If you could learn one thing about Aloe Blacc, learn that he's great at what he does -- music.
On first listen, "I Need A Dollar" is instantly catchy, so it's no surprise the song keeps popping up in video games, on TV and of course the airwaves (just hit #1 in the U.K.).
If you could learn a second thing about Aloe Blacc, learn that he's got an agenda.
Maybe this all somehow pertains to the subject that we vaguely describe as consciousness, but I'm convinced that the music a songwriter creates is parallel to his or her overall level of awareness. Artists who write really great, timeless songs, more often than not seem to have a rather acute understanding of what's going on in the world. They're in touch.
"I Need A Dollar" is a standout not just because it's an obvious hit, but rather because both sonically and thematically, it has a soul.
After meeting Aloe at his last L.A. show at the Music Box and learning about his ultimate M.O., I gained a little reaffirmation of the theory.
Brandon Deroche: Besides the name of your band, what is The Grand Scheme?
Aloe Blacc: The Grand Scheme is a concept, but hopefully more than just a concept -- I'm going to try and put it into action.
It's the idea that we can create happiness and influence society in a positive way with music. With music being the vehicle, and then of course the message in the music, the music itself, and the bi-products of the music. Whether it's the income that I make, or the visibility that I get, using all of that in ways that other artists have done to create positive change in the world.
Someone like, I say it quite often, but George Clooney. He's a really good example because he is a luminary in the world of art, but also in the world of philanthropy, and he's not just putting money into the system, he's actually doing things. He's out speaking, he is being personally involved and invested, in particular the cause for Darfur, but in whatever causes he takes up.
This is what the Grand Scheme is about.
It's about finding ways to really help the folks that need help and to make the changes that are necessary. The change that I feel is necessary is maybe not distributing the wealth evenly, but equalizing the starting block. So it's not about leveling the playing field because that doesn't make sense, that's not natural. But what makes sense to me is at least equalizing the starting block. We all have the bare essentials -- adequate health care, adequate food, adequate shelter and adequate education. Simple.
BD: So giving everyone the same tools.
AB: The very same basic tools, yes. Until everybody has that, The Grand Scheme will still have a cause.
BD: What drives this for you?
AB: For me, it's a little bit of the puzzle and the game of figuring that I can do something, and then trying to do it. And knowing what's right.
BD: Do you feel a sense of urgency?
AB: The urgency for me is to hurry up and become visible enough to either influence or shame other artists or corporations into understanding that there needs to be an equal starting block. You can't rush to make the changes.
The rush that I have is to change the mindset of the people who can actually influence the situation. Those are the folks with resources, you know?
You go to a restaurant, you sit and look around and people throw away probably a quarter, to half the food they order.
Why is it that we have all the resources and we squander them when other people can really be using what we have? How can we get to a point where everybody is conscious of the resources that they have, the resources that they use and how they can contribute to others who don't have ... and need?
BD: So it's knowing that there's enough to go around.
AB: Yeah and figuring out how to get it around. If it's possible at all.
The urgency really isn't about making that change immediately because it's going to take generations to really change mindsets in developed countries and in under-developed countries ... and not all under-developed countries need to develop. Maybe they need to stay under-developed or natural, but they just need to learn and be re-given the tools to understand how to use the land that they live on.
BD: You've defined your cause broadly as happiness. Is there anything more specific that you've been involved with or have interest in?
AB: Well... there's a youth detention center in Sylmar, and there's this real big problem about the industrialization of prisons, basically.
If you look over the past 2 decades, the amount of prisons that have been built in the United States, I think especially in the past couple of years, has grown really fast compared to earlier history. And I would imagine that from now to the next 5 years, prisons will grow faster than schools. I would also imagine that schools will probably decline. There will be fewer schools and more prisons.
It just seems like a wholesale switch. Like we're just switching education for prisons. Prisons cost more to run than schools, it just doesn't make sense. It really doesn't make sense to me.
So this is something I think about, and I went to Sylmar particularly because I wanted to see these kids -- young kids like 7-year-old kids, up to 18-year-olds, who are behind bars.
How could you be behind bars if you're 7 years old? Like, what do you really know? What do you really know at 7 years old, and whatever you've done that got you behind bars, was it really your fault and are you really a damaged human being?
It just doesn't make any sense. Because most prisoners, ex-cons or whatever will tell you there's no rehabilitation going on and there's a lot of education going on, and the education is on how to be a smarter, better criminal.
BD: I've also heard you talk about responsible consumerism. Was there a certain product that turned you on to this?
AB: No, I dont think there was a product. I think it's just a matter of not needing things. I just haven't been a needy person. I get the things that I need, I don't get the things that I want, necessarily.
We live in an era of consumerism and it's all about desire-based consumerism and it has nothing to do with things we actually need.
What do you actually need? Food, clothing and shelter. Everything else is entertainment.
It's just the idea that we're so wasteful. I think a lot of self-identity and inner-personal development is hampered by consumerism and capitalism because we see ourselves as a reflection of the TV, rather than as a reflection of the people who are around us, truly.
The reason why I really care ... There is a product, actually.
My favorite website is Ted.com, next to the Huffington Post, obviously. I love learning and I love finding things out, but some of the things are depressing, and they really do push me to do things politically and socially with my music and my visibility.
I don't know the name of it, but there's a mineral that is being mined. There's a lot of it in Australia (my wife is Australian and she says that Australia's making a killing off of it), but it's also in parts of Africa. You're probably likely to find this mineral in war torn areas, and the reason why the areas are war torn is because there are entities who want borders to be in question.
When borders are in question, those who come to the land to extract minerals don't know who to pay for their extraction and their business. Furthermore, those who come to the land to extract the minerals, if they are rich enough to fund this confusion by donating guns and bullets, that's more power to them because now they've got a conflict.
Whoever the middlemen are, are paying warlords to clear villages so that they can mine for a mineral, or whoever the middlemen are, are funding warlords and manufacturing wars ... like the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda fighting over minute differences in skin color and nose size.
Sounds ridiculous to me, sounds completely ridiculous. It's silly.
I mean, I know there's tribal warfare in Africa, but that's just silly. My wife told me that in Libya there's confusion because nobody knows where America stands. People in the street are holding up bullet shell casings that say "Made In America." This is a problem.
If America, and maybe not purposefully, and maybe not from the government, is supporting the killing of freedom fighters by selling weapons to Gadaffis forces ... I don't know if they're old bullets, new bullets, I don't know where they came from, but they say "Made In America" and it makes a huge statement.
So anyway, get back to, let's say, the Congo.
If these conflicts are going on, the minerals are being extracted. There's this middleman. Nobody knows who this middle man is who sells his minerals to another middle man, who processes them and sells them to another middle man, who then creates a product that we end up buying in the store.
From what I understand, this particular mineral, I wish I knew the name, is so expensive. It's more expensive than anything else in the world because it's used in every piece of technology that we have -- cell phones, televisions, computers.
If there's blood in the products that we buy, we should know about it.
It's just like the child labor situation that we were so up in arms about in the Nike production. It goes beyond that. It goes beyond blood diamonds. Not everybody can afford a diamond, but a lot of people have cell phones.
Do you know that there's blood in your cell phone? And what are you willing to do about it?
Note: After hearing this I paused the interview to tell Aloe the mineral I believe he's referring to is called Coltan, and informed him about Falling Whistles (an organization working to combat the exact situation he was describing), followed by a rant of how I've essentially been on the same mission.
AB: I could talk for days, but I don't want to talk anymore. I just want to be effective. I want to figure out a way to really be effective to get people to turn.
BD: Do you speak about this with other musicians?
AB: Of course with my band. I haven't been around a lot of other musicians just because I've been touring by myself. My opening act is my drummer's band. He's like-minded, and I know that the more than I can do, if I can build this team around me of musicians ... all of my band members will have off-shoots, and if we're all spreading the word then hopefully it just multiplies.
BD: Have other musicians throughout history influenced you in this way?
AB: A lot of them.
I think the first one was Sam Cooke "A Change is Gonna Come," Ella Fitzgerald "Strange Fruit," Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," Cat Stevens "Where The Children Play," Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," Nena "99 Red Balloons," I mean ... the list goes on.
There are a lot of songs that are popular but political, and I like that. I like that there were folks in the past that have given me the idea. Even Mozart with "The Magic Flute." There's shit out there that was saying something.
"Spoon Full of Sugar," Mary Poppin's joint. That whole play is politics, you know? And when you're a kid you don't know it, and I don't even know how many kids grow up to be adults that recognize it.
I want to be able to do it in ways that entertain, and educate or inform, or at least just create peace -- a peaceful mind-state. I think Bob Marley was the best at it because his music just gives you peace.
BD: Do you feel that we're a closer world now or in the '60s?
AB: I'm pretty sure it's now because of the interconnectedness of the Internet. The Internet helps break down so many barriers. People start to see what's happening around the world, they feel more of a oneness and they get information all at the same time, so that helps.
BD: Do you get the feeling that as a society we're on the brink of something?
AB: I really do. I look around and see people my age and I don't see many ill-willed, racist, misogynistic people, but they're probably out there. Maybe I'm just in a silo of artists.
I think by the next generation either we'll have a lot of idiots who are just completely immersed in media and corporatized information, or we'll have people who enjoy media and corporatized information, but are more interconnected with human beings around the world ... And who share common goals and are willing to accept that they are a global citizen. I think the latter is more the direction.
BD: Let's close on this -- If you had to pick one social action you could encourage all your friends, family and fans to do, what would it be?
AB: It would be to teach a child.
I say it at some of my shows, I don't say it all the time, but I say put together a CD of 10 songs that you find are the most beautiful songs that you ever heard and give that to a young child.
One, to educate them about good music, but two, because that kind of relationship helps build a bond. When you share music with somebody, that then becomes your link to them. Music is what connects a lot of us, over borders.
This is what has me going around the world to people who don't even speak English, and I'm speaking all in English, so... teach a child cause that is the future, that is it. You gotta teach a child. If every person could do that, teach them what is good about the world, and sometimes you can do that with music, let that be the first step.
BD: Anything you want to add?
AB: Just love and Happiness.
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