I first met Aloe Blacc in 2004. Performing alongside DJ Exile as part of the duo Emanon, the man born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins had me swaying my arms back and forth, tearing up the grass underneath my feet in the front row at Kohoutek, my college’s annual music festival. My friends and I were so close to the stage that we slapped hands with the MC as he rapped, and I remember hoping to hang out after the show, smoking, drinking and showing off my own freestyles. But Emanon were too spent after their set to touch mics with me and my pals. And in those days before smartphone sentimentality, I was left just with the memory.
Time passed. I watched from afar as Emanon dissolved and Aloe took center stage as the artist I always knew he would be. Less a rapper than a complete, crooning soulful singer. When I saw him weeks ago, through sheer dumb luck at the PTTOW! Summit in Rancho Palos Verdes, it was like being transported back in time. We’ve both changed so much. Evolved and grown for the better. When we spoke, he choose his words carefully, more like a statesman than a musician, reflecting on his career, his goals, and life beyond art.
How different of an artist are you now versus the Emanon days?
I got signed by an indie label as a singer rather than a rapper. I had the opportunity to explore different kinds of song writing. And I started studying a lot of different types of songwriting. The content is the same. I think as an MC I was doing a lot of socially conscious and introspective work. As a singer it’s still socially conscious. I’ve sort of found a voice as a champion of the underdog, singing songs of triumph over adversity.
What about the difference between life on an indie versus major label?
Indie you don’t have the access to radio and television and press the way major labels do. But you have street cred and artistic freedoms that you might not have at a major. I still have a lot of artistic freedom. I was lucky that I developed my profile as an indie artist and then a major bought into that mystique, and I get to continue that.
Did working with Avicii push you over the top, to make you a recognizable face?
I wouldn’t say that I’m a very recognizable face. I wouldn’t want that for myself, actually. Part of the reason why I’m at PTTOW! is to engage in other business ventures that can definitely be an exit strategy from the music game as an artist. I’m going to continue to make music, but I don’t necessarily care to be famous. I want to continue to make great songs that will stand the test of time without playing the industry game of chasing the popularity and celebrity. I’d rather develop a killer app, be home to raise my child instead of on the road.
I think the song that put me into more of a visible space in the U.S. was “The Man,” and in Europe was “Wake Me Up.” (https://youtu.be/M_o6axAseak) Europeans were familiar with “I Need A Dollar,” and when “Wake Me Up” came out with Avicii as the artist, they were sure to put my name next to his. In the U.S. it wasn’t necessarily the same. They put Avicii the artist without putting my name next to it. Which is just because he was the artist of record. In the U.S., “The Man” is the song that made me more visible because it was proper Aloe Blacc released, and a massive television commercial with the song.
What does your name mean?
When I was in high school I was a hip-hop artist. I wanted to describe myself as being smooth like lotion so I chose aloe. Something really simple and juvenile. Stuck with me into my singing career.
Is it more challenging for an artist to break through than it used to be, or is it easier with Soundcloud and YouTube to develop an audience?
I think it’s easier for artists to break through and find his or her own audience using social media and other platforms that are online. And as long as they create content that is accessible but also attractive to whatever particular audience they believe they’re delivering to, they’ll have a fanbase that can sustain their livelihood.
Success is measured in many different ways. For me, I measure success as writing a great song. And that’s ultimately why I want to get into other forms of income-earning activity, because writing a great song doesn’t necessarily translate into getting on the radio and making money. Especially in this climate where digital sales are dwindling due to streaming, and the streaming economy doesn’t pay the same as the old physical economy or digital download. I’m going to jump ship. Exit the artist world in a way that doesn’t require playing the game of writing a song that can be massively popular. I just want to write songs that my heroes would look at and say that’s great. That my peers would choose me to be part of something like the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. And you don’t get that by writing hits, you get that by writing great songs. I’d be remiss to try to chase Number Ones. Because that could be my demise.
What’s your process?
I’m generally writing lyrics all the time. Sometimes it come with melody, sometimes it’s just lyrics. I’m always writing a couplet here or there — or a crafty idea. And that may suggest a melody. And then that melody will suggest a chord structure. And that chord structure will suggest the instruments to produce the song. “Wake Me Up” started with words. Then I heard a guitar that Mike Einziger was playing in a chord progression. The melody for the words were designed as a chord progression.
What’s your biggest challenge as an artist?
Time, I think. Finding the time to balance between family and creativity. Usually there’s a cycle to an album, but the music industry’s so in flux that the cycles are changing. Generally you release an album, you tour on that album. The cycle can be two years plus. It’s much faster now. People are able to consume quicker. And they want to be able to consume on-demand. Part of me thinks, and I’ve suggested to the record label, “I have 40 songs, why don’t I just release all of them? Let people binge if that’s how they consume these days. People are binging on television, why not let someone go deep with my catalogue?” Record labels are notoriously antiquated. They don’t embrace the change in technology as fast as the technology is changing their industry. And they don’t embrace crafty ideas to get ahead of the curve, either. What it requires ultimately is a road artist. I think if I was in a position that I didn’t establish who I was, and have a nest egg, then I would be fearful and have to operate by their means. But I can see a different path and I think it requires some initiative.
Any businesses you’re investing in right now?
Sort of. There’s social businesses. There’s a food desert in South Los Angeles, and an organization that I’m affiliated with is attempting to purchase a building to create a grocery store. A Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s type of store. And I’m going to engage with them to make that a possibility for local community members. Not just going to the grocery store to buy groceries, you can, but also engage in steps that are farming in your front and backyard. And delivering and distributing to your local grocery store.
Does that have to do with the South Central L.A. farm?
Well, partially, through people that were involved in that. Last year, a gentleman by the name of Ron Finley who spoke at PTTOW; I’ve met him a few times at different places. I had him speak at one of my Artivist Entertainment events, which is in South L.A. and we spoke about food justice in underserved communities. The concept is to make nutrition and gardening available, which is access to health and pharmacy. And it’s access to education development, because it’s hard to learn if you don’t have the proper nutrition. It’s changing the way the inner-city operates, from the inner-city.
How do you get people on the Westside to care?
Eventually they will. But I think it has to be up and running in such a well-oiled way that people will get involved. It doesn’t require much to buy seeds, soil, water and sun are free — virtually. I need to change the mindsets. The mindsets of the citizens in these neighborhoods. Offer them an opportunity to work from home and make money. Incentivize them in ways that no one else has. That I think is one great investment. Probably the most important piece of my life’s work that I’m getting engaged in now.
I’m going to build some apps. Apps are great ways for people to tell stories. I’m going to find ways for people to tell stories through Android or iOS. I’m going to start writing television and film. I’ve got a few ideas and film producers are asking me for ideas. Learning to screenwrite is one thing — or finding a screenwriter to work with me is an important step.
Baltimore, Ferguson, all this craziness — a lot of artists are quiet about it. What’s your take?
My take is don’t scream unless you have something to say. If we’re going to organize and march we have to have a reason for it. What are we organizing and marching for? Selma came out at a perfect time for us to recognize that if you’re going to march you have to have a directive. What is the goal? The goal can be manifold. I believe it is a call to jobs. Father Greg Boyle in Boyle Heights says nothing stops a bullet like a job. That’s the truest thing. I want to create jobs. How do you create jobs? One way is create the farms in peoples’ front yards and backyards. It gives people purpose and something to do. How else? Well, there’s an underserved population that hasn’t learned about computers and technology. So I’ve been supporting hackathons and I’m going to get involved with the folks bringing hackathons to the high schools in the inner city.
Why ship the jobs off to India? We can do them right here. I’ll figure out how to use either celebrity influence, or money or whatever else, to get people involved in this new space. It absolutely builds confidence, it keeps them off the streets. If they can create something, there’s nothing better than the feeling of creating something others are using. It’s addictive and it’s going to make you want to do it again and again. It becomes the new Jordans. Instead of going out and showing off a new pair of Jordans, you’re showing off that you built this new app everyone is using. And that’s going to change who’s the big man on campus.
What are you most proud of in terms of your body of work?
I would say the music videos that accompany “Wake Me Up” and “Love Is The Answer.” With my access to a budget to make a big music video, and to a record label who can share those videos across the world, I chose to speak about important social topics: immigration in the U.S. I’m a first generation in the U.S., my parents are from Panama. It’s an important topic to me. My wife is half-Turkish, half-Mexican. Her parents immigrated to Australia. We are involved in a community that is very much an immigrant community. And also first-generation.
I’m also proud of “Love Is The Answer.” I spoke about the issue that is facing young black males which is incarceration. The pipeline from school to prison is established by nefarious relationships between law enforcement and prison and now corporatized prison. This video was my way of saying we have to be aware of this issue and figure out how to change it. Luckily, the guys who were involved created legislation in California to shift the criminalization of non-violent offense activity so non-violent offenses would be criminalized in a way that would put them in jail for not a long time or at all, so there’s more emphasis on rehabilitation. Money that would go to somebody going to prison is going to the schools. That’s the kind of reform, the kind of change I get involved with. I use my celebrity to do it. That’s what I’m proud of.