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Aloe Blacc’s Big Musical Journey

The singer and songwriter gets historical on the big screen and intimate with his upcoming single.

From the looks of things – to say nothing of the overall sound and cheery titles for 2006’s “Shine Through,” 2010’s “Good Things” and 2013’s “Lift Your Spirit” – Aloe Blacc is a positive dude. The Los Angeles-born, Grammy nominated, rapper/singer/songwriter, with the renowned retro-soul hit “I Need a Dollar” under his belt, radiates positivity and good when it comes to society’s ills and life’s better possibilities. Even when he’s blue, Blacc is buoyantly ebullient.

That makes him the perfect on-screen host for the MacGillivray Freeman/Brand USA IMAX film experience, “America’s Musical Journey,” and for its theme song “My Story,” where Blacc visits sonic buzz-places of the United States (New York City, New Orleans, Chicago), and meets its signature artists (Dr. John, Jon Batiste, Gloria & Emilio Estefan) for a broad and smartly entertaining flick. In a more intimate setting, Blacc is releasing his most lyrically personal song yet with “Brooklyn in the Summer,” a smoldering single (due this April) that acts as a prelude for his upcoming album.

“I’m cheating life being able to do my music and now film for a living,” Blacc tells Variety. “I wish everybody to get to do what I do.”

Variety: Lyrically you always go for the good even when hitting up society’s wrongs. How do you believe you and your work has changed since the dawn of BlackLivesMatter# and MeToo#?
Aloe Blacc: That’s a big first question. One of my favorite artists in the world is a guy named Eugene McDaniels whose seminal album was “Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse.” In an interview, he once said that his job is telling the truth. So, even if I’m cutting a positive image, I’m still telling the truth. I just want to have fun doing it. Pre-BlackLivesMatter, I was singing about the school-to-prison pipeline in 2013’s “Love is the Answer,” and immigration in “Wake Me Up.” I’m still in there: criticizing and analyzing. That doesn’t mean that I have to wallow in sorrow.

Spoonful of sugar gets the medicine down; I got you. Where were you in regard to your next musical step when the filmmakers came to you with “America’s Musical Journey?”
Just wrapping up a tour, and thinking about what I wanted to write next. So when they approached me with the idea of going across the country and experience the roots of American music – and use it all for inspiration to write a song – I figured it was a great opportunity.

The literal journey: how did you guys figure out who to chat with and where you would go?
It was definitely collaboration between me and the filmmaking team. You can’t miss certain cities – New Orleans and jazz, the Mississippi Delta and blues, New York City and hip hop, Nashville with country. So it was geographic first then it came down to who would dig sharing some of their time and experience for us.

Irma Thomas, Jon Batiste, the Estefans, Keb’ Mo – some are heroes and some are friends. Who was the most surprising character to hang with?
Ramsey Lewis. When I was started in underground hip-hop, I sampled from his jazz records religiously. Getting to meet him was amazing because – in my mind – he is the reason Earth Wind & Fire exist. His drummer was Maurice White, this shy young guy who tilted his cymbals to block his face from the audience. Randy encouraged him to get out front, do Kalimba solos on the mic and exert himself. Eventually he told Ramsey that he had to leave to start his own band. That to me is history. You only get that from somebody who is loving and generous enough to allow his jazz to grown into something else – funk and soul.

Jazz in many forms — free jazz, Bop and Louis Armstrong’s traditionalism – is big for you throughout the film. How did that come to be?
We took the journey up the Mississippi River that 6 million African-Americans did during the great migration – that meant food, culture and music. Louis Armstrong heralded this style and cracked open the door to normalizing blackness, be it by being on television or by being recognized on the street. He took us out of the dark ages. We dug in.

How did “My Story” come out of all this?
I wrote along the way. Sometimes I do verses first…. I had some stuff here and there. I had to figure out, though, what the melody and chorus would sound like. All of it came in steps. When I got to Miami, I had the first and second verses done, but when I sang them to Gloria and Emilio Estefan, she perked up – she though the second verse was stronger. That instructed me to put the second verse, first. Lead with that.

Considering all this, where does “Brooklyn in the Summer” fit in? It’s more personal, intimate, romantic and all-around less broad than your usual?
It was a sentiment. There is the lure of Brooklyn as a great city whether you’re talking about the history of hip0hop to what it is now as the hipsters’ hangout. I have been hanging out with great songwriters such as Jay Stolar who had this great musical story that I helped embellish and finish. He lived that story. It’s partly my story, too. We have all been through relationships that don’t turn out great. And you’re right. I don’t normally explore the topics of love and romance. It’s not my profile. So it gave me a chance to stretch. This one works for me.

Clue us into what the rest of the album sounds and feels like in relation to “Brooklyn in the Summer.”
I believe there’s a similar passion in all the songs. Plus I have come to the revelation that the energy and rawness of my stage presentation has to be present in all of my new songs. This album brings the dynamic down while marinating the high level of passion whether it’s a ballad or a rocker. It’s all gonna have that same gravity.

So how do you dig seeing yourself in 3-D IMAX?
It’s crazy. Seeing yourself on a video is fine – three minutes and out. Film though, it’s weird. I can’t wait to do more.

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