How Helado Negro Reinvented Himself By Embracing His Latino American Identity

The Ecuadorian-American artist explored his vulnerability to make Private Energy, and discovered a more vocal side of himself.

How Helado Negro Reinvented Himself By Embracing His Latino American Identity Photo by Ben Sellon

In March 2015, Roberto Carlos Lange took to the stage of the Ordway Concert Hall in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with an 18-piece ensemble and a string octet. Over an hour and a half, he performed music, old and new, from his Helado Negro project to a sold-out audience of 1,100. On such a stage, his intimate songs — self-styled sound sculptures crafted from live instruments, found sounds, and electronics in a small Brooklyn home studio — took on a new dimension as their delicate qualities received an orchestral boost. “No one really knows who I am so to perform like that was really special,” Lange says of the show. We’re sitting in a small Brooklyn parking lot on a hot summer evening and Lange, wearing tan shorts and a t-shirt adorned with abstract black and white drawings, his afro spotted with grey hairs, has just finished an impromptu show on The Lot Radio with a friend. When he’s on tour, the Ecuadorian-American musician usually performs his songs solo, accompanied by choreography from the Tinsel Mammals, silvery costumed humans who embody the movement of his compositions. The Saint Paul performance was commissioned in 2014 as part of the Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Series, conceived over a period of two years, and made possible in its full scale thanks to the Joyce Awards, a $50,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation given each year to four artists of color to collaborate with leading arts and culture institutions in the Great Lakes region. “Inviting people to participate in my music live is a whole new thing for me,” Lange explains of the challenges he faced adapting his songs for a chamber orchestra. Luckily, if there’s one thing Lange, 36, is getting better at with each passing year, it’s embracing change.

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Change and the quest for self-understanding are two themes at the heart of Lange’s fifth album as Helado Negro. Titled Private Energy, he’s self-releasing it this October 7 with help from his former label, Asthmatic Kitty. “The album is about what I have to deal with as an artist, performer, and whatever I’m doing in my personal life,” says Lange. “I want to have a career in this music industry system but I’m constantly changing what I do. So it’s about embracing myself, not sabotaging what I build.” In the 13 years since Lange began releasing music — including stints as a producer of instrumental hip-hop and experimental electronic compositions — he’s always prioritized his feelings over expectations. As a result, "the music I make is always evolving,” he tells me. Private Energy is the most stripped back Helado Negro album yet, with more space given to lyrics, sung in both Spanish and English, in a move that’s embracing of Lange’s newfound view of himself as simply a “singer-songwriter.”

Lange began writing Private Energy in late 2014, fresh off a tour for his last record, Double Youth. There was a lot to process. The interest from a storied musical institution like Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra bolstered his belief in the musical path he’d chosen, while winning the Joyce Award brought the matter of his identity to the forefront. Lange began to think about what being a Latino American artist meant to him. Also on his mind was the civil unrest and public discussions sparked by the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier that summer. “It really struck me,” he says. “I read stories about Mike Brown’s mother and the education system in his district. Black Lives Matter marches were happening outside my door in Brooklyn.” Lange ruminated on what music could or should be in these traumatic times. His goal became to write songs that captured his swirling and complicated thoughts about personal and shared identities.

After writing the first drafts of the album at home in November, Lange finished it in January 2015 during a residency at Mass MoCA and premiered it in full at a further two commissioned performances that April, at The Kitchen in N.Y.C. and the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. Then along came an offer to open for Sufjan Stevens on tour in the second half of 2015. Lange scrapped all the songs from his existing live show and took the new material on the road. “I dug into the album and sang it for the rest of year,” he says. “I re-recorded it all in January this year. It’s not much different but the songs are definitely [now] what I wanted them to be.” The reverse path of creation that the album took — from art commissions to a tour to a physical release — is also testament to Lange’s single-mindedness. He’s dedicated to finding a way to do things on his own terms regardless of the constraints of the music industry.

The 14 tracks on Private Energy are “personal songs about personal issues.” On “It’s My Brown Skin,” Lange sings simple but poignant lines — My brown me is the shade that’s just for me, and you’re stuck on me and all this time I’m inside you — about his experience as a Latino American over a laid-back drum break and warm bass. The song ends with a repeated refrain, it will keep you safe, that flies full of hope in the face of ongoing racial tension. “Lengua Larga” and “Transmission Listen” offer crunchy analogue instrumentation and lyrics that, respectively, call for the touch of skin on skin, and the strength that comes from unspoken mental connections.

“I didn’t realize I was having a dialogue with someone else. I thought I was having a private conversation with myself.”

One of the standouts on the album is a soft and delicate ballad called “Young, Latin and Proud.” Despite the title, it doesn't invoke a rallying cry of unity. Instead, it looks inward. Lange tells me he’s “always felt like an outsider from day one.” As a teenager searching for his identity in south Florida, he immersed himself in fringe music scenes, primarily hip-hop and electronic music, and learned to become an artist by playing shows and following his nose. Writing “Young, Latin and Proud" was a way to speak to his younger self, as well as to a new generation of Latino Americans whose identity, he says, can sometimes feel full of contradictions. “It was as if I was singing my 6-year-old self a lullaby,” he explains. “It’s about feeling a sense of pride and self-confidence, understanding that you’re born into something and it’s alright to feel good about it. Stereotypes and contradictions are built into identity and I think those are a strong current in both Latino and black identity in the U.S. today.” The song, inadvertently released the same week as Donald Trump’s hateful comments about Mexicans coming to America, resonated with a large audience Lange didn't think he had. On the road in the fall of 2015, he was accosted after shows by fans who wanted to say thank you to him for helping articulate their own feelings. “It happened a lot, especially in places where you don’t think there is a Latino community,” he says. “It’s like a dialogue. But I didn’t realize I was having a dialogue with someone else. I thought I was having a private conversation with myself.”

Sometimes it takes a self-styled outsider to shed new light on a shared condition. That’s what Lange did with “Young, Latin and Proud” and it’s what he’s doing with Private Energy. “There’s so much that is special [and] fragile about us,” he admits when I ask him what private energy is. “We’re vulnerable and scared to share with people. I’m just sharing my own vulnerable shit. The hardest part is talking to somebody else about it. I’m the worst person to sum things up with words but the best [way] to sum it up is with music, you know?”

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How Helado Negro Reinvented Himself By Embracing His Latino American Identity