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ROLLACOASTER: DEV HYNES’ UTOPIA

I profiled Dev Hynes of Blood Orange for the cover of the 20th edition of Rollacoaster Magazine. Photo by Michael Bailey-Gates.

Devonté “Dev” Hynes is one of pop music’s most important figures. The songwriting mus- cle behind Sky Ferreira’s breakthrough banger “Everything Is Embarrassing” and Solange’s equally mesmerising “Losing You” (as well as songs by everyone from Skepta to FKA twigs), he’s spent the last decade moulding his very own perfect-pop utopia, and surrounding him- self in New York’s scintillating, underground creative forces. This summer, as Blood Orange, Dev returns with his most honest, bravest long-player to date, Freetown Sound. Rollacoaster was invited into Dev’s brave new world for an exclusive, up-close-and-personal preview of it.

From the US to the UK, political upheaval is Trumping creativity. At least the artists have their messiah in the enigmatic form of Dev Hynes, who this summer returns with his solo project, Blood Orange.

The London-born musician, who has resided in New York City since 2007, along with releasing an upcoming beautiful and bold album, Freetown Sound, maintains a community of artists, musicians, models, and performers in New York like (previous Rollacoaster star) Whitney Vangrin. In his support of others, Hynes manages to come across completely unpretentious, a difficult feat for a celebrity of his status. “Everything I do is really how I want to be treated,” he tells me. “That’s the only way I base anything. I’m also still just a big fan-boy of things, so if I’m a fan of something, and it’s something I know or am in a proximity with, then if there’s anything I could possibly do to help them in some way, then I will do it. I just want them to create as much as they can.”

Hynes sits in his Manhattan studio bathed in je-ne-sais-quoi spirit, his red bucket hat tilted skywards to reveal passionate eyes. In July, Freetown Sound, his third album, the follow-up to 2013’s acclaimed Cupid Deluxe, comes out. Like a beautiful natural disaster, a thunderstorm collecting weight before pouring down on parched land, his creative process involves the collection of ideas and sudden appearance of arrival. “With each album, I’ll be working — just always making music, and it’s scattered and everywhere. It’s what happened with this one, it’s what happened with Cupid Deluxe. One day someone could talk to me and say: ‘What’s up with the album?’ and I’ll be like: ‘God knows, it’s like a million songs. I can’t imagine.’ And then the next day it can just click.”

What came together with Freetown Sound is an expansive, immersive, and glorious album. 17 tracks long, it’s being praised as Blood Orange’s most personal album to date, although Hynes says that maybe we just know him better now. Or perhaps we’re just paying more attention. “The last record was completely my viewpoint, too. Maybe it’s that people know me more. So they can really see that’s it’s personal. It’s personal in a different way, because it’s more explorative of myself. This one is kind of going back in even deeper than myself and looking at my parents and before that. It’s trying to understand roots of things, musically and lyrically.”

The title derives its name from his father’s birthplace, the capital of Sierra Leone. His family is also referenced in the record’s lyrics.“My father was a young man, my mother off the boat, my eyes were fresh at 21, bruised but still afloat,” he sings sleekly in a track titled “Augustine”. It’s an earth-shattering song, laced with sorrow that calls to Saint Augustine over the death of Trayvon Martin. Along with religion, race, sexism, Hynes’ heritage is a recurrent theme of the expansive album. He tells me that his family’s role as muse on the record is the simply the result of passing time. “I’m just getting older, and I have more questions and thoughts,” says the songwriter. “I’ve been very aware lately of age. It’s always hard to discuss it without sounding incredibly morbid.”

Despite how Planet Pop, where remaining fuckable is part of the deal, wants its stars to remain growing older, Hynes has his own agenda. “I love age. I always have. I think it’s because I grew up with classical and jazz [music], where age is very different than in popular music. If I was to look at the career of a composer that I love and if I saw things he wrote in his 30s, I would view that as before he found his voice,” he explains. “As I’ve got older, I’ve realised that people that have been huge influences on me were really young when they died. I’m not talking 27, of like drug overdoses and shit like that. John Lennon, John Coltrane, Arthur Russell, all died at 40. Bob Marley died at 36. Shit is so crazy to me. So it’s been very heavy on my mind lately, and I’m trying to understand a lot of things to do with myself and my family, because I feel it’s important to know this stuff and try to work through it for my own benefit.”

Christianity and an “album of the year” may seem unrelated, but it’s an unlikely union made flesh by Hynes, who scrapes away at his own history with the observational curiosity of a scientist.“There’s a lot of looking at Christian upbringing and then rebelling against it. There’s different moments on the album that are looking at those periods, Roman-era Christianity and then even colonial Christianity in West Africa. It’s not in a sense of condemning or preaching, it’s just in the case of questioning. It’s very interesting to me.” What he’s getting at is bigger than religion: it’s the promise of hope. “Christianity was so strong in black households because of slave times, and it was always seen as this beacon of hope. Even if it was this Christianity that was handed down, the ideology was still seen as a beacon of hope. Like: ‘We’ll get through this shit, there’s a bigger plan, you know?’”

Later this summer, he’ll take on Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee, too.“I like to let the album breathe and [go] from there, because I don’t do many shows. I like the shows to be really fun and entertaining for people that know the music. I love the idea of playing music no one’s heard; I would do it in situations where I just use my name. I love the idea of making music for a live situation, [but] I’ll never do that with Blood Orange because I think it’s a bad vibe when artists just play a bunch of new songs for people. When it comes to Blood Orange, I want to play it for people who have listened and want to hear it.” As summer rolls into fall, Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound will be our anthem album. For now, Dev will be enjoying the splendour of his self-made utopia.

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What It’s Like to Be a Death Midwife

In a recent article for Mic, I spoke with death midwives about what they do, how America handles death, and their thoughts on grief. Image courtesy of Getty/Mic. 

It’s a fact we’re all reminded of whenever tragedy strikes, or when we’re lying awake at 3 a.m. after waking up from a nightmare: At some point, everyone we love will die. When that moment comes, be it the loss of an aging parent, a beloved celebrity or a friend gone too soon, we’re struck with grief and often we don’t know how to deal with it.

There are, however, some people who deal with death on a daily basis — as funeral workers, grief counselors, or postmortem investigators. Curious about how to deal with grief in today’s society, Mic spoke to death midwives, or those who help usher dying people into the final stage of life.

Often hospice workers trained in caring for the dying, death midwives work with the dying individual and their loved ones to aid in the dying process. (According to this death midwife’s website, costs vary between approximately $1500 and $3000.)

Also sometimes called an end-of-life guide, the role changes depending on a family’s desires and needs: A death midwife can help with mundane tasks from sorting out medical bills, to helping wash a body should a family opt for an at-home-funeral, a term used to describe the rare practice of skipping the funeral home altogether and saying goodbye to a loved one at home. Death midwives and end-of-life guides pride themselves on being more “heart oriented” than funeral directors, which have been criticized for being more corporate-owned and clinical.

In addition to providing compassionate care in the form of, say, helping the dying create photo albums to honor memories, or helping with such practical matters as offering advice on handling medical bills, those in death work often answer blunt questions about the dying process— a natural part of life they feel is not openly discussed enough.

“You know how people say ‘You need to process your grief?’ I call bullshit on that. Have you ever heard anyone say, ‘You need to process that joy you felt Christmas morning?'” death midwife Terry Skovronek told Mic. Skovronek has been a self-identified death midwife for 19 years, and considers the process of death comparable to the natural process of birth — just at the other end of the spectrum.

Skovronek got into death work after giving birth to her children. “I gave birth to my kids at home,” Skovronek told Mic. “If something went wrong, if they died at birth or were born dead, I wanted to know what my legal responsibilities were.”

Betsy Trapasso, who uses the title “end-of-life guide and advocate,” told Mic that a death midwife can help “provide the vigil and post-death care, help the family and help folks wake up to and reconcile the fact that they are dying.”

A death midwife “can take many shapes and forms, from helping someone who is dying face the issues they need to face, any work they want to get done before they die, any relationships they want to heal,” Trapasso added.

Before transitioning into private practice and advocacy for the dying, Trapasso started out working in a hospice after obtaining a master’s in social work. She’s also worked as a psychotherapist, and says the frequency with which her clients brought up the subject of death let her know there was a professional void that needed to be filled.

“Before I did the death work I was a psychotherapist, and people would want to talk about death all the time. They’d want to know about what death was like,” Trapasso told Mic.

What is death going to be like? It’s a morbid question, but as Skovronek said, it’s a natural one.

“[The dying] will say, ‘What do you think is going to happen when I die? Explain to me what my breathing is going to be like, and do you think I’ll start to see things?'” Skovronek told Mic. She compared the family members’ hesitation to speaking about the death process to people’s unwillingness to speak openly about sex.

“What’s shocking is how little folks know. I [compare it to] the Victorian era, where a 17-year-old girl is married off never having had anyone explain anything to her about sexuality, or penises…imagine the terror [of] not knowing anything of the biology they were about to encounter of the experience. That’s how most people are with death. They have no bloody idea.”

Beyond the physical dying process, many people are unsure how to speak about the grief experienced by loved ones after a friend or relative has passed. When witnessing a friend or colleague dealing with a loss, the living can often find themselves at a loss for words.

People who are trained in grief counseling, like Trapasso and Skovronek, are well-equipped to deal with someone who has just lost a loved one. If someone in your office experiences a major loss, for instance, “sometimes your fellow coworkers are like, ‘What do we say?’ How do we act?’ That’s a huge thing,” Trapasso told Mic. “What mostly everyone [families I’ve worked with] has told me is [to] just say, ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s what people want to hear.”

A kind, one-size-fits-all response of “I’m sorry” works so well because there’s no one way to grieve. “Grief comes in all shapes and sizes and forms. People grieve differently, and that’s what’s important for people to realize,” Trapasso added.

Some mourn outwardly, from sobs to an abundance of shared Facebook posts. Others are too hit with shock to respond in a visibly mournful fashion. Others need to keep themselves busy – and all of those reactions are healthy and OK. It’s not everyday that we are faced with death up close and personal – so what can we learn about grieving from those who do daily as a profession? “Just say, ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s what people want to hear.”

“The important thing for people to know is that it’s different for everyone. You just have to be supportive for the person and really just being there and being present and let them express what they need,” Trapasso told Mic.

Generally speaking, our impulse as a society is to push away ugly and unwanted experiences such as dying and death as a way to alleviate the mourning process. But the death midwives Mic spoke with said that when dealing with loss, it can often be healthier to give your grief space to breathe, rather than race toward an unseen end point.

“It’s like when you have a quarter in your pocket, this little thing that you rub up against, and maybe you twirl it in your fingers. Wouldn’t it suit us if grief was like that, this little thing that we can carry in a small way close to our bodies? [Something] that doesn’t dominate our experience, but we revisit it now and again?,” Skovronek said. “I’m not saying one should live in discomfort, but one should feel appropriate to have room for [grief] … we are denying ourselves a significant part of our humanity if we are tolerant of only half of the range of human experience.”

Technology is also changing our relationship with death. Facebook, for instance has become a place where we can share memories and mourn loved ones; often the deceased’s page turns into a memorial, a place to share memories and grieve. According to Trapasso, technology’s new role in the grieving process is ultimately a good thing, in that it provides a venue for people to share their grief with each other.

“With [the loss of] a friend, you can all share their story, and honor their life, because we always want to feel like we’re part of something. I love it, because for so long I saw people suffering alone,” Trapasso told Mic.

Nowhere was that grieving process brought into sharper relief than in the week following the death of David Bowie. During the week of Jan. 10, social media seemed to take a momentary pause from political posts and New Year’s resolutions, instead becoming flooded with Bowie hair GIFs, thinkpieces on the icon’s impact on gender roles and music videos from the star’s career.

Aside from allowing us to join in the shared mourning process over the death of an icon, the response to Bowie’s death suggests that collective mourning might fill a crucial void in our society, Skovronek said.

“I think we bond to these experiences so strongly because we are so eager to have a communal experience of death and we don’t have it anymore,” she said. “So it’s almost like…it’s a gift when one of these things happen.”