Aloe Blacc brings optimism to the music

Aloe Blacc performs at the Wawa Welcome America Jam on the Parkway on July 4. In his solo work, the rapper-turned-singer has specialized in a healthy social commentary that stresses the importance of community.
Aloe Blacc performs at the Wawa Welcome America Jam on the Parkway on July 4. In his solo work, the rapper-turned-singer has specialized in a healthy social commentary that stresses the importance of community. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 18, 2014

Aloe Blacc is a pretty serious guy. The socially conscious, California-born rapper-turned-singer graduated from the University of Southern California with honors in communications and linguistics/psychology and had a short business career before going into music, having hits like "I Need a Dollar," "Wake Me Up" (with Avicii), and "The Man," the latter from his 2013 album Lift Your Spirit. He gets a chance to show off his skills tonight at Camden's Susquehanna Center when he opens for Bruno Mars.

Blacc - born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III - is aware of his place in history. In past solo albums such as Shine Through of 2006 and Good Things of 2010, he has specialized in a healthy social commentary that stresses the importance of community. On Lift Your Spirit, his words often have a positive attitude refreshing in a time of lyrics rife with violence and druggy drudgery.

"Being a first-generation American, you can't help but be tuned to politics and how it affects you, especially in California," Blacc said. That was his experience: His parents came from Panama to the United States, where he was born in Laguna Beach, Calif. He said he watched his parents' "changing politics and how it affected their future. I was also very interested in the dynamics of power. I always wanted to debunk something."

For example, Blacc says his view on immigration is more inclusive than his father's: "I have a more compassionate view of redefining our borders and reworking immigration rights. My dad, having been party to racial struggles, worked hard to get his citizenship and feels it should be earned."

Blacc grew up writing, singing, and playing throughout high school and college. He also independently released records produced by DJ Exile, with whom he would form the hip-hop duo Emanon.

All the while, Blacc thought of music as a hobby. "It was a fun way to express myself as a pastime, but I never expected it to be a career." Instead, his studies in communications and psychology focused on the power and use of language, "especially in situations of leadership," focusing on corporate consulting and strategies to make businesses better. "I identified issues to be dealt with."

That is what Blacc's songs do: They identify issues and seek to resolve them. His first solo albums - influenced by Bill Withers, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon - did this with a folksy brand of retro-soul. Lift Your Spirit mixes in hip-hop production and the anthemic feel of classic rock.

"Sometimes there is a message I want to convey that is cerebral," he said, as in "Ticking Bomb" on Lift Your Spirit. "Other times my messages are more emotional, and strike me every time I sing them. But I'm still tactful and strategic."

That may sound calculating, but Blacc notes how important it is to structure one's emotions carefully. Poised passion, he says, is what made the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela constructive thinkers: "They lived and believed passionately and thought rationally, to live and preach about a peaceful existence."

On Lift Your Spirit, Blacc takes an optimistic view of universal love on soaring songs like "Love is the Answer" (in collaboration with Pharrell Williams) and "Can You Do This." Such optimism in hip-hop isn't easily accepted by critics or insiders.

"Yeah, there's a whole lot of cynicism in media and the culture of hip-hop," Blacc said. "My goal is to create balance within the culture. Critics may jump on it . . . whatever . . . as long as I'm authentic. I don't think you have to be a tortured soul singing about other tortured souls. I hope what I do inspires people to be more compassionate."

Along with writing and producing Lift Your Spirit to sound grand - "I'm on Interscope, they're putting money into me, I'd like to oblige them by making the biggest albums I can" - Blacc said his goal is to couch thoughtful messages in pleasant pop. "Michael Jackson did that when he sang, 'It doesn't matter if you're black or white.' That's the best and deepest sentiment to ever go to No. 1.

"That's the path I wish to follow: pop music with messages that matter."


CONCERT

Bruno Mars, with opener Aloe Blacc

8 p.m. Thursday at the Susquehanna Bank Center, 1 Harbour Blvd., Camden.

Tickets: lawn $35; seats $85.50-$131. Information: 800-745-3000 or www.Ticketmaster.com

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