Aloe Blacc
Brian Nevins/Getty Images for Hilton

Aloe Blacc Is A Testament To The Strength Of Strategic Giving & Intentional Artistry

"The way I understand it, if there’s an organization already doing the work, I don’t need to start a foundation. They just need my money."

Aloe Blacc can remember his first time in the muggy oasis of New Orleans clear as day. It was before Good Things Aloe, when he was still in his “future soul hip-hop” phase, but not yet integrated into the music industry as a soul singer and Grammy-nominated recording artist. It was a very messy time in his life… literally. He'd taken over the town for his best friend’s bachelor party, passing through the city’s storied daiquiri drive-thrus, speed racing through the bayou and letting confectioned sugar powder their good clothes in a beignet fight.

Aloe has since returned to the city several times in a more professional capacities—he and Pharrell touched down in the Big Easy for Bruno Mars' 2014 Moonshine Jungle Tour—but his most recent trip was to honor one of music’s biggest influences: jazz. Aloe’s passion for jazz and the influence music like it has on the world is why Hilton Honors tapped him for their Music Happens Here program.

“We look for artists who are passionate about something,” Mark Weinstein, Senior Vice President & Global Head of Customer Engagement, Loyalty and Partnerships says of Aloe. Just hours after letting six Hilton Honors members in on an exclusive studio session, Blacc serenated about 200 more at the House Of Blues last Friday (May 12). “[Aloe] said, I love R&B and jazz, that’s where this all comes from. He wanted to rerecord ‘What A Wonderful World,’ the Louis Armstrong song, and really wanted to come to New Orleans.”

During the hour-long showcase, Aloe ran through some of his most popular cuts—“You Make Me Smile,” the Elton John-sampling “I’m The Man,” “Wake Me Up” and a snazzy, slowed down cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” were fan favorites—backed by a vibrant band that brought out the best of all the instruments they played.

Staying in line with the iconic genre perched on his pedestal, jazz also heavily influenced Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, an album Aloe feels was one of the most poignant musical statement-pieces in the last few years. Aside from the stanzas and melodies woven through Kung-Fu Kenny’s heavily lauded 2015 LP, what Aloe loves most is the intentional nature of the Compton, Calif. native’s artistry. Yes, the music sounds damn good, but more importantly, it’s Kendrick’s way of feeding ideas of how to fix communities of color from the inside out that impresses him.

“It’s easy to identify an artist like Kendrick because you know that he is using his platform,” he says. “He’s really smart about slowly opening that envelope to where he’s really trying to educate folks with the lyrics.”

In addition to waxing poetic about the power of K. Dot’s prose, Aloe sat down with us to talk about how his mentor Harry Belafonte inspired the way he donates to worthwhile causes, why it’s a good thing that the privileged are trying to “stay woke” and how his own music falls in line with these turbulent times.

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VIBE: What made you feel that the Music Happens Here was a great fit for you to come back to New Orleans and highlight the jazz scene?
Aloe Blacc: Well, jazz was born here in New Orleans and has influenced, if not, ignited the foundation of so many other styles of music. Saying “music happens here” is more than just saying that it’s happening here. Music has happened here, music started here, and it’s spread across the world. You’ve got an artist like Louis Armstrong, who we’ve been paying homage to, who took jazz around the world. He humanized the idea of a black man, although it still took decades. His music was in the homes of people who regularly would not have acknowledged him or his family, his people. I think to say music happens here, it’s much deeper than that. To come here and pay homage to that legacy for me is an honor.

The last two years have been a great time for music and a pivotal time in terms of people opening up and saying what needs to be said. What are some of the projects that have really moved you or impressed you?
I’ve been listening to a lot of old stuff, but when it comes to new stuff and new artists who are really pushing the envelope? I think it’s easy to identify an artist like Kendrick [Lamar] because you know he's using his platform and he’s really smart about slowly opening that envelope to where he’s really trying to educate folks with the lyrics. You gotta get ‘em in. First you attract them. He’s attracted so many ears, and now he’s able to start feeding those ears with the messages that he wants to deliver. It’s almost diametric opposition to his contemporaries. Listen to the other hip-hop that’s in the landscape right now and it just doesn’t even compare in terms of the literacy and the content. That’s one artist.

There’s Tom Morello who never really stopped. With Rage Against The Machine, the name of their group was an important message to begin with, but it was almost like they were really popular for teenagers who are engaged in adolescent angst anyway, so rebellion is kinda part of the deal. When you see an artist like Tom Morello continue on in his activism and work with Chuck D and other activists who are artists, you recognize it wasn’t just a schtick, it was real, and those messages are beyond teenage angst. Those are messages that we should’ve been espousing and holding near, because when you take your eye off of the tower, somebody might supplant the establishment and take the position at the top of the tower. You wouldn’t even know what happened. But when you’re already part of that kind of mindset of watching out, being astute and paying attention to what’s going on, you see it, you know it and you just wish that you could scream loud enough for everybody else to hear so that you can amass a movement. I think now that you see these rallies and marches like the one that happened after Inauguration, there are people who’ve never marched for anything in their lives in that one. Those are the people who probably felt privileged enough or didn’t even recognize their privilege that they were part of… they were potentially a victim or going to be threatened, just didn’t even see it. But now they’re all woke and I don’t mind, because we need as many colors of the rainbow as we can have to be part of the movement.

You touch on a cool point: people marching who’ve never marched before in their lives. A big critique that our generation gets is that we’re not “IRL” with it. So many conversations happen via social media in this very safe, contained digital realm, but then you have the people who do go out, but don’t know how to continue that conversation. What, do you think, are some ways to resolve this disconnect?
I look at my heroes and my mentors; Harry Belafonte, for instance. He’s a mentor to many of us in the music business. We spend time at his house, he tells us about the stories where he had to convince Dr. Martin Luther King’s father that sending Martin Luther King to Europe was the right way to fund the movement. After Harry had spent all his money on private planes because it was dangerous to have Martin Luther King in public at some point, on hotel rooms, on venues, on buses. When money was drying up from the people like me. We go out, we sell the songs, we make the money, then we dole it out to the organizations that we believe are doing the right work on the ground. You’ve got to come up with different strategies. What I feel is the answer is, we are looking to the elders, we learn those strategies and methodologies, and we find the organizations that are on the ground working hard. We see a lot of artists start their non-profit organizations and their philanthropies. A lot of that is a tax shelter.

The way I understand it, if there’s an organization already doing the work, I don’t need to start a foundation. They just need my money. And that’s what happens. I’ll do a show, and I’ll tell either the buyer or the booker to be sure a portion of that goes to the organization or when I get paid, a portion of it goes to the organization. That’s really how all of us should be working. But you get your folks that start their foundations and they have gala nights and they raise more money for the foundation and really it’s just a tax shelter. It’s kind of disheartening knowing that people like Sidney Portier and Harry Belafonte funded organizations that put foreign nationals through university programs here in the United States, one being Barack Obama’s father. So had he not had the likes of the entertainment elite put money in the coffers of these foundations for young aspiring youth, we wouldn't have had our first black president. That’s the legacy, and a lot of people don’t know that story. They won’t ever understand the power of what we do as artists. And I ask them, did you ever feel like you were compromising anything by being a “popular” artist? He said no, because he would always try to put the message in the music, too. When he sang “Day O,” it sounds like a fun island song, but really that’s a day laborer’s hardship. He put the real message in the music. He didn’t compromise, even though it may look like it because he’s a pop artist, but he was still true to what he had learned from his predecessors.

Your music, and even some of the imagery in your videos, seems right for right now. It parallels those feelings and messages of today, as well as gives that necessary escape and uplifting energy. Did you have any sort of inkling or foresight that your music would play that kind of role now?
I don’t know if I had the foresight for it, I just know what I feel needs to be said. I get this opportunity to be marketed and promoted by one of the biggest pop labels in the world, and as long as they’re willing to put money behind it, then I’m going to take the opportunity to either uplift or educate. It’s either going to be “Wake Me Up” or “Love Is The Answer,” or like on my second to last album, “Life So Hard” or “Politician.” So it’s not something I foresaw. I didn’t realize it would get to this dire situation so quickly, but we’re here. So I’m going to put the messages in the music and try to get the record label to push it. I just recorded a song which I think is going to be my next single and I used the music videos a lot of the times as the PSA. I have a dream for my next single chronicling the story of Madiba, of Nelson Mandela. I think we need a visual of what a real leader is so we can understand the juxtaposition of what’s happening in this administration. Of course we just had Obama, but it’s just too recent. People aren't really championing that legacy, so we need to see one that everybody agrees on. Indisputable. Then we do the litmus test. We look at this and look at that and you tell us what is real.

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The female voice in hip-hop has always been present whether we've noticed it or not. The late Sylvia Robinson birthed the hip-hop music industry with the formation of Sugar Hill Records (and fostering "Rapper's Delight"), Roxanne Shante's 55 lyrical responses to fellow rappers were the first diss tracks and Missy Elliott's bold and striking music and visuals inspired men and women in the game to step outside of their comfort zones.

These pillars and many more have allowed the next generation of emcees to be unapologetically brash, truthful and confident in their music. Cardi B's Invasion of Privacy and Nicki Minaj's Queen might've been the most mainstream albums by womxn in rap this year, but there was a long list of creatives who brought the noise like Rico Nasty, Tierra Whack, Noname and Bbymutha. Blame laziness or the heavy onslaught of music hitting streaming sites this year, but many of the artists on this list have hibernated under the radar for far too long.

VIBE decided to switch things up but also highlighting rap albums by womxn who came strong in their respectively debut albums, mixtapes, EPs. We also had to give props to those who dropped standout singles, leaving us wanting more.

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10 Most Important Hip-Hop Artists Of 2018

We’ve reached another end to an eventful year in hip-hop. From rap beefs to new music releases and milestones, 2018 has been forged in the history books as a year to remember. But more important than the events that happened over the span of 12 months are the people who made them happen.

While fans received a large dose of music from our favorite artists and celebrated some of the most iconic album anniversaries, there are a few names that stood out as the culture pushers, sh*t starters, and all-around most significant artists of the year.

For your enjoyment, VIBE compiled a list of the top 10 most important hip-hop artists of 2018 based on a series of qualifications: 1) public actions - good, bad, and ugly; 2) music releases; 3) philanthropic/humanitarian work; and 4) trending moments.

Be clear: This list isn’t about the most influential, the most talented, who had the best music or tours. While we are commemorating artists for the work they’ve contributed to this year’s music cycle, we’re looking beyond that and evaluating how these particular artists have shaped conversations and pushed hip-hop culture forward.

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NEXT: Intent On Impact, Kiana Lede Is Ready To Leave Her Mark

After learning The Alphabet Song as a little girl, Kiana Lede would always “get in trouble” for singing during class. “My mom was like, ‘why can't you focus?’” she laughs while reminiscing on her career’s formative years. “I was like, ‘I don’t know! Songs are just playing in my head all the time!’”

Whilst sitting in a shoebox-sized room at Midtown Manhattan’s Moxy Hotel on a humid September day, the now- 21-year-old Arizona-bred R&B songbird, actress and pianist speculates that she “may have had ADD.” However, she settles down after taking off her white cowboy boots and flops down on the ivory-clothed bed, demonstrating that her fiery Aries energy can be contained. Cool as a cucumber, Lede shuffles between chewing on banana candies and blowing smoke rings after taking drags from a pen, all while musing about her journey to becoming a Republic Records signee.

“I just grew up singing and doing musical theater, and reading a lot of books, and playing piano way too much in my room by myself,” she says, pushing her big, curly brown hair out of her face. Her expressive green eyes widen as she grins. “It was my thing. Nobody in my family does music, just me.”

After winning Kidz Bop’s 2011 KIDZ Star USA talent contest at 14 (which her mother secretly entered her into), Lede was signed to RCA Records. She was released from her contract and dropped from the label three years later. However, thanks to guidance and friendship from the Grammy-winning production duo Rice N’ Peas, (who’ve worked with G-Eazy, Trevor Jackson, and Bazzi), she released covers of songs such as Drake’s “Hotline Bling” while working to get her groove back. The latter rendition resulted in Republic Record’s Chairman and CEO Monte Lipman flying her out and signing her to his label.

“I got a second chance, which a lot of people don't get,” she reveals. “So I'm really happy that that all happened. I wouldn't be here right now in this room if that didn't happen.”

Thanks to the new opportunity she was given, Lede’s sound has evolved into something she’s proud of—equal parts soul, R&B and bohemian. As evidenced by the aforementioned ensemble, glimmers of each aesthetic can be found when observing her personal style as well. She released her seven-song EP Selfless in July, which features the bedroom-ready “Show Love” and “Fairplay,” which manages to fit in the mainstream R&B vein while also showcasing her goosebump-inducing vocals. The remix of the latter features MC A$AP Ferg. What pleases her most is that it not only garnered a favorable response from fans, but that those listeners found it so relatable.

“As an artist, it's really nerve-wracking for someone who writes about such personal things all the time,” she says. “Just the fact that it is my story… It's good to know that other people know that there's somebody on their side, and they're not the only ones going through it. A lot of people obviously feel this way, and have been through this same thing that I've been through. So I think that's cool.”

Although she moved to various places as a Navy serviceman’s daughter, Lede claims Phoenix as home. This means she hails from the same stomping grounds as rockers Alice Cooper, Stevie Nicks and the late Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. However, growing up in a mixed race household gave way to tons of sonic exploration outside of the rock-heavy scene.

“My dad's black, and both of my parents are from the East Coast,” she says of her musical and ethnic upbringing (she’s black, Latina and Native American). “[My parents] listened to a lot of R&B. My mom listened to a lot of SWV, TLC, Boyz II Men. I didn't realize I knew the songs until I got older. I played a charity show with T-Boz, and I was like 'why do I know these songs?'” Lede also says her father was a fan of neo-soul and gangsta rap, but she personally believes the early-2000s was the best time for music.

“[That era] influences a lot of my music subconsciously, and also, singer-songwriter stuff,” she continues. “I listen to a lot of early-2000s music because I played piano most of my life. I listened to Sara Bareilles, John Mayer.”

An open book, Lede details some of her struggles with anxiety and depression with the utmost candor. After being dropped from RCA, her trust in people diminished, and she experienced long bouts of depression after being sexually assaulted by someone in the industry. The track that she feels most deeply about is “One Of Them Days,” which tackles these issues head-on.

“When I'm anxious and depressed, it's really hard to be happy,” Lede says. “Most of the time, I can do it, but there are just some days where I literally can't separate the anxiety, and I can't tell anybody why, because I don't really know why myself… I was feeling very odd that day, didn't even know if I could write a song. Hue [Strother], the guy who I wrote the song with, he was like 'I totally get you. Lots of people go through this.’’’

As we’ve observed in headlines recently, mental health and being honest about life’s trickier situations can help someone going through the same thing, and Lede hopes her music provides encouragement to those who are struggling. As for how she’s learning to push through her mental health roadblocks, she meditates, runs, and is an advocate for therapy, especially in Trump’s America, where harrowing news reports dominate the cycle.

Another hallmark of Kiana Lede’s personality is her bleeding heart for others. She cites women of color, sexual assault victims and the homeless youth specifically as individuals she feels most responsible to help, since she is personally connected to all three. While she’s aiming to create a project that helps homeless youth specifically, she’s working hard this holiday season to ensure that they have a place to stay “at least for the night” after horrific wildfires displaced many individuals in California.

“My passion is really people. Music is just a way that I can get to helping people,” she says with a grin. “Helping people emotionally and physically are both very important. I never want to stop helping people. I feel if other people can respect me, and I can respect myself, then I'll be happy. Happiness is all that we strive for.”

Recently, Lede played her first headlining solo show, a one-night event at The Mint in Los Angeles. While she was thrilled to see that the show sold-out, she was even happier to see the faces of her audience members, who she said ‘looked like [her].’ “Mixed girls, brown girls, black girls, gay boys,” she explains over-the-phone. Even though she wasn’t in person to discuss her latest huge accomplishment, you could hear the pride and joy through her voice.

As for the future of her career, she’s looking forward to more acting roles. You may recognize her from the first season of MTV’s Scream, and after her recent Netflix series All About The Washingtons with legendary MC Rev Run was cancelled, she has been “reading for auditions” and is “negotiating” for a role in a film set to shoot in NYC. While her time with the Run-DMC frontman was brief, she says he taught her about the importance of “not compromising your art for money.”

What Kiana Lede is most excited about, of course, is making music. She hopes to work on a new EP and then release an album after that. The ultimate goal is to fully realize the dreams in her personal and professional life, and she assures she’s just getting started.

“I want to be able to look back on my career and think 'man, I really poured my heart into this music, and made music that mattered, and made music that made people feel a certain way, whether it's bad, good, sad, anxious, whatever it may be.’”

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