In many ways, it would have been easier for Roberto Lange to make a protest record. Despite over a decade exploring a variety of musical genres and subject matter under the moniker Helado Negro, it was the direct, anthemic nature of the song “Young, Latin and Proud”, off of 2016’s Private Energy, that sharpened the spotlight on him and his art – naturally, considering the environment it was released in. As the debate around identity politics raged in the United States, the song’s theme of self-confidence and pride in Latinx culture became an unofficial rallying cry for first generation hyphen-Americans pushing back against the racist rhetoric spewed by the Trump campaign, and ultimately, the xenophobic policies of his administration.
The upside to Trump winning, we were told, was that at least it would inspire some radical, incandescently angry protest art. And that fire burned brightly at the beginning – from YG and Nipsey Hustle’s “FDT” to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman to subtle references in The Last Jedi. But the reality is that shock wears off, outrage fades, and fatigue sets in; it’s unsustainable to go around the world like an open wound, carrying your anger at the front of your persona at all times. At some point the rest of you needs room to breathe, to grow, to grieve.
This Is How You Smile is Lange’s most nuanced work yet. From the music to the cover art, it’s an intimate portrait of a full, rich life; it feels like Lange sat us down in his living room and thumbed through the pages of an old, dusty family photo album and regaled us with the memory behind each snapshot. It’s moving and resonant in an understated, relatable manner. And this record is so much more powerful for telling a deeply human story at a time where thousands of Latinos along the border are being stripped of precisely that humanity.
I had the opportunity to speak to Lange over the phone last week just as he was returning to New York for a show at Elsewhere in Brooklyn, after a couple of dates in the Midwest.
Brightest Young Things: I know you live in Brooklyn, right near Prospect Park. Do shows back at home feel special, or is it the same as any other night on stage?
Roberto Lange: It’s both of those things. And it’s also, you know – it’s exciting but almost more stressful. There’s way more people you want to see and say “Hi” to, so there’s a lot of unfortunate chit-chat, which makes it less meaningful catch ups with people you haven’t seen in a long time. I love hometown shows, but it’s almost like they’re the worst as well because of that. You see everyone you want to see but it feels like “Oh my god, I can’t talk to you!” [Laughs]
BYT: It becomes a cocktail party conversation as opposed to the meaningful sit-down you want to have.
BYT: So much of This is How You Smile feels like meditations on lived-in moments, and you’ve talked about the heavy emotional toll that making this record took on you. What is your relationship to it, and the feelings behind the songs, now that you have some distance from the creative process?
Lange: Right now – when you make recorded music – it’s solidifying a moment in time. I think the distance exists; I don’t listen to the record at all, and if I do it’s because I’m performing it every night. But performing it live turns it into its own thing. It’s not like I’m listening to the songs in the same way; they’re not even really the same songs anymore. So you have more of a relationship with how they feel in a performance sense.
I don’t think about the specific intentions or underpinnings anymore. Sometimes I’m reminded of nuance within some of the decisions I made when making the record. When I was in Mexico I was reminded of the song “Running,” and how I started it down there. It completely skipped my mind that I recorded that little loop with my voice in the beginning of the song while I was there, and I remembered it when I was there recently. It’s like finding little treasures I’ve left behind for myself, and that’s cool. When I’m in different places I remember different things that are going on with the record. And that’s good.
BYT: What’s your relationship to your previous albums? Do you ever go back and revisit older material? To your point, every record you create is a snapshot of a moment in time in your life, to some degree or another. Do you ever feel nostalgia for re-living things that are farther out?
Lange: Not really. The only time I’ll re-listen to older stuff is when I’m trying to figure out if we’re going to perform it live with some kind of alternate configuration. But I don’t sit down and check out my older shit at all. I kind of cringe when I hear my older music in general. And it’s worse when I’m around people.
BYT: It’s interesting how common that sentiment is – of looking back at your previous artwork and having a preference for thinking of the future.
Do you have a guiding philosophy or lens to the way you approach music and art? How do you decide what the next evolution in your work will be? Or does this happen instinctively?
Lange: I think I rely on something I call “irresponsible possibilities” (laughs). You make a lot of decisions and they’re not necessarily things that are good for paying bills or buying food or doing the things that make you fit into society, but there’s a lot of good possibilities behind them. And that leads to committing to the work that you do in the fullest of ways.
BYT: It’s funny you mention that. I’m Afro-Latino, and I’ve seen a few interviews on this press cycle where people have asked you why you didn’t double down on creating music that reflects the lived identity of being Latinx in the United States. But This is How You Smile feels so intimate and personal, and just is, as opposed to bubbling a group identity to front and center. It’s an album about your life.
Lange: Yeah! I think mostly – and you know this, and people talk to you about this – the expectation when someone is labeled something is to fulfill whatever people already think it’s supposed to be like. That kind of shit is frustrating; there’s a specific expectation to be a certain way. Even now, even though there’s a really diverse idea behind Latinx artists, I do still think there’s a long way to go before it’s not necessarily thought about in a certain way. Latin America does its own thing as much as any other region in the world, and we’ve done things that are beyond this idea of what has become popular commercially. It’s not trying to educate people, but it’s trying to let people know that they can make up their own mind and just listen to this shit, you know?
BYT: I think it would be easy to step into that lane and ham shit up for commercial success, but that seems inauthentic from the art you actually put out.
Lange: You say shit as much as I do – are you gonna put these in the article?
BYT: Oh yeah. I say shit a lot. I swear a lot.
Lange: Awesome. [Laughs]
BYT: You know, I moved here from the Dominican Republic when I was 18, and I often think about the fact that Latin America is not a monolith. We all contain multitudes. And I’m not knocking anybody for the successes they’ve had; I love seeing people representing “the culture”, but I’m not just about reggaetón. I like other shit too.
Lange: Right. And this is just an example, but to say – it’s pretty embarrassing when someone who is white is like “I love reggaetón” just because you’re Dominican. As opposed to your Abuelita or Tía saying it. There’s a different context for it: you just sized me up this way. As opposed to your Abuelita saying it – it comes from a different place.
BYT: This is How You Smile is the first record released on RVNG Intl, after five albums on Asthmatic Kitty – though I see that Sufjan still played some guitar on it, so I’m assuming the relationship is still good. What was the impetus behind the change? Does it ultimately matter to you who releases your music?
Lange: This is actually the second album I’ve released with them – they re-released Private Energy. And yes, it does matter to me who releases my music. At the time the decision was made in 2014, Asthmatic Kitty was going through some transitions. So they told all the artists they were representing that they couldn’t put out everyone’s record; they were great about helping us find new homes. It’s all still good between us.
BYT: You’ve talked about the importance of partnering with people who get it. Can you define what that “it” means to you? What do you seek out in a collaborator and in a friendship, even?
Lange: I think it just means that there’s an openness to service on what we’re focusing on. Meaning if we’re working on a song in a recording studio, we are doing everything we can to service the project as opposed to anyone’s pride or ego. An example of that is me working on something on end tirelessly – the sound of drums, the sound of a guitar – and I’m doing all this work and spending some money on studio time. But then realizing that maybe the best thing for the song is for these drums to sound like they’re coming through a telephone. So you play them through a telephone and record them, and it’s like “Ok, that was the longest way to come to that conclusion.” [Laughs] But that’s servicing the song and understanding that’s how you create and make the things you like the most, because you’re not basing the decision on trying to make people…[trails off] It’s not that you don’t want people to feel good about themselves. If you have those collaborators who only want that the part that they did was present and in focus, then everybody’s just featured and you’re not saying anything. You’re not really doing anything with intention, you know what I mean? The feeling is lost.
That being said, it’s my project, so it all ends up being filtered through me. A lot of it is my specific megalomania of controlling things as well. But I do feel an openness, and I try to find the people who feel that kind of openness to work on the project that’s guided like that, that we are trying to figure out for something specific.
BYT: The sentiment at the core of the Jamaica Kincaid poem that inspires the album title for This is How You Smile is so powerful, and so resonant – “what a daughter, an immigrant and young woman of color, must do to protect herself in a world that was not designed by or for her.”
Not to necessarily go back to the feeling of otherness, but do you feel like you were well-prepared to navigate the world we live in, growing up in an immigrant household in South Florida? Do you feel a responsibility to pass those lessons on?
Lange: I think as much as I could have been, but it’s not possible to be prepared for everything, you know? My parents were kids when they had me, so I don’t know that they necessarily had all the tools to be knowledgeable, but I don’t know. I think they did an excellent job [laughs]. But also there’s a baseline that happens with specific people, and I think growing up in Florida I just felt the whole world was like that – well maybe not the whole world, as I went to Ecuador often – but at least the rest of the United States was like that. I know the whole world was kind of fucked up in a crazy way, but I knew something was special about the United States. I assumed the rest of the United States was just like where I grew up. Traveling to other places opened my eyes.
An example of that would be when I went to college in Savannah, Georgia – understanding the idea of segregation and racism in very specific and visible ways, whereas in Latin American communities, that stuff is very prevalent but also hidden. It’s recontextualized because of the common thread of culture and language. There are so many people from so many different backgrounds and races, but each country in Latin America has its own blend. In Ecuador there’s a cross between Indigenous folks and Afro-Ecuadorians and Mestizos; it’s common to see black, brown, and white people talking Spanish.
When I moved to the South I understood the disparity through the idea of how much black people were put in the specific position of oppression. It was just visible in the South. It doesn’t exist anymore, but these people live on this street and these people live on this street. That fucked me up, a lot.
BYT: I moved to Atlanta in 2009 and that blew my mind – and that’s supposed to be the “big city”, where opportunity abounds.
Lange: But Atlanta definitely has a different vibe. If you go to Savannah, you see it. The interesting thing about Atlanta is that it exists in a lot of complicated ways. I lived in Atlanta as well and I felt like it was exciting. The African American community I was surrounded by there was super diverse in terms of musical and art relationships. Everybody is doing everything, and it felt fresh. Whereas being in Savannah I didn’t necessarily have a connection with a broad group of people in terms of musical culture.
BYT: Let me clarify – it is a big city for the region, and there’s so much diversity: people are there from all over the South, and from different orientations and national backgrounds, and many of them fall within the umbrella of Blackness, and they’re connecting with people from all over the world. But I remember being surprised at how stark the legacy of racism and segregation still is – those scars remain.
Even when you’re going down Briarcliff Road and crossing Ponce De Leon Avenue, and all of a sudden it’s called Moreland Avenue, because historically you wanted to make it clear that the white and the black neighborhoods were different. That’s striking because it is a place where there’s mobility and opportunity and fewer barriers, but the ghosts of fifty years ago – and one hundred years before that – linger.
Lange: I mean – shit, man. The way the highway is designed, the way the old Braves stadium was built in Peoplestown and how it’s being redeveloped now, the way MARTA was designed to run North-South-East-West and not connect any communities. It’s all that. These conscious constructs of walls and barriers. But I love Atlanta; it feels like a second home. I lived in Decatur and I lived in Grant Park.
BYT: It was funny to me going down there and being brought into the bigger fold of blackness; I always identified as Afro-Latino, but living in Atlanta was the first time that I truly felt black. And that was really cool, to reconnect with that facet of my family history.
Lange: Oh that’s a really curious thing. I’ve never seen a photo of you – and you’ve probably seen a photo of me. When I was in Savannah it was way different. If you’re not black, you’re white or Mexican. Or if you’re not white, you’re most likely Mexican, or maybe black. And that’s how I was mostly talked to. My friends who are black in Savannah knew where I was from, but in terms of the culture there, white people saw folks outside of their community very clearly as others.
BYT: Perception is so powerful and weird. It builds constructs and commonalities.
Lange: Yeah – dude there were so many Panamanians I knew. I grew up with them in Florida, and I always knew that Panamanians were mainly black until I got to SCAD. There were a ton of rich kids that went there; it was an expensive school. And they were the first white Panamanians I ever met!
It’s a weird perspective to think about it in a popular sense – if you’re watching the World Cup and you see Ecuador play, 98% of the players on the team are black. But walk down any major city in the country and you’ll see a lot more racial diversity. It’s pretty fucking mixed! And most likely in the United States you’ve only met brown Ecuadorians, and in Miami white Ecuadorians. It’s fucking trippy.
BYT: It’s the same for the Dominican Republic – we can look like we’re from anywhere, but you just know they share that spark. I’ll be in New York and see someone and be like “you’re Dominican!” and I’m usually right. You can just tell; it’s easy to recognize.
Lange: [Laughs] Me too, me too. What fucks me up is Panamanians; I think a lot of them have been here so long that they sound almost Dominican. But sometimes they talk like Colombians some time. It’s really confusing.
BYT: What are your hopes for your art and this project going forward – for the next year, for the next couple of years?
Lange: That’s kind of a day to day, case to case thing. Just focusing on this record, and if there’s an aspect that’s fulfilling then that’s pretty cool. You get the opportunity to play it in great places around the world. It’s a product of a lot of time and effort building up to these moments, and the people I get to surround myself with and work with. It’s about building and cultivating the ideas that I want; I’ve been so specific and particular and made it very hard on myself, and I think we have these opportunities to try and maybe fulfill ideas I had ten years ago. I’m still trying to catch up to them. I want to grow into something that you can finally have an opportunity for.