An Interview with Helado Negro on Brownness, Identity and More

Roberto Carlos Lange, better known as Helado Negro, the stage name he has used for the past decade, has been one of the most critically acclaimed US Latino artists of the past year. This is, in no small part, thanks to his widely acclaimed 2016 album Private Energy, which Lange wrote while witnessing the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the country.

The album then found its way into many best-of-the-year lists not only because of its soft, hypnotic melodies, its encompassing synths, but also because of the ease with which it connected with a certain type of weary listener in a deeply divided nation.

But what does it mean to be a Latino making music in the United States right now? I talked to Roberto about this and much more.

Stereotheque: How did you come up with the Helado Negro name?

Helado Negro: I tell people something different each time [laughs]. Just because, in one respect it’s nice that something can change for you. In terms of the identity of something, even though the name maybe comes from one place, the identity changes. Something funny that happened was that a friend of mine’s wife said about my music that “it sounds like music from a country that doesn’t exist.” And I thought, that makes sense, Helado Negro is from a country that doesn’t exist.

Stereotheque: So what is Helado Negro then? What do you identify as?

Helado Negro: I identify as being… My family is from Ecuador, there is so much from my own makeup, that I don’t really know what’s what, you know? So, in terms of relatives and of ancestry, there’s a lot of stuff that I’m still discovering. Like with a lot of people that have this mestizo mixture or anything. I was born in the US and my identity is from that environment and more so from the immediate environment which was that I grew up in South Florida, and that was a mixture of everything for me. Everybody from every color spoke Spanish, and that was very much in my identity, I was surrounded by all these people from South American and Caribbean cultures.

Stereotheque: Do you think that influenced how you approach your music?

Helado Negro: Yeah, absolutely, and more so than just an awareness and appreciation of a diversity of people. It can be ultraphilosphical because it’s so deep and it’s not like I can just point to one thing, you know? It’s multiple, multitudes of things.

Stereotheque: A lot of people have said about your song “Young, Latin and Proud” [from Private Energy] that it is an anthem, but more of an inwards anthem. How did that introspection became something bigger?

Helado Negro: I don’t mind people calling it an anthem. You put out art in the world and then you want people to take it for however they want to take it. There are things of which you can say “this is what this is for me, and this is why I made this,” but then things live their own lives when you make them public, and I think there’s a certain amount of that that you have to accept. You have to be accountable for putting it in the public sphere, and how to respond to how it gets interpreted and used.

Sometimes the personal is political. So, for me, working on all of this stuff ends up being a reaction: I try to figure how to deal with how to talk to people about who I am and what I do, just like we are doing right now. The identity aspect of it becomes harder and harder, more so now at a time when people are trying to feel support within their identity and the way they talk about it publicly. I’ve always just found that difficult, no matter what, to associate or identify with just one thing.

I think the plural aspects of our lives are some of the most important parts, you know, the richest parts and they “Young, Latin and Proud” aspect was just a sliver of who I am. I’m all those things, but I’m also many other things. For example, there are such drawn expectations or built-in stereotypes for a lot of people who come from the Latino culture, for both men and women. For men, there has always been a weird machismo culture within it, buried in it, whether it’s expected of you, or you see people who act like it, and so there’s that layer of weirdness that I never felt a part of. So you might think “whoa, I’m not really a part of that”, but I am part of them, you know?

Stereotheque: So, with your music, are you trying to feel of those intersections between what people think identity should be, or is that something that just comes along with making the music?

Helado Negro: I think my music is definitely being interpreted as the sound of me dealing with my shit,and dealing with how to figure it all out. I think the music is definitely an interpretation of that feeling, some kind of impressionistic painting of it.

Stereotheque: Do you think the places you’ve lived in have influenced these feelings you are talking about?

Helado Negro: Absolutely, like I said, I grew up in South Florida and there you have everyone from everywhere. You have black people from Colombia, or from Ecuador, and representing themselves as Colombians, and they speak to you in Spanish, and then you have people from the Caribbean, and then you have people of different colors speaking Spanish or a different language from the Caribbean. And then I moved to the South of the United States, which is north of Florida, ironically, and there there is a distinct difference, the issue of slavery is embedded. When I moved there, if you weren’t black, you were white, and if you weren’t black you were white, or maybe Mexican.

Stereotheque: Where did you fit into that system?

Helado Negro: It was always different, you kinda blend in. I understood that way differently, how much complex identity kept getting. Where I grew up it was one way, and then moving to the South it was a completely different way. Interpreting that each time is a little intense for everyone.

Identities are super complex and that’s extremely wild. I think the most important thing is to figure out how to talk about it. And I think it’s really important because a lot of people don’t know how to talk about it with each other yet. Not in a bad sense or a good sense, I think everyone is just trying to figure it out.

Stereotheque: Did you make a conscious decision to sing both in Spanish and in English in your songs, or is that something that just kinda developed?

Helado Negro: I grew up speaking both Spanish and English, Spanish inside my house and English outside of it. But also, growing up in South Florida you see signs and other things in Spanish, you are surrounded by the language, it’s everywhere. So it’s just embedded in me, it’s just part of who I am, it’s what I do.

Stereotheque: And do you feel any difference when you write a song in English or when you write it in Spanish?

Helado Negro: The first two albums I made were in Spanish, and the third one was the first time I started to sing in English. I remember, when making the first two records, there was something I still felt like my own in respect to the language, It reminded me “I’m here in the United States, and I can sing these songs and it’s still kinda private.” It’s not so much exclusive, but it was a way to invite people to come ask me what was I talking about, so maybe it was a roundabout way to get people to engage.

Stereotheque: You’ve been using the “Tinsel Mammals,” a group of people covered from head to toe in shiny outfits at your shows. How did they come to be a part of your performance?

Helado Negro: It was something that I started in 2014 at Vive Latino [in Mexico City] and it was just a way to come up with something practical, economical and transportable to have during daytime or nighttime, just something that was a visual counterpart to the music. And it evolved into more movement-based.

Stereotheque: I was curious about them because I remember I saw you I think at Central Park at SummerStage maybe two years ago, and they looked like they were really hot in those things.

Helado Negro: Yeah, of course, that’s exciting! I mean, the amazing part is that they’re in there and they’re anonymous, they’re performing in front of you with me, and it’s pretty special, because they’re having a completely different experience than anyone else in that thing. And for them it is a completely private experience in front of everyone. It’s like this parallel life, they’re doing one thing and you don’t know. You have no connection to the personalness of them, but you have a connection with what they’re doing because of the physical representation and that’s my favorite part about that.

Stereotheque: Do you feel that somehow mirrors how you approach your music, that it’s something private that becomes public?

Helado Negro: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a lot of cryptic shit in my stuff, but there are also other things that are very literal like “Young, Latin and Proud”, or “It’s My Brown Skin” [also a song from Private Energy], things that are very much on the surface and so there are times to reveal and times to go back.

Stereotheque: You won a Joyce Award [awarded by the Joyce Foundation to four artists of color each year to create works in Chicago, Detroit or the Twin Cities] in 2015, and you have said that made you rethink your identity and your music, is that true?

Helado Negro: Yeah, because I’ve always done things in my own terms, and tried to work hard. I know money isn’t everything, but I know what it’s like not to have it, and to be forced to get creative to do the things you want to do. So when someone gives you this opportunity, when you win a lot of money to make something that’s yours, to represent you… Four people of color win this every year, so it made me understand that I have an obligation to myself, at least, to be accountable on how I use this, and to be responsible with it. It was just take the chance and do something incredible, and that’s what we did.

[Helado Negro teamed up with the St. Paul, Minnesota, Chamber Orchestra for his Island Universe Story series, which he produced with part of the money awarded:]

Stereotheque: And how do you feel about that label “people of color”?

Helado Negro: It’s something that people use to talk about people of color, it’s one of those things where it’s just like everyone tries to find something to agree upon and to talk about things and we all try to categorize something and I think that’s fine, I think it’s good.

Helado Negro will be touring the U.S. West Coast and Texas in March.

 

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