Singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc calls himself an "artivist." That’s an artist who is also an activist. Immigration reform is just one issue that he’s concerned with. And as he told host John Horn when he came to The Frame studios, it’s a personal one. Blacc partnered with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and director Alex Rivera on a short film of his song titled “Wake Me Up.”
The L.A.-based musician is part of a collective called Artivist Entertainment. He founded it with his wife, singer Maya Jupiter, musician Quetzal Flores, and others.
I wanted to talk about your video, "Wake Me Up," and what it means to you in terms of what you can say to a bigger audience through a song that might be interpreted in any number of ways.
My goal as an artist and as a public figure is to create positive social transformation. Positive, I guess, is subjective. But in my opinion, what would be positive is immigration reform in the U.S. And I want to use my platform to share my messages in a partnership with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. We were able to work with director Alex Rivera to create a story that would humanize the plight of immigrants in the U.S. and also push forward an agenda of offering compassion to people who are just looking for a better life for their family — in the same way that the first settlers from Europe were looking for a better life for their families when they came to the Americas. The way that my parents were looking for a better life when they came from Panama. So the story isn't foreign to me. No pun intended. It's partially my story.
But you're also talking about a way of using music that involves people like Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger, that you can write music that is beautiful and lyrical but it also means something. Is that how you were raised, seeing music and politics or conversations about issues as inextricably linked?
That's not necessarily how I was raised. The music I listened to at home was just fun music that was popular at the time — it was either pop radio or soul songs that my parents had on vinyl, or the salsa music that they listened to from back home. What was, I think, part of my education in becoming an artivist was my engagement in hip-hop music. There used to be a phrase — people would say that hip hop is the CNN of the streets. So reporting on what's happening in neighborhoods that are underreported on in the news media. I used that method, that style of hip-hop, as my way of speaking truth to power or engaging topics about social ills and political misconduct. I think that education, that practice, I brought that into my life as a vocalist and as a singer.
Do you think people are starting to really understand this concept of the artivist, artists who are activists? Do artists recognize that they have a power, a gift or an opportunity that they have that they shouldn't miss?
I'd say most artists engage their platform and their art with a political or social agenda. Unfortunately, the very visible artists are not part of that rung. So my goal is to stand as an artist that actually can engage in the pop music world as an example. I look up to folks like Bruce Springsteen who has been pretty much consistent in his career in doing that. I look up to producers and actors who are doing the same, like Don Cheadle or George Clooney. They don't make a big stink about it all the time. But their money is going to good places and doing really positive things.
But what you're also talking about is missed opportunities, that there are people who could have a voice...
There are also people who are actually creating more problems in society than they create good.
I'd love to know who's on your list, but you're probably not going to tell me.
Well, I would say one of the biggest songs that was on the radio at the time that Lamar Odom was in a coma from a drug overdose was a song [by The Weeknd] called "I Can't Feel My Face." When you think about what we're pushing in commercial media to all ages — because if that's on pop radio, 3-year-olds are listening to that song and singing along to the lyrics — then you have a very public figure who literally can't feel his face. Is that really what you want? I don't think so.
What's more important to you, people coming up to you and saying, I love this song or I loved its message, or are they always the same?
I think I conflate both. The song is the message, and even if they don't get the message when they hear the song, eventually it'll sink in. And if it doesn't eventually sink in, hopefully their love for it will transfer to someone else that it does sink into. Michael Jackson had a song called "Another Part of Me." I never understood what that song was about. I never paid attention. The music and the groove were so infectious that I just loved it anyway. And as I sang it, the message was sinking in, even if I didn't fully consciously understand it. Now that I've read the lyrics I realize that he was talking about global unity. He was talking about the other person across the border [being] just another part of you. I think that's beautiful, and to be able to do that as the biggest pop artist of all time. It's amazing.
Samuel Goldwyn said, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." One of the mistakes that filmmakers or musicians might make is being didactic and heavy handed. When you're writing a song and you feel that there's an issue or idea that you want to communicate, how do you solve that problem creatively so that it doesn't sound like you're on a soapbox?
I take the example of Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Bob Marley. You've got to place just as much importance on the groove and the melody and the feel as you do on the lyrics. My wife and I are both artivists and we both like to use our voices and lyrics in ways that can really touch, move and inspire. We argue about this a lot — she's not necessarily inclined to engage in a pop music fashion. My argument is always, Well, you're missing a huge audience with this message if you don't engage this way. I guess she will be the stick-to-your-guns, staunch, true artivist where she's not going to pander. I pander just enough to get the message across. (laughs)
I want to talk a little bit about your musical styles. Do you find yourself constantly looking for new ways in which to write songs? To go from folk to R&B to soul, do they even matter? Do you think about one as different from the other?
I think about them as different from the other, but I never tailor my creativity to one in particular. I just write and create whatever I feel like. When it's done, I can make a reggae version or a salsa version or a hip-hop version out of the same song. It doesn't matter as long as the message is strong and it makes the statement that I want to make.
Back in 2010 you released the song, "I Need A Dollar" which was a breakthrough moment in your career. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind the lyrics to that song?
That song was inspired by losing my job as a business consultant. I was a strategy consultant when I graduated from USC. I worked for Ernst and Young. Usually I was in the health sector, [working with] hospitals or sometimes insurance companies. A couple years into the job I was laid off. It gave me pause. I had to regroup and think whether I was going to go back to school and maybe get a PhD or maybe get another consulting gig. I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I fell back on music as just a hobby in the interim and I never had to look back.
So in many ways, that was maybe the best job you ever got fired from?
Yeah, that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me was losing my job. It gave me a chance to really engage my passion — what I love doing. For all the good that I was able to do at children's hospitals — helping improve the radiology departments or helping collect cash from insurance companies — I feel like I'm doing much more good as a singer.
I want to talk about Artivist Entertainment. What is it up to and what do you hope it can accomplish?
It is an organization where Maya Jupiter, Quetzal Flores and I and a couple of other members have come together to embrace and support artivists — people who are actors or painters, dancers or musicians who want to use their artistic voice to discuss social or political issues and create positive transformation. Artivist Entertainment really strives to be a home and a place for the activist-minded artist to feel like they can get support.
We're living in an incredibly polarizing time. We're talking right after the people in the U.K. have decided to leave the European Union. We have a very polarizing presidential campaign right now. Has the need for artivists ever been greater than it is now in this day and age?
Wow ... I'd say it has been greater. During the Civil Rights era and during WWII. I think there are plenty of examples where we can find that it has been greater. But I do feel that we have to recognize, there may not be a utopia at the end of the struggle. I was in Nairobi a couple of months ago, speaking to the son of an activist. I asked, What's the hope for [eliminating] corruption in Kenyan's government? He said, It's just eternal vigilance. That's all it is. We have to be eternally vigilant because there's always a weed coming up in the garden. And there is no real way around weeds in the garden. You just have to keep weeding.