‘Daddy Lessons’; gospel and rap on ‘Freedom’; reggae on ‘All Night’; and bounce on ‘Formation’.

On ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, blues and rock music is snatched back from white men by the genres’ progenitors, African Americans. ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ also uses a Led Zeppelin sample, and it’s hard not to see its usage as a taunt to anyone who dares suggest Lemonade is less artistically valid than traditional ‘rock music’.

It’s a similar move to the one Hynes makes on Freetown Sound track ‘E.V.P.’ That song finds Hynes duetting about appropriation with Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry, the lead singer of a band with a history of using black styles. The whole album works as a reimagined history of ‘80s pop, playing with the light funk and airy production of that era.

There’s a distinct sense of time and place present on each of the albums, lending each work scale and depth. This geographical and historical specificity allows each of the albums to tap into the collective identity of each setting. Freetown Sound is the most wide-reaching: it traces Hynes’ parents from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to predominantly black South London, before jumping to Hynes’ life in New York. New York City is a huge feature of Hynes’ identity as blood orange, and on Freetown the reasoning for this comes into full view through the way the record presents the city.

Through the album, as Hynes explores different identities and subcultures, he finds that, for him, New York is exactly the cosmopolitan dream that everyone’s made it out to be, a place of safety where there’s no ‘correct’ way to be black or queer.

Lemonade is practically a tour of the Deep South. ‘Daddy Lessons’ name-checks Texas, ‘Yonce’s hometown, while ‘Formation’s production echoes New Orleans bounce and features samples of Big Freedia, a modern icon of the subgenre. ‘All Night’ is built around a piece of ‘Spottieottiedopaliscious’ by Outkast, kings of Atlanta hip-hop. Each homage is a reminder of the brilliance of Southern black musicians.

But the southern states still have some of the highest black incarceration rates in America, and you can feel that too in ‘Freedom’s rage, in the way ‘Forward’ breaks down to a state of desolation at its peak. Beyoncé may live in LA, but the suffocating heat and malaise of the South comes through; the constant battle between black excellence and tragedy.

Solange’s record resides in the South too, but she finds herself looking toward places with much darker histories than her sister. Solange worked on the album on a former sugarcane plantation in New Iberia, Louisiana — a town in which her maternal grandparents lived until leaving due to racially motivated attacks. You can feel the same warmth on A Seat at the Table as on Lemonade, but it’s more still than fiery. There’s an emptiness to it, an isolation that you can hear on some of the more skeletal tracks like ‘Scales’ and ‘Don’t Wish Me Well’. While she rarely alludes to it, every song on A Seat at the Table carries the historical weight of New Iberia, the scars of slavery and racial violence.

The Accidental Trilogy

If you listen to these works together, the narrative begins with Freetown Sound, with Ashlee Haze and hope and promise. We travel through Freetown and London and settle in New York, lush and rich and welcoming, exploring the subways, the subcultures. But the glamour wears off eventually.

We travel south, to the territory of Lemonade, to the heat and sweat, a land populated with dried up plantations and systemically brutalised young men, with defiant and powerful women. There is rage and violence here, but eventually there’s peace. We end up in New Orleans, and find solidarity there. First in the bounce clubs of ‘Formation’ and eventually in quiet New Iberia, the domain of A Seat at the Table. Time passes. We learn how to care, how to control the fury, how to accept it and, more importantly, how to channel it into beauty.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade.

These albums may present us with hyper-stylised fantasies of the world, but they’re imbued with deeply real and deeply true depictions of black experience. They’re not protest records; instead they politicise the everyday, exposing the fraught systems and quiet hardships that people of colour have to deal with daily.

None are prescriptive; all three records encourage and celebrate true diversity and, in this individuality, find collective identity. This embrace of diverse beauty and quiet activism recalls the closing lines of ‘I, Too’: “They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed— / I, too, am America.”

Shaad D’Souza is a freelance writer from Melbourne. Follow him on Twitter here.