Feature

‘We can change the world’ – Aloe Blacc on music, marketing and M&M’s

Aloe Blacc wants more than just a dollar – he’s on a mission to change things for the better through music, calling on artists to pay attention to their influence and the messages they’re sending out into the world.

‘Influence’ is a word that helps one understand the unique perspective of Aloe Blacc. His influence comes with a love and appreciation of an incredible array of styles – from soca to soul, reggae to rock – and a keen interest in singing about a wide range of subjects, especially related to equality and justice.

With a crystal-clear, emotive voice that draws in people from many sides of the musical equation, his music connects beyond just what comes out of the speakers. What emanates from the heart and soul of his voice, and the influence it wields, comes with an informed knowledge of its power, looking forward to change the world.

Blacc’s hits are well-documented. The Grammy-nominated artist went from indie to worldwide acclaim with songs like The Man and Wake Me Up, in collaboration with Swedish mega-star Avicii. Wildly successful songs in their own right, The Man hit #1 on the charts in several countries and was elevated even further by making one of president Obama’s 2016 summer playlists.

“It’s a very nice accolade from one of our best presidents to say: ‘This music, the musicians, the songwriters, the artist who sang it are worthy of your attention. You should listen to this song and maybe learn more.’ That’s what it means to me,” says Blacc.

Blacc knows that, to have staying power in the industry, courting the right collaborations matters. To that end he made some very smart moves. I Need a Dollar, released in 2010, is the intro song for HBO’s How To Make It In America and featured in a Boost Wireless spot in 2011. The Man, meanwhile, featured prominently in the Beats by Dre campaign ‘Hear What You Want’ which included NFL stars Colin Kaepernick and Richard Sherman and NBA legend Kevin Garnett. The wide-reaching work accelerated Blacc’s exposure and opened his music up to a wider audience.

His turn reimagining the Sammy Davis Jr classic Candyman in collaboration with top dance producer Zedd for the 75th anniversary of M&M’s put Blacc on yet another trajectory, using his art to craft something unique for a brand from the ground up.

“I was really interested in re-envisioning Candyman,” he says. “In 2001/2002, I spent a year listening to a lot of the Rat Pack and studying crooners like Mel Tormé and Wayne Newton. I fell in love with the stuff Sammy Davis Jr had done.

“M&M’s is a strong brand and I felt like it would be an honor and challenge, so I engaged it. I can remember M&M’s commercials going back to when I was a kid. They made an impact on culture. It’s a brand that is followed in terms of reputation. That’s the kind of thing I’m looking for when I partner with a brand.”

The song and campaign were successful and underscore Blacc’s considered approach to working with brands, which he attributes to having hit the big-time a little later in life.

A first-generation American with Panamanian parents, Blacc actually started his music journey as a hip-hop artist south of Los Angeles. His family upbringing was stable and counter to his hip-hop contemporaries. After graduating from USC he spent time in the corporate world as a business consultant, living a “normal life”. As he transitioned from indie rap artist to global phenom, he found that grounding helpful – especially in his decision-making.

“I’m quoted as saying I want my music heard anywhere and so I’ll consider any commercial, but that doesn’t mean I’ll agree to any commercial. It’s just a matter of understanding who you are,” says Blacc. “I’m just glad I was in my 30s – I was 31 – when I had my first hit, so I didn’t have to bend to the will of the industry. I was a man with a perspective already.”

That perspective was influenced by the music of the Caribbean, along with early soul and R&B artists like Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers (who Blacc hints he might be working with soon), and a bevy of other musical styles, including Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Sam Cooke.

“There’s a West African rhythm somewhere in there, there’s hip-hop sentiment. Then there’s Donny Hathaway or a Stevie Wonder, some classic soul, that’s in there.

“It’s a mixture of a lot of things,” he says of his music, noting that it was his version of Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come that got him signed to Stones Throw Records and started his career as a vocalist rather than as a rapper.

Blacc was also influenced by popular music of the time: “I remember Fresh Prince winning the Grammy [in 1989]. I liked Fresh Prince. I wasn’t an elitist hip-hopper back then. I was young and it was cool to me that hip-hop was getting recognized. I listened to Parents Just Don’t Understand. It was significant to me.”

Blacc has actually returned to his hip-hop roots somewhat recently, releasing an album with his longtime hip-hop partner DJ Exile under the name Emanon – ‘no name’ backwards – for free at aloeblack.com.

“For me, it’s a way to share with my hip-hop fans that have been waiting more than 10 years for me to get back to rapping, but it’s also a way to share with my new fans. It’s like: ‘If you didn’t know, here’s my history. This is where I cut my teeth, where I developed my facility with words, fell in love with rhymes, fell in love with the concept of using music to tell the story of the underdog.’”

Art and activism meet

Perspective and influence are appropriate bedfellows for Blacc – and his desire to do more with the latter is informed by the former. Along with his wife, the rapper Maya Jupiter, he launched Artivist Entertainment in 2013 which is dedicated to representing artists whose music inspires positive social change.

From promoting artists to organizing community events and sponsoring theater, Artivist creates thought-provoking art which makes Blacc a player beyond the musician level and takes music beyond just entertainment.

“We’ve become patrons to visual artists and we’ve sponsored and become patrons to things that are being created to speak truth, to empower or to continue practices that are commonly overlooked,” says Blacc.

“We can change the world, and we have to continuously change the world, because as we are working, so are the dark powers – it’s a constant vigilance.”

One of his inspirations for these efforts is musician-activist Harry Belafonte – a supporter of Martin Luther King who was able to help fund the civil rights movement.

“In our teachings from Mr Belafonte, we’ve got to be several steps ahead with change agents who are nefarious in their ways,” he says.

Voting rights, which he sees as a threat to democracy in the States, are a big issue for Blacc and he wants to support communities that have challenges, both financially and racially. Music, he thinks, can change things for the better.

“Think about how you can use your music for light. Michael Jackson was really good at this. I haven’t heard of any other song about racial tolerance that has gone to number one on the pop charts like Black or White did.”

For his part, Blacc has taken his work to partner organizations to shine his own light on issues that matter: “With Wake Me Up I partnered with the National Day Labor Organizing Network. And I created a PSA [public service announcement] for The Dreamers, for immigrants. My parents are from Panama, so I’m a first generation American. That story is really close to me.

“For Love is the Answer, I partnered with Community Coalition of South Los Angeles to tell the story of the school-to-prison pipeline and Black Lives Matter,” he adds.

A message to other artists

Blacc doesn’t expect everyone to have the same level of activism he does, but he does think that it is critical for artists to close the loop on their commitment. It’s great to care, but it needs to connect to something more.

“What is the role of music, or art, and where do we fall short?

“We may be able to tell the story, but where I think artists fall short is in connecting the story to action.”

He advises artists to be mindful and aware of the impact they have on people.

“Look into the community where you come from, and if you don’t come from a community that has immediate challenges, look to the adjacent communities that do have challenges and find ways to support them financially or with resources other than economic resources, so that you can improve and better the lives of the people that live there,” encourages Blacc.

“From a national perspective, be conscious of the energy and messages you put into the world, into the airwaves, that children are listening to. Not only the children but the parents, because the parents feed that energy back to their kids.”

A parent himself, Blacc understands the opportunities his art has helped engender. Armed with some big wins, he also acknowledges that he has a responsibility to continue the quest in changing the world for the better.

“I feel that, if in one hand I get a check and an opportunity from this then with the other hand I need to be paying it forward.”

This feature first appeared in a special music issue of The Drum, published in partnership with Clio Music. You can subscribe to The Drum magazine here.

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