Why We Need the Wisdom of Helado Negro Now More Than Ever

Helado Negro

Helado Negro, a.k.a. Roberto Carlos Lange. Courtesy of Helado Negro

Time is fickle, and unfair and undiscerning. It can feel like that anyway. Occasionally, though, it feigns an omniscient benevolence. It says: I know better than you.

Perhaps that’s why the great Ecuadorian-American songwriter Roberto Carlos Lange, a.k.a. Helado Negro, is only now getting his due, despite the 36-year-old boasting one of the most prolific and varied pedigrees in independent music.

Lange has made several great records for Asthmatic Kitty, and toured widely with label head Sufjan Stevens, but Rolling Stone is calling him, in October 2016, a “new artist” you need to know. (You do, but still.) He’s won competitive commissions, including a $50,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation given each year to four artists of color, but Pitchfork only now granted one of Lange’s tracks its coveted “Best New Music” status, seven years after reviewing his work for the first time. (Grants funding sold-out performances for 1,100 Minnesotans don’t equal BNMs, but still.) Lange has produced sound sculptures and performance pieces in Tokyo, London, Mexico, New York and myriad other locations. He’s collaborated with Julianna Barwick and Scott Herren and David Ellis. He’s friends with DJ /rupture. And yet most of us still ask, “who?”

Perhaps time knew we needed him right now, not in 2007, or 2011, or 2013. Perhaps, despite singing in both Spanish and English for years, and exploring his Latin heritage in so many forms, his moment didn’t make sense until he wrote “Young, Latin and Proud”: the perfect lullaby for a Western world in the throes of social unrest not witnessed since the dark days of Medgar Evers and the brutal Hanigan murders of Mexican migrants in the late-’70s. Perhaps his steady approach to racism, violence and disenfranchisement is precisely what time knew we needed in a month when real adults are threatening post-election violence with real, legal guns.

Anyway, we’re paying attention to him now, this “one-man band and self-contained diaspora,” as Sasha Frere-Jones described him last year. “Lange started at the crossroads,” he continued, “of more or less everything, all at once.”

Lange’s sensitivity to his inner and outer lives, and his unwillingness to adopt a cynical posture despite time’s sad ebbing and flowing in recent years, has been a consistent theme in his work. And that openness blooms most explicitly on Private Energy, the new collection he’s touring now.

The producer was driving through Iowa when I caught him by phone on Sunday afternoon, and I asked him to describe what he was seeing.

“It’s a straight line, and everything’s in fall mode,” he shared. “Or the end of fall. The trees and ground look sort of wiry. It’s pretty.”

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How’s this tour been for you?

Fantastic. The West Coast tour was really special, perhaps because there’s a huge Latino community. L.A. was probably the biggest numbers-wise, but Chicago was sold out, so that was a highlight, too. I’ve been playing Chicago for many years, and it seemed like everybody who came to different shows in the past finally came out together at once. That’s a really good feeling.

Tell me the story of Private Energy. How were you feeling when you made it?

Touring the U.S. in 2014 and interfacing with so many people along the way affected me deeply. There was so much happening, or beginning to happening, in terms of the turmoil that we’ve been experiencing with racial strife and violence in the U.S. It started to come to a head when I was on the road, especially when those responsible for Michael Brown’s death weren’t indicted. That was a milestone in terms of sparking conversations about racism and identity and society.

We saw the beginnings of movements like Black Lives Matter and other people coming together to address problems, to start conversations. We all became more aware, but I also became aware that it’s hard for a lot of people to process so much tragedy happening at once.

That’s the feeling I started to have with this record. I was trying to figure out a way to process it all and contribute without feeling like I’m just going through the motions. I don’t mean that people who protest are going with the motions, but there’s a point where you have to be conscious of what you’re doing.

Reactionary efforts don’t always yield long-term progress, and sometimes people cling to reactions for the wrong reasons. I see a lot of corporations and other people trying to cash in on the tokenism of being in touch with social justice, while there are people who’ve been motivated and working at this for years and years and years. I’d never want to pretend to cling onto that energy when the moment feels right.

I just felt bad inside. You’re angry, you’re sad, you need to figure out a way to resolve it. These are human things to do, but it’s difficult to fully process when tragic events are happening back to back to back. For me, Private Energy is about stepping back and taking in what you can and backing away from the rest, because you can’t deal with it all at the same time.

That’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth. This record is about preserving that energy and using it at the right time. With the music and the topical matter here, I tried to tap into how I’d feel and how I’d talk to myself if I was a younger me, how to deal with it. Because I think, when you’re a lot younger and you’re seeing all this stuff, it’s harder to process.

In an interview with FADER you say, “I’m the worst person to sum things up with words,” that “the best way to sum things up is with music.” Do you see your music as political? It’s always been informed by your Latina heritage, and I’m thinking about where we’re at as a country right now, not only because of the events you mention, but because of the election and the way the far right speaks of immigrants. Is there a way for music like yours, or art in general, to help allay fear or foster dialogue between groups of people who might not understand each other, or are afraid of each other?

I think it’s about intent. I wouldn’t outwardly say that my music is on-the-surface-political. I’m informed by it, and it gets in there. But there are gifted people who make political music well, and there are a lot of people who don’t do it well. It’s hard to get people’s attention when you’re yelling. And it’s also hard to get people’s attention when you’re whispering. There’s a fine line.

I think it’s more about having a conversation with one person at a time. That one person could end up doing way more than you ever thought you could do.

You’ve lived in Brooklyn for a while, right?

Yeah, 10 years.

I’m thinking of your Island Universe records. Brooklyn has a rich island culture, and a lot of immigrants who’ve come to Brooklyn celebrate that culture in Crown Heights and elsewhere. Do you connect with that culture? How do you see those records differing from your other releases?

I grew up in an area of Ft. Lauderdale called Lauderhill, and I was definitely around a lot of Caribbean people growing up. Being in South Florida you’re part of that culture somehow, regardless, and I felt that living in Crown Heights for a long time, too. It was nice. The West Indian Day parade ran in front of my house for nine years, before I moved. I felt it through my landlord, through the food, through the sounds. It affects you for sure.

In terms of the Island Universe stories, that’s a series of music that was made in parallel to the albums. When I started, I was responding to feeling frustrated with this idea of album cycles and how there’s a standard machine. You put the settings into the machine and you turn it on and all these things start to happen. It’s frustrating. So I’ve come to understand Island Universe as these things I do that I don’t have to put crazy emphasis on. Like, “I made this music, now I’ll put it out.” And people discover it over time.

That’s a really important part of music that many accountants for record labels don’t understand, that it’s something people grow with and live with. People come to me and say, “Oh, I just heard this song. I didn’t know you did this.” So it’s an opportunity for diverse expression. People understand you one way, then they hear you a different way and it turns them on. It turns me on when I hear my favorite artists do something completely different. It’s fun to have that relationship with an artist.

You’ve been referred to a number of times in recent press as a “crooner,” which does something weird and exciting for my mind, insofar as it’s not a word we often associate with musicians of high-art pedigree. But you do croon in your music, especially on Private Energy. There are sensual, slow qualities to much of your work. How do you feel about being perceived this way, being referred to with a word we reserve for, say, Frank Sinatra?

Interpretation plays a big role in public exposure with anything. There are things I fight with, that I get defensive about, but this is one that I don’t mind because I think it’s true. I listened to a lot of that music growing up through my father and my mother. There were many Spanish-singing crooners that were so big in my mind when I was growing up, big in our house. I like that many crooners represent a genderfluid idea in how they present themselves. Sometimes they dress and move very effeminately. Sometimes they’re more traditional in the roles that are placed on to them. It’s not just one thing.

A crooner is this voice: it’s primitive, it’s in your body, you’re attracted to it. It doesn’t have to do with this kind of sexual attraction. It just attracts you. I didn’t really start singing until my first record, so the perception is weird and funny. You just have to accept some things that come to you.

In 2013, we spoke about Invisible Life, and you said the album was this “being within you that needs to be fed. It’s a creature and a mascot.” Thematically, Double Youth and now Private Energy also suggest an internal conversation between two sides of the same person. Do all these records work as a conversation between two sides of you?

You’re connecting some dots. Invisible Life and then Double Life were a turning point for me insofar as focusing on dualities: my own personal duality of navigating two different cultures and two different languages. Private Energy pulls away and says, “I understand this better.” It’s about me making my own thing and not accepting stereotypes of what “Latina music” is supposed to sound like.

The two prior albums were me working through that, and this is me resolving that, saying, “this is what I’m about.” Some songs like “It’s My Brown Skin” and “Young, Latin and Proud” approach this in a straightforward way, while others navigate cryptic, surreal conversations regarding my own process. They invite people to process it with me.

Helado Negro.

Helado Negro. Courtesy of Helado Negro

Is that happening? Do you find that listeners are finding respite and expression in this record in ways they maybe haven’t as directly before?

Yeah, definitely with “Young, Latin and Proud” and “It’s My Brown Skin,” the two singles we released early. People have shared a variety of stories, like, “I grew up Mexican and in my house we barely spoke Spanish, but I’m trying to learn.” Little things like that. As I said, it’s less about me trying to change anyone and more about us having a conversation regarding things they’re already doing.

I’m just trying to encourage them. I don’t know that I have all the strength and energy to float people through what they need to get through. But I want to use the platform I have now for however long it lasts to initiate conversations and see where they go.

Not to make it a binary thing, but, hypothetically, does your interest in facilitating these conversations extend to, say, a Trump supporter who vilifies…

…That’s really tough. There’s a huge side of me that wants to be completely compassionate to people who want to make up their own minds. Then there’s the other side: “I have to convince you that you’re wrong.” But at this point you can’t prove that anyone’s “wrong.” So what do I do to break the spell? I think it’s important to do what you can. Some of this isn’t going to change, unfortunately, but I’m interested in having conversations with young people especially. So many ideas and expectations are being shoved down their throats, on social media and elsewhere. It’s a lot to process.

I think of Powers of Ten, the Ray and Charles Eames film. They zoom in by 10, out of the earth, then they zoom in by 10 into the earth, into someone’s skin, into the atoms. They keep zooming out and in 10s, and I think there’s something relatable to this in terms of who we are as humans and how we start to break down.

We see that it’s just skin. We see it’s the same shit that everyone’s made of. And how, as we keep moving out, there are these complexities that generalize our similarities. How there’s this little sliver of information that deals with skin and eye color and shoe size and length of hair. For people of complex cultures that happens a lot. You’re dealing with your parents, who came from somewhere else. They came into this culture, while you’re dealing with two cultures and you’re like, “What? What are you talking about?” Your parents might be racists even though their skin is brown. It gets so complicated in this small, small sliver.

I have this conversation with a lot of people who are Latino: black Latinos and brown Latinos and even white Latinos, how they feel more of an association with their culture than they do with this race affiliation. It’s tricky on both sides. It’s such a confusing and complex conversation. Sometimes talking with other Latinos, we all understand what the hell we’re talking about. But sometimes there’s a lot of catch up speaking with other people. People aren’t ready for that conversation sometimes.

We’re very siphoned off from each other right now, so I think it’s cool that, instead of attacking a problem like racial strife in America through yet another protest record, you’ve chosen to take this…it’s not a middle way…but you’re not attacking it from a binary stance, which facilitates conversations within your own community and outside it. Finger pointing doesn’t seem to get us anywhere. As you say, you’re never going to walk up to a Trump supporter or a nativist in any form and say “you’re wrong,” and they respond, “yeah, great, I take you seriously now.”

I think this is the best time in music to foster dialogue. No one knows what the fuck is going on with how to sell or make money in music, so it’s great in one sense. We’re not dealing with people who have any sort of strategy. They’re just like, “let’s just do this because we have nothing to lose.” No one’s really profiting off anything. No one’s controlling anything. It’s not like the days when people were like, “this is a genre, we know what to do, let’s capitalize on it.” It’s small a window, but it’s time to make a move.

Helado Negro performs with Buscabulla on Wednesday, November 2 at Bowery Ballroom in New York.