Not everyone peaks when they’re young. Roberto Carlos Lange has been making music for over a decade, and yet it’s only now, as he crossed into his 40s, that the singer, songwriter, producer, and artist finds a voice that can’t be shaken, this time under his Helado Negro moniker.
Lange is the son of Ecuadorian immigrants, and his music, especially in the last few years, has begun to find empowerment within that. Though his adventures in music extend beyond his own work—he collaborated with Julianna Barwick, mixed Bear in Heaven’s Beast Rest Forth Mouth, and produced Prefuse 73’s Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian—it’s his ability to turn visuals into sounds that showcases his talents. Born in South Florida in 1980, Helado Negro draws on tropical heat to amplify his music. Humidity and vibrant Latin American colors appear through percussion and wavering synth. It’s hard to miss. Last year’s brilliant “Young, Latin and Proud” saw him standing tall within that, but it’s his 2016 LP Private Energy that sees him inhale with a full breadth of power and influence.
Single “It’s My Brown Skin” is a proclamation that helps a range of listeners, a rally cry that doesn’t shed its intimacy in exchange for boldness. When he was writing it, Lange kept thinking about children, about the unfiltered opinions of social media and the struggles to live in a world where finding your voice is overwhelming.
“I wondered what this would mean to me as a child and how I would respond, even if I didn’t have the right understanding of it,” he says. “I wanted to make something that could be very specific to a lot of people who feel discomfort or attacked or judged for being brown. It may be harder for people to be brown in the US, from reading the news to understanding what’s going on in the Middle East. There’s associations in the media and assumptions that ruin things. How many times do you read a month that someone freaked out about a Muslim person on a plane? This person is brown, and just because they have a piece of cloth wrapped around somewhere, someone else is freaking out. That’s crazy and unfair. It’s about that, my own personal experiences of being brown, and how you gain a sensitivity to subtleties of racist talk—how people are able to be very flowery with words in belittling others. You don’t pick up on that until you’re older. I don’t want kids to be burdened by that.”
One of Helado Negro’s greatest influences is Fred Rogers, who he grew up watching on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. As cheesy as it sounds, his respect for the television host is authentic, a type of personal reading that sheds light on both his importance and his influence, at the very least within his music alone. “He advocates for children’s education and humanity at large,” he explains. “It’s moving that someone was so sincere and gentle and honest. Within all his softness—it seems like he wasn’t the strongest dude—is this ability to disarm viewers, to get powerful people to become specific on his own terms.”
When Americans talk about people of color, it’s almost always in regards to those who are black or African-American. There’s a casual disregard of other prevalent races: Hispanics, Asians, Indians. It can feel like they get lost in the mix and, as victims, must deal with their own racist attacks without the widespread support of a nation. This song opens another form of communication for a community that may feel like, while of course they’re advocating behind others and acting as allies, they have a need for their own respect. “The word black has such a rich history for the civil rights movement and the ownership African-Americans take with it,” says Lange. “We’re all brown. I use it as an inclusive term, to include that history as well as other races.”
Onstage, he extends that inclusivity by bringing Tinsel Mammals. He started making the outfits in 2014 as a practical way to work through staging, aesthetics, movements, and how to complement his live shows. As it’s developed over the past two years, they have transformed into something else, something that’s an integral part of the music. A lot of the music is about movement. Genderless, sexless, ageless creatures that glitter and sway fluidly exercise that theme with remarkable precision.
That creativity speaks to Helado Negro’s influence at large. Lange didn’t begin singing until the age of 28. Compared to most musicians, it’s a late age to start, but he defies stereotypes, proving it’s possible to change your path in life whenever you want to so long as you have the will to do it.
“I was lucky to have [my music life] come together as it has,” he says, reflecting beyond his late 20s. “It was unexpected to make this somewhat of a career. I have a friend who is 60 that just started singing, and it’s really cool. She sings for those in hospice care. She started a choral group. She loves it, and it allows her to learn about her voice, but it creates a deeper learning, and in turn she feels satisfaction from that. If music does whatever it does for you, then fulfill that void of expression. It’s never too late.”