Helado Negro and The Music That Let Us Exhale

   By Julyssa Lopez | Nov 22nd, 2019

    Artwork by Alonso Ayala (@ouchal)

When Helado Negro released his debut album Awe Owe in 2009, one of the project’s defining characteristics was its sense of space. The breezy opener “Venceremos” sounded like it had endless room to keep stretching out; languid ditties like “Ver a Ver” and “Deja” were short yet elastic. Helado Negro, an Ecuadorian-American producer and musician whose real name is Roberto Carlos Lange, revealed himself in the music’s dark expanses, half-singing and half-whispering in his beautifully intimate soundscapes that were both delicate and boundless.

Away from the safe insularity of the record, the outside world was practically screaming with uncertainty. The U.S. was still reeling from the calamities of the financial crash and the rest of the globe had fallen into economic recession. If you were any kind of young person trying to plot a future, things looked about as promising as preparing to go out while watching a tornado form outside your window. Anxiety wasn’t just creeping in through the cracks of the zeitgeist; it blanketed everything. Over the next several years, that panic would intensify, exacerbated by the din of social media notifications and relentless news cycles that never blinked.

However, Helado Negro would continue to make music that offered brief but necessary timeouts. Even when he indulged his experimental side, as he did on 2011’s Canta Lechuza and the Island Universe EPs, he never lost his sense of subtlety. He ventured further into electronic production on 2013’s Invisible Life and refined his skills on 2016’s stunningly complex Double Youth. What connected each release was tenderness and a quiet wisdom, as Helado Negro drew people further into the depths of his expansive imagination. His lyrics could be playful and his melodies often had the pulse of dance rhythms, but the subtext of his catalogue was clear: Pause, take a while.

Despite the comforts we took in the music around us, for so many black and brown communities, the period leading up to 2016 felt like a particular kind of gut punch. In 2014, while Helado Negro was on tour, news erupted that there would be no indictment for Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who killed an 18-year-old black kid named Michael Brown. The scenario would play out over and over again as outcry grew over police brutality and violence against unarmed black individuals. Then, Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric spewed out on the campaign trail and permeated most of the U.S. public discourse. He reduced immigrants from Latin America to criminals and rapists, words that seemed shocking but wouldn’t nearly capture the level of horror to come.

Helado Negro changed his calculus ever so slightly to reflect what was happening externally. He reacted with an indomitable wave of soft power: On 2016’s Private Energy, he wrote songs that doubled as love letters to his skin color and his identity. “Young Latin and Proud” became an anthem among Latinx kids, while “It’s My Brown Skin” was a prompt to embrace the layers that make and protect you. “My skin glows in the dark shines in the light/It's the color that holds me tight,” he declared gently. It’s this album that turned work that had always been poignant and pretty into critical, forthright expressions of our tenacity as a community and the potency of our shared paths.

By 2019, though, exhaustion had set in. It wasn’t uncommon to hear people share how tired and helpless news of the Trump administration made them; finding ways to recharge and stay in the fight became crucial for activists. While individuals tried not to let their spirits sputter out, Helado Negro had been discreetly tinkering away in his studio, working on This Is How You Smile, his latest project. Taking inspiration from the one-sentence short story “Girl” by the Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid, he wrote out his own course for self-preservation, drawing on past memories as well as the strength inherited from past generations.The standout is his stunning “Please Won’t Please,” where he lulls, “Lifelong history shows/That brown won't go brown just glows.” From beginning to end, the masterpiece feels like a boxer taking a gulp of water before stepping back in the ring. Helado Negro leveraged the space he had always built in his songs to give listeners a place to think, heal, and recharge.

In her brilliant book How To Do Nothing, the visual artist Jenny Odell makes an argument for finding space for oneself in an attention-driven economy. When the world around us is at its most cluttered and cacophonous, she believes a pause to take in our surroundings – particularly our environment – is one of the best ways to refocus our sense of time and place. “We know that we live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations – and those, in turn, demand the very time and space that is nowhere to be found,” she writes. “In an endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money, there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.” Helado Negro has understood this deeply as a creator, and has believed in encouraging connection as much as he does free space. “Take care of people today/Hold their hand,” he sings on “Two Lucky.” “Call them up if you wanna say, ‘Hey, I miss the way we used to hug/We used to dance a tiny bit.’”

This November, fewer than two months before the end of the decade, Helado Negro tweeted a couple thoughts to anyone whose attention he may have captured for a few minutes. “Take your time, my friend. Tell yourself to be quiet, and in the mornings, sit in your favorite room. Write down everything you hear,” he wrote. “Find yourself listening to everything from that place you are sitting, everything changes the longer you listen. Windows open. Leaves wiggling and rubbing against one another after the wind tickles them.”

He continued, “The neighbors turn on their sink then off, and you can hear a slight drip at the faucet, then hear your bare feet rubbing on the floor while your hand has been holding your other hand and the folds of your skin make the slightest sound with the friction as you move them slowly concentrating on what you're hearing. It's your heart, and it's on time, and listen to it beating, and then tell yourself, MAKE SOMETHING.”

The message is simple and parsimonious, and it encapsulates what Helado Negro has given listeners over the last ten years through his music. During an era of trauma, of tumult, of too many cell phone vibrations, of children in cages, of ICE agents breaking down doors, of ever-present ugliness rearing its head, of natural disasters, of ecological fears, of anxiety, of the kind of unbearable noise that promises to choke out your creativity, here is someone reminding us simply to breathe.

Julyssa Lopez is a writer based in Brooklyn by way of Berlin, Managua, and Washington, D.C. She covers music, art, and culture. You can find her work at The Nation, where she is a frequent columnist, and the Nightlife section of The New Yorker, where she previews upcoming shows. Her writing has also appeared in the Washington Post, Billboard, the Guardian, GQ, NPR, Remezcla, the FADER, and more. She's on Twitter @jooleesah