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.
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.