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Protest Song of the Week: ‘Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?’

A 17 year-old black boy was executed by a white Chicago police officer on October 20 of last year, and for 400 days, the city of Chicago, led by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, fought to suppress the truth of what happened. How those in power worked to cover up what really happened to Laquan McDonald was another illustration of the value of black lives in America.

Given the protests for McDonald in Chicago, the arrangement and freeform lyrics of Blood Orange’s “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?” feels like an appropriate song for the moment.

Blood Orange is a solo project of Devonté “Dev” Hynes. Like D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, MIA, or Lauryn Hill, he is one of the few artists unafraid to incorporate social commentary into his music. Hynes was also attacked by security at the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago after he spoke out against police brutality and wore a shirt with names of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner emblazoned on it.

Hynes published “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?” to the internet about five months ago.

Image for Blood Orange track, "Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?" (via Soundcloud)

Image for Blood Orange track, “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?” (via Soundcloud)

The nearly 11-minute song is a powerful meditation aimed at the forces, cultural and sociopolitical, which perpetuate white supremacy. It is both a testament to the exhaustion a black person endures when faced with prejudice and a reflection on identity—what defines how one understands the past in order to persevere into the future.

Instrumentally, Hynes brilliantly composes a free-flowing jazz rhythm that amplifies the emotions and ideas in his song. Part of the song features lyrics, spoken and sung, while the other part is a monologue.

Hynes confronts cultural appropriation by white people (an issue also dealt with on another recent Blood Orange protest song, “Sandra’s Smile”). He also addresses how white people can listen to black music, claim to understand racism, and fail to support black people in protests when they need solidarity.

One of the more poignant lyrics are the lines, “Tasting pain coming from a place of truth,” and the more specific, “I have nothing left to give when you don’t notice what is wrong/Charleston left me broken down but it’s just another day to you.” These lyrics are the manifestation of a deep state of dejection in which Hynes feels the emotional toll of trying to explain structural racism has become too much to bear.

The track immediately jumps into a story of police harassment from Toronto artist Talwst and then Hynes’ thoughts on the origins of his last name, which comes from the slave trade. The song’s tempo picks up as he launches into a riff on what it is like for a black person to carry the weight of a name born out of slavery. How does someone struggling in a world of oppression fueled by white culture’s representations of what it means to be black define their own identity?

Many of the thoughts put into this track appear to stem from this Guardian column, “The Kanye West talk white people couldn’t handle” by Judnick Maynard, which was posted on June 24. Maynard participated in a Drunk TED Talk panel on Kanye West in New York. Quite a few white people, as expected, refused to stay and hear what Maynard had to say.

From the column:

So what did I say to make people leave? Just like Kanye, I dared to say too much: about the appropriation of black music, the ownership of black bodies by paying white customers, the truth of classism as silent racism and the systemic racism that does not allow for black people to speak their truth without resistance, or to own the stories that they have written. It’s all good in a rap song but when black people are slaughtered in Charleston, we are asked to remove race from the conversation and the “struggle” that everyone just rapped along to, identified with and laid claim to is swiftly denied. Meanwhile, the trauma and danger remains for black people to bear and we must fight to prove that it is us who are being hunted.

What is expressed could easily have been a series of late night tweets or a Tumblr post but Hynes creates an enduring piece of work that articulates a perspective artists are mostly expected to keep out of their music.

Listen to “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?” on Soundcloud.

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Are you an artist who has written and/or produced a protest song that you would like featured? Or do you have a favorite protest song? We have a few submissions we’ll be featuring in the coming weeks, and if you’d like to submit a song, send submissions to protestmusic@Shadowproof.com

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."