The unrelenting vulnerability of Dev Hynes’ album Negro Swan celebrates and extends the meaning of blackness beyond stereotypes. He challenges expectations of beauty, masculinity and other constructs that attempt to limit the way people take up space. The lyrics, narration, visuals and sounds promote individualism in a world where blackness is defined by homogeneity and limited by parameters.
From the first song of Negro Swan, the album immediately captures the constraints placed on blackness by society. Hynes muses over his stark childhood experiences of being bullied, reflecting that his “first kiss was the floor” (“Orlando”). The harsh violence of physical attack juxtaposes the soft sounds of the song. “Orlando” describes the bullying of a young black man for not adhering to hypermasculinity. Many regard hypermasculinity as the prescribed definitions of manhood, feel it is indicative of society’s policing of black male bodies and minds. Black men who express anything contrary to these rigid ideas of black manhood face a great deal of resistance because of this.
However, Negro Swan suggests that existing in the world as male-identifying is enough to be a man. Therefore, masculinity, and black masculinity in particular, does not have to mean being aggressive or hyper-sexual. It does not mean having interests that are linear, not going beyond conventional ideas of pursuing sports. More importantly, Hynes emphasizes the reality that blackness is not invincible and inherently strong. He admits and discusses that black people are not above mental illness. In an interview with the Guardian in August this year, Dev discussed his intentions towards the album. He wanted it to be “an exploration into my own and many types of black depression, an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of color.” (Source)
Additionally, Negro Swan explores black identity and through the notion of family. Similarly, the black trans activist Janet Mock expresses that family can be an active process of seeking out safe spaces. She describes family as “the spaces where you don’t have to shrink yourself…you don’t have to pretend or perform… you can fully show up and be vulnerable” (“Family feat. Janet Mock”). And so, this idea directly opposes the rather passive process of relying solely on the biological family.
Going forward, this idea of showing up reinforces the idea that coming as you are should be enough. And so, “pretend or perform,” shouldn’t have to be the case for anyone. Mock says that “we get to make ourselves and we get to make our families,” suggesting that we can find family in unconventional spaces. Of course, we can find it in spaces beyond the biological sense of the word and find empowerment in that.
Above all, Negro Swan promotes the concept of building accepting spaces within the self and out. Therefore, this idea is key to freeing the black identity from the narrow parameters handed to us by society. Hynes acknowledges the difficulties of resisting limiting ideas of blackness, that “no-one wants to be the odd one out at times, no-one wants to be the negro swan” (“Charcoal Baby”). However, the album could also be read as a testament to the gorgeous possibilities of defending individualism, the level of self-awareness and acceptance that might result. To conclude, the socio-political relevance of the album with its stunning visuals and lyrics as well as its honest tone and multifaceted sound are an important contribution to black consciousness at a time where progressive thought co-exists with reductive, ignorant and hateful conversation.
Written by Funmi Lijadu
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