"It looks a lot bigger on TV."
They weren't wrong, but there was still some face-palmed bless your little heart comedy in that observation, considering the context. The setting — the disappointing “it” — was the Apollo Theater, Harlem's historic venue and true American black-historical landmark. This past Saturday night, the Apollo was in the creative hands of singer/composer/producer/champion of choreographed dance and tapered pants Dev Hynes. Billed as “Blood Orange and Friends” (Blood Orange is Hynes’s solo project), the two shows (at 3 and 8 p.m.) promised a night with Hynes, plus a multitude of preannounced and surprise guests.
Getting off the A train at 125th Street and crossing St. Nicholas toward the venue, you could immediately tell who was headed to the Apollo. As in, yes, there are a lot of white people in Harlem this evening, and not in the Harlem Tavern "This is my soccer bar, I live here now, this is my neighborhood" sense — more in the "I've never been this far north before" way.
Just the walk from the subway to my seat tells the kinda-great and kinda-not-great story of the Crock-Pot of culture that is New York City in 2015. It felt like a largely downtown and Williamsburg clientele, with Meatpacking-length will-call and/or wait-list lines, all to see the diverse array of artists whom Hynes is musically connected to, in Harlem. It truly was an exercise in what one can pull off when one really is a creature of this city.
Inside and waiting in line for a drink, I found more of the same culture collide that existed outside. In line with me were two people talking about how they had never been to Harlem, and across the room, three Apollo ushers dancing hard to “Outstanding” by the Gap Band.
A soundtrack of '90s R&B and rap — Dru Hill to Camp Lo — filled the room as people filed in, watching as the final adjustments were made to the stage set. When the show finally began, it was noticeably absent of fanfare. The lights dimmed and came back up as Hynes and a few others walked out, and then, suddenly, there was a concert happening. Over the course of the show, it felt like equal parts community theater, Broadway, and a 2010 rap show at SOBs — at times loose, at times spontaneous, at times precise. The guests on Saturday were spread as far across the spectrum as could be imagined, from dance crew WAFFLE Collective; to rappers Le1f, Ratking, Junglepussy, and Despot; to singers Adam Bainbridge (Kindness), Caroline Polachek (Chairlift), and BEA1991; to living goddess legend Nelly Furtado — with whom Hynes collaborated on a new tape (as in an actual cassette tape; click here for the definition of cassette tape).
From song to song, you never knew what Hynes would do. Sometimes he’d just dance; other times he would play electric guitar, sometimes acoustic guitar; and every now and then you’d lose him and he’d come back with a cello. It took a few songs for the audience to fully buy into the evening — to shed the sheath of New York crowd cool that poisons many a great event. But with every song, the magic of the Apollo was seeping into the crowd in a way few other venues can. It was like witnessing someone go to a significant other's family’s Thanksgiving dinner — even if you don’t know if you like squash casserole, you fucking eat the squash casserole. And between the songs, the guests, and what you saw onstage — Hynes dancing with the confidence of a human alone in his bedroom — the infectious joy took over the hallowed hall. There was no turning back: Squash casserole was your new favorite food. It was clear it was turning into a night that no video could fully capture, no picture could do justice. Either you were there, or you weren’t.
Part of Hynes’s success at the Apollo came from the undeniable sense of importance. And not self-importance, but the almost-historic reality that an event like this could happen. It was closer to Dave Chappelle doing a block party than Blood Orange putting on a concert. And based on much of the crowd that assembled, it was clear Hynes wanted to illustrate what beauty can come from leaving your comfort zone. And the Apollo as Harlem — Harlem as a look into Black America — was that representation. Essentially, a clear statement that if you want me — and you want my friends and my culture — you’re going to have to come get a taste of Black America en route.
It's been a landmark year for black artists — and black people in general — having a racial moment of reckoning. In some ways, this has been especially true for artists with largely non-black audiences. For generations, the demographic of your audience has been used to qualify blackness. In 2015, much of that notion flipped — with black artists taking the reality of large numbers of non-black fans — and using that to speak to blackness, directly to the people who may lack such perspectives in the other corners of their lives. Being overtly black, in front of people who might have long thought of you as post-racial, not black, colorless. It's been one of the great responses in 2015 to the turmoil of black life being made to feel sub-important. And the reaction isn’t a shunning of current fans, it's more of a desire to remind everyone, Yes, I am black, never forget that.
Nina Simone, talking to her largely white crowd at New York’s Philharmonic Hall in 1969, spoke candidly before performing her song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”:
Now, it is not addressed primarily to white people, though it does not put you down in any way, it simply ignores you. For my people need all the inspiration and love that they can get.
Sentiments like this are radical in their bluntness — the speaking of blackness at white people, not to them. This has been internalized by a number of artists in 2015, perhaps most noticeably with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but also such examples as Run the Jewels and their police-brutality-focused video for “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck),” and Janelle Monáe's “Hell You Talmbout.” It’s felt increasingly necessary this year to show you have a pulse, to show that the happenings of the world are registering, to show that black culture is vast and contains multitudes, to show that you can be black and famous, but you’re still black. And in 2015, many went out of their way, as to leave no doubt.
This reality has been a part of Hynes’s 2015. The year as an identity-reclamation project is not unique to Hynes — the year forced us to consider who we are, be that black, white, male, rich, gay, conservative, artist, activist. But as a year defined by hate and identity racing to the forefront, Hynes was an example of the therapeutic public good that comes from making this private pain available for all. And when you have a lot in your heart, are experiencing a lot of new anger, and have a platform, you do something like announce that a song on your next album is inspired by the 2014 violence in Ferguson. And then, two weeks after the Charleston church shootings, you put an almost-11-minute song, “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames,” on SoundCloud, with no promotion (Hynes was off Twitter at the time), with the note, “This is not from my forthcoming album, just some things on my mind.” (The song went on to be a “Best New Track” on Pitchfork.) And you do things like reunite with former collaborator Solange Knowles at L.A.'s FYF Fest in August.
At this performance, Solange summed up Hynes’s 2015 moment, as well as the feeling that so many had this year — an attempt to fight helplessness with hope. Before playing a song, Knowles stated, “[This] was originally by the legendary Nina Simone,” which was met with whooping cheers from the crowd. Following that, “Remade by the legendary Donny Hathaway,” met again by sporting-event-like wails. And then, finally, “And that’s how we’ve been feeling these days.” The response was quieter and confused. Because “we” referred to the people whom she proudly shared the stage with, a snapshot of Black America.You could tell the crowd — again, a largely white one — knew that it might be best to listen instead of just aimlessly shout.
The song was “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
When, through tragedy, you are having this triumph of identity, you release songs like October’s “Sandra’s Smile,” about the life and death of Sandra Bland. And in December, you play two shows at the Apollo and bring Knowles back to perform old hits, but also a rendition of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)." You do that not because you want to — you do it because you have to. The stakes became too high in 2015 not to.
And then, finally, you donate the proceeds of the shows to the Opus 118 Harlem School of Music.
You do these things because you need to remind the world that you can feel, but also because you need to remind yourself that you still care.