What does it mean to go back to who/where you used to be? What does it mean to go forward from going back? In late September, I returned to Central Park Summerstage for the first time in over a decade to experience Blood Orange and Yves Tumor in concert together. When was the last time I had been to the park for a show? Tegan & Sara for Canada Day? Land of Talk opening for The Decemberists? Despite only having gone to Summerstage a handful of times, the space had brought me into contact with some of the artists who have most affected how I think about—and enact—queerness, femaleness, and whiteness. So, coming home to Central Park that night meant not only returning to the NYC area in which I grew up but also returning to the (lingering) memories of older versions of myself.
As I got in line an hour before doors, it hit me for the first time that I was transitioning to a new phase of my concert-going life. Guessing that the majority of those in line this early were 10-15 years younger than me, I was now one of the “old(er)” people at the concert. At 31, there aren’t many artists for whom I would line up early at this point: Sleater-Kinney, PJ Harvey, Kelela, FKA twigs, Fever Ray, and Blood Orange. Of everyone on this list, Blood Orange is the last artist to have deeply affected the formation of myself. Releasing Cupid Deluxe during my first year of grad school, Blood Orange’s music has been the soundtrack to which I have intellectually and personally worked through questions of androgyny, femininity, queerness, cis-ness, and whiteness (particularly its relation to blackness). And since that was only five years ago, I was a bit startled to discover so many from the generation below me in line so early. At which point had they gotten on board? Stopping and collecting myself for a moment, I realized that the medley of (presumably) female, poc, queer, trans and/or nonbinary people surrounding me were, demographically, those most likely to be my students when I next transition to (someday?) being a professor. Perhaps what initially seemed like a barrier would ultimately be a through line. And perhaps, as had already happened to me many times in the classroom, they would have something to teach me.
Given an impending thunderstorm, everyone’s set times got bumped up by 90 minutes, turning an anticipated 2.5 hour wait for Blood Orange into only an hour. Despite having seen him on tour for his last two albums, I didn’t know what to expect for this show. I also still didn’t know how I felt about Negro Swan. Although I was intellectually on board for the project of centering black trans female-ness as an aural lens for investigating black and queer psychic experiences, aesthetically I was struggling to retain an interest in the album. Listening to it a handful of times before the show, I found Janet Mock’s narration simultaneously scattered and omnipresent—and those constantly wailing sirens as trying to force a connection across disjointed sonic palates. Musically, I was continuing to miss the danceability (and listenability?) of 2013’s Cupid Deluxe, an amplified version of my first listens to 2016’s Freetown Sound (which ultimately grew on me over time). Was Blood Orange becoming too intellectual of a project to sing and dance along to? Or was there something I was missing in my constantly intellectualizing an already intellectual project? By opening up myself to the songs in a live context, I hoped to make a different connection to them.
When the songs began, I put myself in the moment, trying my best to be present. After opening with a recording of Janet Mock’s “Family,” Dev Hynes and his band begin with three songs from Negro Swan: “Saint,” “Orlando,” and “Jewelry.” At this point, I am still feeling on the fence about the album. Then Hynes and company do something interesting: they transitioned to “Desirée” from Freetown Sound. Noticeably absent from the set list when I saw Blood Orange open for Grace Jones in Berkeley back in August 2016, the song takes on additional meaning within the context a show that began with words from Mock, who is a black and trans activist. As the band stops playing to let the recording from Venus Extravaganza from Paris is Burning (the 1990 documentary by Jenny Livingston about the 1980s NYC ball scene) take center stage, this difficult congruence between trans life and trans death rattles the space. Where the first two Blood Orange albums were celebrations of black and queer life, the last two have grappled more with the black and queer (and trans) death—or, at least, hardship—hovering nearby. With a synth-funk rhythm that’s just as memorable as Xtravaganza’s declaring “In order for him to buy that [washing and dryer set], she’d have to go to bed with him anyway,” the song sends an energy burst into the set. Using the power of sound, the band work to carve out space for black, brown, trans, and/or female people—and for holding in memory those from those groups who are no longer with us.
And more than ever before, that project involves audience participation. After another song from Negro Swan (“Out of Your League”) and the excellent “Augustine” from Freetown Sound, the band move onto “Charcoal Baby,” one of the early singles from the latest album. When they send out the chorus line of “Can you break sometimes?” like a ripple into the night, I am surprised at myself for instinctually singing along. No stranger to singing at shows, I am nevertheless initially baffled that this is the song where I first open my mouth for the night. As I attune my ears as I continue singing, I notice that everyone else around me is also singing. From the teens and twenty-somethings to the people my age (or older) standing behind me, everyone is feeling this moment. How do you not break sometimes if you are a minority of some kind in this current political-cultural moment? How is this not true in a similar yet different way if you are black or brown and/or trans? In this moment, I am reminded of what is so powerful about Blood Orange as an artist: he brings you in in a way that leaves you a space to connect without encroaching on experiences that are not your own (in my case: blackness and transness). Although not without its complications, this is how he centers black femaleness and/or transness as the way in, a modern-day variation on the Combahee River Collective declaring in 1977, “If black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.” [Only now, in 2018, “women” is an expansive identity, opening up towards “trans,” “femme,” “genderqueer,” and “nonbinary.”]
Everything else from that point onward is a high that only dissipates when the show finally ends. When the band do “Chamakay” next, I am reminded of what drew me to Blood Orange in the first place: those hauntingly beautiful synth chords, those beating steel drums (or, more often, pulsating drum machine programming), that whisper of a voice that rises up in volume as the sound progresses. Near the end of the night, Hynes returns to his grand piano (that he’s been bouncing to and from) for one last song. As the piano becomes lit up in a purple hue, I have to appreciate the subtle yet poignant tribute to the Purple One happening in the moment. In my dissertation, the chapter on Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” gives way to a chapter (increasingly more and more) about Blood Orange’s “Augustine,” “Chamakay,” and “Desirée.” The ordering is not coincidental. What do we still have to learn from those who came before us? From contemporary artists who reference and rework the sounds of the past? From the budding future creatives in their audiences? Watching these questions unfold in real time for me, I feel a new inspiration to keep being a part of it all in whichever ways possible.