If you follow Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange/Lightspeed Champion/one-third of Test Icicles, on Twitter, you’ll know that he’s had a great deal to say about the state of race relations in America of late, especially in the wake of the Charleston massacre. As of this weekend, he has put those thoughts to music and released them via his Soundcloud page, in the form of an extraordinary track entitled “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?”
This track is, to state the obvious, compulsory listening. It’s without precedent in Hynes’ work and largely unlike anything else you’ll hear this year — most of it is spoken word, and it stretches well past the ten-minute mark. The song is obviously deeply personal, addressing the ever-vexed subject of race in America, and also the way Hynes himself feels about the apparently never-ending oppression of this country’s black population.
As such, the song basically divides into two parts. The second is a reflection on Hynes’ own identity, starting with a commentary on the etymology of his surname — it’s of Irish origin, which means it’s a slave name, assigned to one of his ancestors by a slave owner. But it also finds its origin in the middle English “hine,” for “servant.” Hynes reflects on the double irony of his surname also having its origin in servitude, and goes on to discuss the difficulty of constructing an identity in a world where your own self-image is a constructed stereotype of white origin: “How,” he asks, “can I become anyone?”
It’s deeply moving to hear Hynes reflect on this, and ultimately downright inspirational to hear him speaking of deconstructing his past and “learning to speak,” to borrow a phrase from James Baldwin. The song ends with the declaration, “I’m proud of [my identity]… I’m going to reclaim it, and hopefully move on to [help] other people do the same thing.” The first time I listened, I felt like cheering.
But that part of the song is not really for me. It’s like looking in on something private. The first part, though, is for me. It speaks directly to the listener, addressing them in the second person. And it’s pretty clear here that the “you” is white — this is a song addressed to people who don’t have to live the reality of America’s racial violence every day, to people who can shake their heads in horror at Charleston or America’s incarceration statistics and then get on with their day, to people who can read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” and nod vigorously in agreement with his contentions while never having to experience its premises first hand. To people like me.
Hynes echoes the exhausting nature of having to constantly relate the travails of being black in America to those who don’t experience them first hand: “I ain’t got nothing left to give you,” he sighs. “I’m too tired to even talk about it… Charleston left me broken down, but it’s just another day to you.”
As his monologue comes to an end, he samples a voice message that was apparently left for him by visual artist Talwst, relating a situation in Paris, where he was stopped in front of an apartment he was renting in the Marais and searched for no reason beyond “looking suspicious”: “I understand what you’re going through, surrounded by friends of privilege who don’t get it, living in a world where a lot of faces don’t look like us.”
Talwst can relate. So can pretty much any other black man, I expect. But if you’re white, you can’t relate at all. That’s the point that Talwst is making, and essentially also the point that Hynes is making. If you benefit from the privilege he describes, then, by definition, you can’t know what it’s like to not benefit from it.
The temptation as a liberal-minded white man is to shake your head, to say, “No, wait, I get it. I can sympathize. Shit is fucked up.” But as a white person, you can’t get it. I lived in Harlem for a year and never got stopped and frisked, not once. The police never even looked at me twice. I could walk down the street smoking a joint and expect, at worst, a stern telling-off. I’ve been caught without a ticket twice on the subway — for perfectly legitimate reasons, not that that makes a difference — and let off without a ticket both times. And the one time I did get ticketed, apologetically (“We have to do this”) — for riding my bike on the footpath — I was literally the only white person queueing at the New York County Court at 8 AM on the day of my summons. Everyone else there, at least a couple of hundred people, was black or Hispanic.
That’s white privilege, and pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t help anyone. That’s what Dev is saying in this song, or with its first part, at least. And he’s understandably pessimistic about what, if anything, his words will matter: “You wouldn’t listen if I told you.” But for whatever it’s worth, as a white person, the first thing you can do is listen. So hit play, and listen. And then hit play again. And think about how it feels to live this shit every single day. And if you’re not tired, then do whatever you can to effect change.