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Helado Negro’s Songs Of Peace And Latinx Pride

Roberto Lange's music is a necessary salve for an uneasy world

“Don’t be shy if you want to sing along,” Roberto Carlos Lange tells a packed room at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom, halfway through his headlining set, as the first distorted wave of synths that opens his song “Young, Latin and Proud” spills out. The stage lights up like an arcade behind him, spotted with programmed sound-responsive bulbs that flicker red, purple, and yellow. Lange flashes a beatific smile, dark Afro a blooming halo above his head, taking everyone in. “It’s OK,” he reassures them.

Lange is flanked onstage by two Tinsel Mammals, a visual and performance art extension of his music that he created in collaboration with his wife, Kristi Sword, and introduced at the 2014 Vive Latino festival in Mexico City. Intentionally phantasmagorical, the Mammals are hulking and faceless, their bodies shielded in silver tinsel made to glitter and catch light as they move. Black stockinged feet, barely visible beneath the hem of the suit, are the only suggestion of an actual human underneath. But surreal as they appear, the Mammals aren’t menacing. Instead they’re preternaturally gentle, like storybook creatures. Lange even has to lead them on and offstage, holding their tinseled mitts, taking careful steps.

With the rush of sound, the Mammals slowly begin to move, raising their massive shoulders as though preparing for flight. They coordinate with one another as Lange sings the song’s lucid opening lines: “And you can only view you / with what you got / You don’t have to pretend / that you got to know more / cause you are / young Latin and proud ...”

“Young, Latin and Proud” is the first single from last October’s Private Energy, Lange’s fifth and best record as Helado Negro, his de facto solo moniker since 2009. Released in the summer of 2015 but written two years before as a personal balm, it affirms the singer’s identity as the son of Ecuadorean immigrants with a tender, lullaby-calm melody. “This song was written as a message of encouragement to myself,” he wrote in a statement about the song. “A me that was younger, growing up around all of the noise about who you should be or how you should be as a young man, a brown boy, a Latino person. It's weird and can feel uncomfortable lots of times.”

The song was also released just a week after Donald Trump announced his bid for president in an insulting speech that vilified Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers. Although the timing was coincidental, Lange addressed the connection in his statement, drawing a line straight to the song’s political heart: “This is the first election that I'm voting in. I've never followed an election so closely. I feel the need to participate.” He capped it off bluntly: “I'm not voting for Trump.”

Over a year later at Bowery Ballroom, less than a week out from the most foreboding Election Day in recent memory, the song has taken on a life of its own. During this tour, fans have come up to Lange to tell him how good it feels to sing along in the face of a new, Trumpist breed of anti-Latino sentiment. Lange sells black t-shirts emblazoned with the title in big, white Old English lettering, designed by his brother to resemble iron-on B-boy logos, a freshly iconic symbol that his Latin fans have proudly clung to. It feels like a flashpoint moment for Lange, despite the song’s origins in that eponymous private energy — a kind of essential inner strength that fueled the song’s dialogue between older and younger versions of himself.

“The people / who'll be here waiting for you / always will be one with you,” he sings onstage, “and you'll be one with me / Young Latin and proud / Young Latin and proud ...” The Mammals come to life, taking on more avian positions. The crowd, filled with brown and black and white faces alike, starts to sing along as the title is repeated, again and again.

Although Lange has created art under a host of different aliases over the years, Helado Negro (Spanish for “black ice cream”) is the only one that neatly ties his various strengths into one. “I think probably since the moment I went to college in 1999 until right now, I’m always working on something,” he says, describing a voracious work ethic that’s resulted in notable collaborations with artists like Julianna Barwick, Matt Crum, and Prefuse 73; several albums’ worth of hip-hop beats under the name Epstein; as well as his becoming a known quantity in both visual and performance art realms. In a 2011 group exhibition at St. Cecilia’s Convent in Brooklyn, Lange created a fully functional music box out of an air-conditioning unit; later that year, he produced a sound installation in the lobby of a high-rise office in midtown Atlanta, where weather balloons tethered to speakers played an eight-hour composition of field-recorded sounds from inside and outside the building. Temporal and unconventional, Lange’s projects speak not only to his curiosity, but also to his willingness to stretch sounds — whether minimal and abstract or anchored by deep bass and accessible pop hooks — in new, unfamiliar directions.

Helado Negro began once Lange decided to use his voice as a primary instrument. A deep, quavering tenor that floats between romantic, soothing, and mournful, his voice remains the center around which the project rotates. He sings primarily in Spanish, though he began writing lyrics in English for 2013’s Invisible Life — not out of any kind of accommodation for English-speaking audiences, but rather to branch out with his collaborators and continue pushing himself further. Over time, Helado Negro has grown to encompass other performance art and electronic music impulses. Songs on Invisible Life and 2011’s Canta Lechuza draw from Lange's early beat experiments as Epstein, while some of the more urbane, drifting moments on 2014’s Double Youth and Private Energy recall Ombre, his airy collaborative project with Barwick. He includes vibrant light shows and the Mammals onstage as performative aspects, toying with the presentation of his music on his own terms.

Lange thrives in that commingling of disciplines, a seemingly natural consequence of his time growing up in South Florida in the late ’80s and early ’90s and being exposed to a surplus of contrasting musical and social experiences. Lange’s life at home and in his neighborhood was rich with Latin culture — Willie Colón records at home, plus hip-hop that filtered down from his brother — while his experiences at school, in a more stereotypically Americanized environment, exposed him to indie rock and metal. Living in Florida in the ’80s also introduced Lange to formative electronic music, in particular Miami bass and innovators of the era like Art of Noise, whose “Moments in Love” he cites as being the first pivotal sample- and beat-based music he heard as a kid.

That culture clash between life at home and life outside of it is familiar to most Latinx people who have come of age in America over the past few decades. No diaspora is clean-cut, but there are notable commonalities: Language is often discrete between the two worlds, and there are parts of your culture at home that may be tamped down in order to assimilate into American ways of life. Helado Negro’s music complicates that divide, drawing from the duality and teasing new ideas from it.

Lange's dual identity has been a thematic through line in his music dating back to Helado Negro’s debut album, 2009’s Awe Owe, whose unruffled Spanish-language songs subtly implied the album’s genesis as a negotiation of growing up in the States but within a Latin American community. Some songs on Invisible Life zeroed in on a similar idea: The video for "Dance Ghost" was shot in his hometown of Miami — “the capital of Latin America,” as he called it — and used the lyrics “There's no one home / Just the ghosts who dance alone" to tell a story about illegal immigrants who work during the day but don’t go out at night for fear of deportation.

But Private Energy centers Lange’s identity in candid, awe-inspiring terms for the first time in the Helado Negro discography. The two songs that most explicitly reference his personhood — “Young, Latin and Proud” and “It’s My Brown Skin” — aren’t so much appraisals as they are salves, ways of passing along a message of hopefulness and positivity to those who may need it most in the same way he did. Lange wrote most of the album in 2014, when he was feeling exhausted by a grueling summer of police shootings, protests, and social upheaval that motivated him to direct his impulses inward. Keeping to a release schedule that moved at a reliably frequent two-year clip, he began work on Private Energy while touring behind Double Youth, starting by penning “Young, Latin and Proud.”

In the months that followed, Lange sat with the songs he'd written, performing some of them at a pivotal Joyce Awards–funded “Island Universe Story” performance with an eight-piece band and eight-piece string section in St. Paul, Minnesota. He then scrapped most of his early demos and re-recorded them in 2015 in order to allow himself to digest his own work more thoroughly. “I think that’s what Private Energy taught me. I made the record and I was like, ‘Let me not just put this shit out as I finish,’” he tells me. “It really paid off for me. It made me feel good about this music in a lot of different ways, where I could see myself playing it for the rest of my life if I wanted to.”

None of the deep revision and rearranging behind Private Energy, however, is evident from listening to the finished product. Over 14 cohesive tracks, joined together by brief, improvisatory obras (“works”), the album glows, a darkly dreamy creation that brings Lange’s best musical impulses into focus: lyrical wordplay (as on the lilting “Lengua Larga,” a Spanish expression for someone who gossips too much), vibrant synth patterns (the beautifully tranquil “Personas Facil”), effortless hooks (“Mi Mano”). It’s an album designed to invite you in, to make you feel at home in its synth-looped, serene meditations, simultaneously timeless and of its very specific moment.

A few months after the Bowery show, the air of America has changed, and Private Energy along with it. Over mugs of black tea at Lange’s apartment in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, he tells me that he’s glad the album has proven curative for listeners. “I’m grateful that it was helpful for them, but I’m not …” He breaks off for a moment. “It was never made for these things. It was just made privately. But then it became this thing for everybody, or whoever wanted it to be for them. And so it was exciting because of that. This album found its way into people’s therapeutic lives somehow — it was like their therapist. I forget that music can be that, that you can hide in it.”

Lately, Lange says, he's been rediscovering this truth himself. “I think for a long time there was this utilitarian aspect to [music], where I’m just like, ‘OK, it’s gotta be practical.’ I got rid of a lot of records — it’s gotta be the ones that I love. And now I’m back in this discovery place where I’m like, I just want to listen and see where it takes me.”

Finding community in music became a priority for Lange after the election, both online and in real life. He went to see shows by Matana Roberts and Angel Deradoorian and attended a youth summit at the New Museum put together by feminist skateboarding and activist group Brujas, looking for ways to readjust himself back into New York after a month-long tour. “Watching all these kids do their thing was a way to get acclimated to, like, I live in this cool-ass city, I feel good being here, and I wanna just get my mind right again,” he says. “It was good to just watch people I admire do things.”

With time, Private Energy has only become more sensitive, more loaded. It’s easy to hear a song like “It’s My Brown Skin” and wear its positive affirmations of brownness like armor, but the song’s repeating closing lyrics, “It’s your brown skin / It’ll keep you safe / It’ll keep you safe,” are also oddly double-edged reassurances now. “I started thinking about it a lot more after the election, how that’s kind of a crazy thing to say to someone,” Lange says. “‘It’s My Brown Skin’ is definitely about self-love, but ending on that note is also the insecurity of your surroundings. I think it’s evolved into that more than anything.”

Lange is at ease as we talk in his living room, a warmly lit space full of musical equipment — speakers on a desk, a record player surrounded by new finds, a Mac with synthesizers plugged in. But the world outside is an uneasy place, and he knows it. “Singing ‘Young, Latin and Proud’ has definitely taken on a new form,” he tells me. “There’s things that I’m still trying to process now, even more so post-election, during a time when there’s a general meanness that’s been encouraged. That upsets me, and it makes me worried for people who are wearing a shirt that says ‘Young, Latin and Proud.’ I guess I’m being fatherly or something — I get scared for people to wear the shirt. I don’t know where these kids live. I shipped a lot of shirts out to somewhere in the middle of Missouri, and then somewhere in the middle of Idaho, and then somewhere in the middle of Montana.”

Lange recalls tour dates in places like those where a contingent of Latinos from different generations showed up, spurred by his music to share their own experiences and observations of Latinidad with him. “It was cool seeing that they were out, realizing that they were in touch with some kind of contemporary Latino culture within their country, but also possibly being the only crew out there,” he says. “What started changing my brain a lot was how these are possibly safe spaces for them for a brief period of time in some random club that they probably don’t go to [often]. But when it comes into something that’s maybe a little more intimate and home, that complicated culture via their immigrant parents, I think it’s not American culture anymore — it’s this other culture that I’m a part of.”

Back at Bowery Ballroom, that intimate, other culture is fully rendered onstage. Lange’s live shows are uplifting; he is a kind soul in a way that is contagious, encouraging a common goodwill. He shimmies with his faster songs, swaps guitar for keyboard throughout, moves fluidly between languages in a way that’s inclusionary rather than ostracizing. It’s an experience as warm and approachable as the music itself.

I spot a few people wearing the “Young, Latin and Proud” shirts and buy one myself. It worries me, too, to think of them as targets rather than emblems, but there’s still so much strength in that, in wearing a message of self-love on your chest in the face of so much hate. The Tinsel Mammals strike a different chord in retrospect now, too. When I first saw them, they appeared at odds with Private Energy’s emphasis on identity; blank and expressionless, the costumed performers operated on a more aesthetic level than anything else for me. But I see now that this same blankness has always been the point. Faceless, genderless, and raceless, the Tinsel Mammals are canvases to project onto, changing with the light, ephemeral and beautiful. They can be anything you want them to be, just like whoever is looking at them.

Lange closes his set with “Paz a Ti” (“Peace to You”), an older, largely acoustic Spanish-language track. It’s as palliative and benign as ever: “Claro que sí, soy tu buen amigo / Claro que sí, estoy aquí para ti,” he sings reassuringly, telling us he is with us, and I believe him. Once the song ends in a final billow of synths and drums, the colorful bulbs onstage gutter in and out. Lange thanks the crowd and takes the Tinsel Mammals by their hands, leading them up the stairs and out of sight, leaving us to buzz back to our own private worlds, feeling a little safer than before.