America’s Musical Journey -- a 40-minute 3-D IMAX travel documentary that bounces in and out of U.S. cities while exploring their music histories -- found the perfect host in Aloe Blacc.
The 39-year-old soul singer best known for “I Need A Dollar,” “The Man” and "Wake Me Up," his collaboration with late DJ/producer Avicii, is a thoughtful, articulate onscreen tour guide. Touring U.S. musical hubs such as New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Nashville, Miami and more, the California-born singer seems as enthusiastic about music now as when his career began some 20 years ago.
Produced in association with Brand USA, presented by Expedia, and narrated by Morgan Freeman, the MacGillivray Freeman Films documentary is currently on IMAX and giant screens in museums and science centers across the U.S. and Canada.
Blacc wrote “My Story” during the filming and also dropped a new single, “Brooklyn In The Summer,” from his forthcoming XIX Recordings/Interscope album that is expected later this year.
Billboard spoke to Blacc in Toronto — where the film America’s Musical Journey opens June 23 at the Ontario Science Centre — about his own history, his new music and the death of Avicii.
Who approached you about doing this film? Is it a tourism venture?
At first, I didn’t know what it was other than a film about music. I was approached by MacGillivray Freeman Films, who are world renowned for creating some of the most iconic IMAX experiences and they wanted to make a film about music in America. They asked me if I wanted to submit a song and maybe do an interview and, in further discussion, we decided, ‘Why don’t we create a film about the genres of America and music, and visit the cities?’ And thus began America’s Musical Journey. We got a chance to tell the story of the roots of American music by going from New Orleans to talk about jazz, and going to Memphis to talk about the blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and going to Detroit to talk about soul.
Did this experience make you more insatiable for more history?
Yeah. For me, it’s about getting deeper now, getting in touch with Dr. John, and learning about his history and how he developed in New Orleans, and Jon Batiste and then meeting Ramsey Lewis in Chicago. I’m a big fan of jazz. I sampled it unapologetically laughs] when I was making hip-hop music, and he was one of my favorite jazz musicians, but I didn’t understand the impact that he had outside of jazz. It turns out he influenced Maurice White, who ended up going on to start Earth, Wind & Fire with his brother Verdine. That, to me, was as important as just the jazz that he created, being a mentor and inspiration to a whole other group.
As I understand it, your next album is influenced by a lot of these visits?
There was a song that I created during the trip called ‘My Story’ that was inspired and influenced by the travel, meeting with gospel choirs, folk singers, and musicians, jazz, Gloria and Emilio Estefan in Miami. Those experiences are the ones that helped to inspire the song ‘My Story.’ But the next album, for sure, is going to have nuances that I would say, undoubtedly, have been inspired by traveling on this journey. Probably the key aspect of doing this trip for me was just reminding myself that music isn’t about rules. We have a lot of rules in music, and I hear them all the time from my band, ‘Oh, you can’t do that note in this chord,’ but that’s how you grow and transform by breaking the rules, disregarding whatever the rules are. I think that’s what I was reminded of by doing this journey because the folks who helped to usher in new genres didn’t follow, obviously, the past because if they did, then it would just be what it was before it; it wouldn’t be ground-breaking.
Who is this film for?
This film is for anyone who is interested in music. I think if you are a young student and interested in learning more about music, you’ll find out some of the icons that have ushered in genres or been really important in specific genres. You’ll find out about the mixture of culture and the history of how different sounds from West Africa and Europe came together.
Do you think that we’re losing our history?
I wouldn’t say young folks don’t care; I just think you don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s our jobs, my job as a musician, to help pass the baton to younger folks and say ‘This is where we’ve come from, and this is where you can take it to go where the future will lead you.’ A film like this is a nice introduction to that. Of course, there is the other piece of it that I learned as we began to do the film, that it’s in conjunction with Brand U.S.A., so we want to share with people outside of the United States that we’re still a very welcoming country — ‘Please visit these cities where you can experience music, and here’s a reason why…’ you can come to this particular city or state, visit Graceland in Memphis or Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville, Louis Armstrong’s Estate in New York, Congo Square in New Orleans.
It is true that given your leader and his policies that people, here in Canada, have consciously decided not to vacation in the U.S. until his term is over. The film ends with Armstrong’s] "What A Wonderful World" and with the kids and Statue of Liberty. Canadians are fixated on your politics and the fallout. Every week there’s a story about the treatment of black people in America. Where do you think that comes from?
Around the world, the news is going to share whatever will help them get advertising. These things happen and it’s not going to be a reason for people to be restrictive with their travel. I see it happening on the news, but it hasn’t happened to me and a lot of the people that I’m an acquaintance with. So anomalies, trends, advertising, hysteria, sensationalism.
But it still happens and shouldn’t happen, right?
Still happens and shouldn't happen. There’s always going to be something that is unfortunate. But I don’t think it’s the character of the nation. It’s definitely a mischaracterization and because of that I feel like a film like America’s Musical Journey is so important to share another story. A lot of my artistry and my artist profile is about that other story because if we were to look at hip-hop and its beginning, being the CNN of the street, and storytelling and messaging of a community that is underrepresented, to how it is presented today — being the largest genre in the world, the most streamed music now — the stories and messages are not aligned with my profile. So my job is to say, ‘Hey, wait, wait, wait, wait. Just because this is being sensationalized and magnified doesn’t mean it’s the truth. I’m completely different from what you see in this context and genre, so understand that that’s not everybody, it’s just business. This is reality.’
What are the things that didn’t make the film, as you’re out talking to people and exploring, that stand out in your mind?
Definitely, the long talk that I had with Ramsey Lewis, all of that didn’t make the film. Just two seconds.
What was it?
He told this really beautiful story about Maurice White, who was his drummer. He was a very shy young man who would tilt the cymbals as he played drums to hide his face from the audience, and Ramsey handed him a kalimba and said, ‘Do something with this in the middle of one of the songs.’ So he started playing a kalimba solo and then Ramsey said, ‘Why don’t you stand up?’ So he’d stand up behind the drum kit and do it and then, ‘Why don’t you go out to the front of the stage and do it?’ So he started getting him out to the front of the stage and it was that experience that gave him the confidence to be the frontman of his own band. He quit playing for Ramsey, moved to L.A. and started Earth, Wind & Fire with his brother. I wish that story was in.
What did you know about your own personal history? Some of us don’t even ask our parents how they met, let along about their upbringing.
I always ask my parents about what they know and how their families came to the U.S. My parents are from Panama, and their grandparents are from the Caribbean. So different islands from Jamaica to Grenada to Trinidad and they all converged in Panama for the development of the canal, where millions of people came to work. So my experience with music is full of the African diaspora. I knew that before. In this film, I don’t know if there’s anything brand new that I learned about my family.
The film also touches on the power of music.
Close to the end, there are children with autism. I think the producers wanted to share more than just the impact of the genres of music in the cities. They’re a film company that is interested in a lot of different topics. This was one they wanted to bridge the gap of how does music work on a broader level in our development and culturally and to bring in the concept of how it helps children with autism to be more communicative. I thought it was pretty interesting.
Do you think that music still has the power to change the world the way it did decades ago?
I actually really do believe that it does have the power to transform society and the thinking of the people and how we can come together. The industry is much different now, and I hope that the industry can allow music to be that powerful tool of unity and of being the common bond between people across nations and continents because I really do feel it’s a universal language. That’s the way I liked to use it, to try to create songs and messages that will bring people together.
You just released a new single, "Brooklyn In The Summer."
I haven’t been spending a lot of my career on this kind of song. A lot of my songs are inspirational, motivational, aspirational. This here is a relationship song, it’s a break-up song I co-wrote with Jay Stolar, who is an amazing songwriter from Brooklyn. It’s his story and I’m lucky enough to be able to tell it because it’s such a great track. It continues in the soulful styling that I’m used to, but it’s definitely kind of an advanced more pop-leaning track.
Is that how your album is going to be?
Well, I’m still shaping it, I’ve got a bunch of songs recorded. I don’t know if I want to have a mixture of different styles or if I want to try to keep a through line that has the same sound and feel. I’m still trying to figure it out.
Can you tell us some of the people you’ve worked with for it?
I’ve worked with a lot of talented musicians and producers. There’s a guy called Jonas Jeberg; Neil Ormandy, songwriter; DJ Khalil who I’ve worked with in the past. For the most part, it’s a real tight-knit small community of songwriters and producers. The record label suggests to work with big-name producers, but I just want people who care about the music, not the money, or the name. So I work with the folks that are close to me.
Can I ask you about Avicii and his passing, so very young? Mental health is a big conversation finally. Your thoughts?
I first have to say that Avicii was a very talented artist, and he left an indelible mark on music with what he contributed well before I met him, and definitely with the music that we created together. It’s really sad to see that he’s gone because he had so much more to offer. We had recorded four songs, and only really shared one, and I could imagine that was the same for a lot of other people he collaborated with. It’s really unfortunate and whatever the circumstances, I just wish he were still here to carry on making music and sharing with the world.
Will the other three songs get released?
I don’t know, I really don’t know, and I leave that to his family. I don’t want to push or prod.
Are they the same vibe as “Wake Me Up”?
One of them is a completely different vibe and one of them we did with Nile Rodgers and it’s kind of funkier.
To see if America’s Musical Journey is screening near you, click here.