With the hit 2010 song “I Need a Dollar” and then anthem “Wake Me Up” with the late Swedish DJ Avicii, musician Aloe Blacc’s career took him around the world. But Blacc grew up in Orange County and now lives in LA. His first new album in seven years, “All Love Everything,” comes out October 2.
KCRW speaks with Aloe Blacc about making music, growing up Black in a largely white Orange County suburb, and parenting through this COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement.
KCRW: Talk about the song “My Way” on your new album.
Aloe Blacc: “In this song, I'm talking about, really, my chance and opportunity in life to take every step in the direction that I want to take it. So I had my first hit when I was 31. I was lucky enough to have a hit number one, but to also be of an age where I couldn't really be manipulated by the industry. And I was able to do everything my way from the time I was 9 years old starting to write lyrics, to when I turned 15 and recorded my first song, to when I was 18 and released my first piece of vinyl. I've been the person who was able to dictate and kind of decide how everything is going.
And when I signed with an indie label, then signed with a major label, I understood the business that I was getting into and the partnership that I was getting into. And I was giving up some of that freedom to have everything be exactly how I wanted it to be, because it's a partnership.
Now that I'm back in an independent situation with, of course, a distribution by a major, I get to do things exactly how I want to do them in the way that I did when I was starting up in making music.”
Did you think that you would still be able to retain all of your creative control when you went with a major?
“I assumed that I would have some creative control. But at the same time, I'm a business person, I've spent a couple of years in corporate America as a consultant, and I understand what it takes to market and create an album. So you know, I want to be a good business partner in that sense, and also want to make music that's going to be marketable without compromising the art. I make a lot of songs, and then we decide which songs will be most marketable for the album. That's how I did the past album, “Lift Your Spirit.”
But this particular album was more like I'm going to make a bunch of songs, and then I'm going to compile the songs that deliver the message that I want to deliver for this time. And that was a message about connection, togetherness, family, love, compassion. And I was able to do that without having to think about whether or not there's going to be market success. I'm in a place in my life where I'm not worried about where the next check is coming from. And I can strictly focus on the art and the message.”
That message really fits right now since we're all hunkered down with our families. Some of us are enjoying that, some of us are not. But there's a lot of togetherness these days.
“Yeah there is and it was completely coincidental. And I knew that I wanted to deliver an album that was much more personal. I just didn't realize that these songs, these stories would be delivered to the world at this time. And I think we need these kinds of messages amongst all of the darkness.”
You and your wife, Maya Jupiter, have two kids. What do you say to them about all the darkness that's happening outside home?
“My kids don't really have a deep sense of all of the darkness. I appreciate that they are kids and I think they deserve their childhood. And they will learn soon enough what is looming out in the real world. My job is to protect them and give them a sense that humanity is good, people are good, and that they're part of this organism that works with itself to sustain joy and beauty. Now as long as they can believe that when they start learning about the darkness, they can always say, ‘How can we get back to that joy and beauty I learned about when I was a kid?’ Rather than being conditioned and habituated, normalized into a world where they're like, ‘Yeah, everything sucks and it's always going to suck. So I'm just going live with it.’
I don't believe that. My heroes are people who always fought for making the world a better place. And so at this time, while they're young, let them believe that the world is the good place that it can be. And hopefully, by the time they get older, my generation will have worked hard enough to make it that.”
Another track from the record is called “Harvard.” You didn't go to Harvard, but you went to USC. So I assume you're not writing about yourself. Who are you writing about?
The speaker in this song … is the character that I'm speaking to. Imagine I'm sitting in a park, and on a park bench writing lyrics. And then a stranger comes up next to me, a woman who looks like maybe she works as a waitress and at several places. She sits next to me and strikes up a conversation and we talk. And she says, ‘I don't got all the answers to life. But, you know, I can dream for a better life and a better world.’ And we share that we both are parents. So we both have kids. And we both just want to do right by our children. And so the song is a story about the comparison of people from different walks of life, with very similar hopes and dreams.”
Tell me a little bit about your background. Your parents are immigrants from Panama, right?
“Yes, my parents are both from Panama. I grew up in Southern California, but they moved in the late 70s looking for opportunity. They ended up working in public service. My dad was a marine for 30 years, he retired as a major in the Marine Corps. My mom worked in the courthouse, supporting judges and eventually becoming sort of a judge herself.
Now I'm not a public servant in that way. But I try to do what I can as a private citizen with my music that is very public, to speak to the human condition and to talk about justice, equality, and making the world a better place.”
You grew up in Laguna Hills, an Orange County suburb about an hour from LA. It was a white area while you were growing up. What was that like for you, being from an immigrant family and Black?
“My parents never really explained a lot about race as when I was growing up. A lot of what I learned was through school, and through my interactions with students and with the community outside. I understand now that my parents moved to the United States, looking for opportunities that they could not have received in Panama, because the U.S. had a civil rights movement in which rights were gained.
Panama, Central America, Southern America, those places did not have a civil rights movement for Black people. And there are Black people across the Americas because of the triangle trade, slave trade. And so the opportunities that they were afforded here, they were able to grant to me and find the best school and neighborhood to live in.
And in school, the first thing I learned about Blackness was slavery. And I think our curriculums are really backwards. … They don't really consider the psychological aspect of the curriculum that they're offering. And I think it's important for African American students to recognize, or learn at least, something about Blackness that doesn't have to do with subordination, slavery, colonization, murder. It basically places your psyche, your understanding of where you are in society, at such a young age, in a position that you certainly shouldn't be placed in. So that's one thing.
But then going into the larger community, I didn't feel any different from the other students. I was really well accepted. And it wasn't until like middle school when I went to a completely different neighborhood, to the beach to celebrate like graduating from eighth grade. And the skinheads on the beach kicking me off, telling me to get out and to not be there. And my white friends looking extremely powerless and just dumbfounded, like, who are these people? We were all taken aback by the fact that this element was present, because it just wasn't present in our little niche in our community.
And as I got older, I started to see it more and more, like driving to different areas in Orange County and police officers being extremely restrictive, to my friends who were all hip-hop kids, but to them, we were just, minorities getting in the way.”
You had run-ins with police? How old were you?
“I think not a whole lot. But my first was, I was probably in middle school, and could have been 12 years old, when a cop came to my front door, accusing me of stealing a bike because a 4 year old had said that a Black person stole the bike that was on his front lawn. And since I'm the only Black person in the neighborhood, they come to my door. And just the audacity of that kind of encounter with a completely intimidating police officer really drove home lyrics that were foreign to me. The lyrics from NWA, where their personal experiences in South LA were beyond what I had experienced. I just understood them as songs, as ideas, as concepts. But I started to realize and learn more and more that they were real, true realities.
And now that I live in Los Angeles, and I engage with nonprofit organizations working to improve communities, and civil rights organizations working to transform police and public safety, I'm intimately aware of that experience I had, and how lucky I was at such a young age.
… I have a girl who's 7. And she's starting to ask a lot of questions and wants to understand a lot of things. And it's important for me to be certain that her understanding is rooted with a deep sense of self without the way that society has conditioned us or taught us to understand race and position. So some family members and some friends and some of our more politically active friends are like, ‘When are you going to tell her about what BLM means? She may see the letters and ask. But what does she know about Black Lives Matter?’
And I named her Mandela. She's eventually going to be part of the movement. She'll be on the frontlines. She'll be a leader. No question about that. She understands that Nelson Mandela fought for people's freedoms. She didn't know the extent to which it was a racial situation. But I don't think she needs to know that just yet. Because her world is not that world. Kids aren't operating in that dynamic, especially not the kids that she's going to school with.
… We took my kids to Cuba. She got to see an example of Blackness that is full of pride, full of culture, full of music. She's been to North Africa, to Tunisia. So she gets to see Africa on the soil in a different way, before she gets to understand what has happened through colonialism, through patriarchy, through superiority, through violence. But since I have the opportunity to protect and shelter my child for now, I think I'll do that.”
— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson