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Musician Helado Negro on His Anthem, “Young, Latin & Proud,” and Love Song, “It’s My Brown Skin”

Web ExclusiveJanuary 17, 2018
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We speak with a musician who wrote what has become an anthem in the Trump Era: the song “Young, Latin & Proud.” Helado Negro re-released the song about the same time Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president and attacked Mexican immigrants, calling them criminals and rapists. Roberto Carlos Lange, an acclaimed Brooklyn-based musician of Ecuadorean descent, performs in the Democracy Now! studio and discusses the song, his artistic and political influences, and his newest album, “Private Energy,” before he heads out on tour.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Today we’re joined by a musician who wrote what’s become an anthem in the Trump era. It’s called “Young, Latin & Proud.” Helado Negro, translated into English as Black Ice Cream, has re-released the song, about the same time that Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president and attacked Mexican immigrants, calling them criminals and rapists. This is a part of the song.

HELADO NEGRO: [performing “Young, Latin & Proud”]

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
Young Latin and proud
Young Latin and proud

’Cause you woke up feeling like this
You woke up knowing that you’ll be…

AMY GOODMAN: That’s “Young, Latin & Proud” by Helado Negro, performed here in the Democracy Now! studios.

Well, to learn about this song and the musician behind it, we are joined by Helado Negro. We’re joined by Roberto Carlos Lange, an acclaimed Brooklyn-based musician of Ecuadorean descent. His newest album is called Private Energy.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Hi, Amy. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this anthem that you wrote, actually a few years ago. You’ve re-released it now.

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Yeah. I wrote it in 2014, 2015. And when you’re writing things, when you’re writing music, a lot of times music and, I think, visual art, when it’s non-narrative based, which this wasn’t necessarily—a lot of my music isn’t—it kind of just comes out as like a—it’s your mode of self-expression. And for me, it was this time travel lullaby that I wanted to make. And it was me, knowing the things that I know now and the feelings that I’ve kind of been able to figure out how to deal with, sending this song as a message to a younger me. And that’s what it was, and just kind of this message of encouragement, more than anything. Like all these things are you, and describing that through the song.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you think when Donald Trump announced his presidency, as he ascended the escalator at Trump Tower and then talked about Mexican rapists?

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: It’s one of those things where the—we had a show coming up. And the way a lot of this works is like, we’re like, “Oh, we’re going to release this new song, 'Young, Latin & Proud.'” And five days prior or six days prior to us—what we had planned, when we had planned to release the song, this Trump announces his presidency, and then he starts talking about Mexicans being rapists and criminals. And obviously, there’s like—on one side, everyone thought it was some kind of like response to him. And it wasn’t a response to him. It was a response, in a general sense, to a lot of things that have always been happening. But then it resonated immediately because he’s a—you know, he’s in the limelight. So…

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to “Young, Latin & Proud.”

HELADO NEGRO: [performing “Young, Latin & Proud”]

’Cause you are
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud

And we are
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud
We are
Young, Latin and proud

And you grow older
Knowing that you’ll
Always be this one thing
And you’ll have
This to be you

The people
Who’ll be here waiting for you
Always will be one with you
And you’ll be one with me

Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud

Tu abuela es
Young, Latin and proud
Tus tías son
Young, Latin and proud
Tu hermana es
Young, Latin and proud
Tus tíos son
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud

One day you’ll be
Old, Latin and proud
Old, Latin and proud
Old, Latin and proud

AMY GOODMAN: That’s “Young, Latin & Proud,” Roberto Carlos Lange, aka Helado Negro, which is Black Ice Cream in English. Where did you get your name?

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: I make up a bunch of different things for it. So, I like this one—I like saying this one thing. I like to tell people this. A friend of mine described my music as music from a country that doesn’t exist. And so, I kind of extended that into a food from a country that doesn’t exist. So, yeah, that’s the description.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell me about your family, where you come from.

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: My parents, they were born in Ecuador, in South America.

AMY GOODMAN: Where in Ecuador?

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: In Guayaquil. And they moved to New York, like my mom, I think, when she was like 13, and my dad when he was 16 or 17—like a lot of people do. And so, then they went to school in New York and then moved to Florida. And then I grew up in—I was born in Florida and grew up in Florida.

AMY GOODMAN: Where in Florida?

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: In Fort Lauderdale, in the area called Lauderhill.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about music and why it was so important to you. Who were your parents’ influences, and then who were yours?

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Yeah, I think, you know, it’s funny. This kind of like talks about a lot of things, in terms of music, social things, political things. Growing up, we listened to so much in Spanish, right? In South America, in Latin America, in general, there’s a lot of types of music, not just what’s on the radio, what people think is Latin music. And so that ends up being like the commercial aspect of how things get pigeonholed into like this thing. So you walk up to somebody, and you say, “Yeah, I sing in Spanish,” and everyone starts to think you’re—you know, there’s timbales and congas on stage. And this narrow perspective ends up being the thing that ends up defining a lot of people, or defining you for them.

And so, growing up in my family, you know, in Latin America, there’s so much. There’s like avant-garde composers that are making wild classical compositional music. There’s people making amazing experimental music in the '80s that was electronic. And then there's people making the things we know commercially, that are on the surface, right? And so, in my family, we were listening to a lot of like the pop stuff. My mom was listening to like a lot of pop music. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Like?

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Like Raphael, Leo Dan, like these people who are like pretty popular singers down there. And then my dad listened to like a lot of like folk, kind of like Ecuadorean folklore music. But then, at the same time, living in Miami, you’re listening to—or living in South Florida, you’re listening to a lot of like Caribbean dance music, like stuff from Cuba or Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic or anywhere, you know, even a lot of like Jamaican music, as well, because the neighborhood we lived in was Caribbean. But so there’s like a lot of dance—dancier music like that. So, that was like a big infusion. And then just growing up in the United States in the '80s, there was so much in Florida happening that I was listening to on the radio. So, for me, music was just like—it's all-encompassing. It’s everywhere and all the time.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you start singing?

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: I didn’t start singing until I was 29, until I was 30, yeah, when I made the first Helado Negro record. I had been making music for a long time, and then I just started to—I decided to start singing. And I hadn’t really sang at all.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about singing in English and Spanish?

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Yeah, it’s—that’s always been a natural thing for me. Like I grew up in a place where everyone was speaking Spanish and English. And so, it was never—you know, people ask me—people have asked me more pointed questions, where they’re like talking to me if it’s like a crossover decision or if it’s some kind of like a way of marketing myself. And it’s just that’s what it is. You know, Spanglish was very much the language spoken in where I grew up.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Tinsel Mammals, Roberto.

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Yeah, that’s—there’s a lot to talk about. But sorry if there’s too much to talk about. I perform by myself mostly. I have been—I’ve slowly—as I was touring and making music, I’ve decided to tour by myself, through electronic music, be true to the sounds that I’m making. And with that, I was always—I got a show, a giant show, in Mexico, and I got really nervous. And I was really naive. I thought I was going to be on this giant stage, and I was really going to be on the smallest stage there.

So I was trying to come up with a concept, and I was talking to my wife a lot about it. She’s a visual artist. And we decided to make these costumes, and we made them completely out of tinsel. And this was like 2014. And they ended up evolving over time.

I would get volunteers. I would reach out via like Facebook or social media outlets and try to find people who would want to perform on stage. And what I found, as I was doing this, it was pretty remarkable. So, we did something like 80 shows like this, where I got volunteers, people I had never met before, in these towns, as I was traveling doing a hundred shows, or more than 80, yeah. And people would come, and they’re like, “Yeah, I want to—I’ve always wanted to be on stage, but I have stage fright.” And so, putting this costume on created this anonymity. It gave them this like power of anonymity. And people would then feel like a whole different person.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on radio and television, so as we show this on television, describe it for our radio listeners.

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Yeah. It’s a giant, full-body costume that there’s no—you can’t really tell where the head or the arms are. You can see where the feet are. And it drapes over the whole body, and it’s completely covered in tinsel. And so, it’s kind of like this giant. It was inspired by like Cousin It and, you know—and something like, you know, some kind of like—

AMY GOODMAN: These gyrating tinsel its.

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Yeah, a tinsel it in some kind of a peaceful ghillie suit, you know? For non-nefarious—using it for positive reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: So I want to ask you about another song that you’re performing here at Democracy Now!'s studios. Rolling Stone calls your songs “gentle calls for strength and cultural confidence in the face of intensifying racial tensions.” Talk about “It's My Brown Skin.”

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Absolutely. It ends up being—a lot of the songs I sing are just songs to myself, like it’s my own therapy, dealing with my own anxiety about my own ideas and things that I’m dealing with myself, like how do I talk about this? And “It’s My Brown Skin,” it’s kind of—it’s a love song to me, to like my identity, like the things that I feel as I’m in the public, and how can I make this something where it’s not so much excluding anyone, it’s just talking about how much I can feel confident in my skin, you know, feel confident in all the things that I have to deal with in my skin, not just like in this superficial—not just in the superficial, but also in like the social, political climates, right? Like we’re—I’m touring, and I go to towns where maybe not a lot of brown people are at. And it’s something I think about immediately. And maybe not everyone does, but I think about it. And so I think about it in a way just like you would comfort your skin, you would moisturize yourself, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to “It’s My Brown Skin.”

HELADO NEGRO: [performing “It’s My Brown Skin”]

My skin glows in the dark
Shines in the light
It’s the color
That holds me tight

My brown is the shade
That’s just for me
I’m never not missing
Anything but me

’Cause I love you
And I can’t miss anything but you
And you’re stuck on me
And all this time I’m inside you

Our time together we grow
We stretch and we show
It’s tough as it goes
And it won’t rub off of you

There’s friends of similar shades
Of different ways
Who feel the same way
Don’t ever forget them

’Cause I love you
And I can’t miss anything but you
And you’re stuck on me
And all this time I’m inside you

’Cause I love you
And I can’t miss anything but you
And you’re stuck on me
And all this time I’m inside you

And it’s your brown skin
It’ll keep you safe
It’ll keep you safe
It’ll keep you safe
It’ll keep you safe
It’ll keep you safe
It’ll keep you safe
It’ll keep you safe
It’ll keep you safe
It’ll keep you safe
It’ll keep you

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Roberto Carlos Lange, aka Helado Negro, and Rafiq Bhatia, performing “It’s My Brown Skin.” Talk about your political influences, Roberto.

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: I would always travel to Ecuador a lot with my family, every year, like spend like three or four months there. And throughout that time, we would be there during elections, non-elections, when, you know, every couple of years there was a coup, and the president’s out for corruption reasons, for all types of wildly crazy reasons. And through that, I think, growing up, I was seeing that, and I was like pfff, like I was learning about like the public environment with government and through a different country. And then, as I was learning government systems in school, I think I was like, “This seems like such a sham.” Like, growing up, I was like, “This is—this doesn’t feel real, like what I’m being taught here versus like what I’m seeing.” There was always this distrust.

And I think the main reasons, I think I—I really got excited about Bernie Sanders. I’m not going to lie. And so, I think I became a little bit more aware—a lot more aware last year, because I felt this need for a lot of what was being represented on TV like through Donald Trump. And I think that helped push me more than anything. I think I had more of a social push throughout my life through my music and everything. I felt more of that than to feel politically—necessarily politically pointed, to describe myself as that. I had never really wanted to be that. But I think—in the past year, I think I’ve felt way more polarized.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it feel to be Latino under Trump? How does it feel to be Latino in the United States?

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: It’s always—you know, I answered this question a couple times, too. And I think—I’ve told people this. And I think—I think it maybe comes across the wrong way, but I do think it’s true. I think it’s same as it ever was. I think a lot of people—a lot of people with more power and more money maybe are talking about it more, so more people are hearing about it now, in a different way, in a different light, and maybe didn’t know that people were feeling this way. And so, they’re dealing with their own thing. They’re dealing with their own sense of ways to talk about all this stuff to themselves, which a lot of us—like Private Energy, like my record, and this stuff were songs from me to me, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about why you called it Private Energy. This is your 10th album?

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Something like that. Tenth release. And yeah, it was for that reason. There was this overwhelming feeling that like—what can I do? That’s what I felt. Like, what can I do all the time? What can I do to help, be helpful, be someone that’s like contributing to society and not feel crazy all the time that you’re not doing anything that’s like making it a better place for anyone else? You know, I think anyone who doesn’t feel that, I think I’m scared for them. And that’s what Private Energy meant.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go out again with “Young, Latin & Proud.” But talk about the young, Latin, proud community that you sing to around this country, and outside of the country. You sing in Mexico. You sing throughout Latin America.

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Sing in Poland.

AMY GOODMAN: What was that like?

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: It was wild. Poland was beautiful. People—you know, that’s the kind of special thing, I think, about music. And you can—it can be layered like that, where someone can fall in love with music and then, all of a sudden, learn a whole new thing about music. And I think that, for me, when you’re talking about political songs or talking about anything that has anything to do with music that resolves in this space, I think you want to be true with it, in the sense that you love the song, before you talk about anything else. Like how is this music going to be music that resonates with you first? And then these messages end up seeding themselves. And I think that’s what happens. As I’m touring and I’m hanging out with people and people are talking to me, it’s special. I can’t—I have zero responses for people when people tell me how they feel. I just listen. I think it’s really cool.

AMY GOODMAN: In the song, as we go out with it, you sing “Young, Latin & Proud,” and you say, “One day, you’ll be old, Latin and proud.”

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Yeah, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel old at 37?

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: I don’t. I don’t—I never feel old. I only feel old when I’m tired.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where are you headed? We’re getting you right before you go out on tour again.

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Yeah, we’re going to the Midwest. We’re going to Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland, St. Louis—all types of Rust Belt action, and then back on the East Coast. I’ll be in New York. Yeah, it’s going to be good.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll link to your website and to your tour. I want to thank you, Roberto Carlos Lange, for being with us, aka Helado Negro—

ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —Black Ice Cream, the acclaimed Brooklyn-based musician of Ecuadorean descent. His new album, Private Energy. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

HELADO NEGRO: [performing “Young, Latin & Proud”]

’Cause you are
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud

’Cause you woke up feeling like this
You woke up knowing that you’ll be you
For the rest of your
For the rest of your life
For the rest of your life

’Cause you are
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud

And we are
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud
Young, Latin and proud
We are
Young, Latin and proud

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