R&B is useful for quite a few things. We generally associate it with communicating sexual passion, but it’s also good for kiss-offs or for heartbreak laments. Before this past year it was easy to forget the genre’s rich history of protest music. The most prominent example is Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On, which is a sumptuous, jazz-inflected record of anti-war, anti-gang violence, pro-environment beauty. “Sumptuous” and “jazz-inflected” also apply to “Sandra’s Smile”, the new song from Dev Hynes dedicated to the memory of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman found dead in a jail cell after being arrested for a traffic violation last summer, though the song sounds more like Prince than Gaye.
Hynes hasn’t been shy about the intention of this song; it’s not a call to arms but a forceful claim of the right to have an emotional response to tragedies like Bland’s. The grief that the black community has experienced again and again should not be rushed, and it’s not wrong to struggle to forgive. These tragedies have been nothing short of awful, but I’m thankful to God for the way many are responding in the creative community. With “Sandra’s Smile”, Dev Hynes allows himself to be a standard-bearer of the necessary response.