Judging solely by the title of his new release, one might assume Equis "X" Alfonso knew what was in store for 2020.
"Inside is not an album," the Cuban singer clarifies by phone from Portugal. "It's a great project that is accompanied by audiovisual graphics depicting experiences that happen in life, and I think this 18-song album is something different than what people are used to."
Having thrown the constraints of the album format out the metaphorical window, X Alfonso, who took an eight-year hiatus from releasing new music, has been putting Inside out track by track. Last September, Inside Vol. I kicked off with "Cambio"; the ninth and final track, "Solo es Tiempo de Dar Amor," arrived in June. Owing to the staggered release, patient fans had to wait nine months to fully listen to the album's first volume of songs.
The album's second half, Inside Vol. II, follows the same once-a-month release schedule. The first track, "Algo No Está Bien," dropped on July 3 and featured the mesh of Afro-Cuban and contemporary sounds and electronic and rock-style beats that have come to characterize X Alfonso's style and inspired comparisons to artists such as Lenny Kravitz. X Alfonso's prior work has earned numerous Latin Grammy nominations and a Premio Goya (Spain's equivalent to the Oscars) for Best Orginal Music for the 2005 film Habana Blues.
X Alfonso, who was born and reared in Havana, says his parents were artistic and always made sure he was surrounded by music. Though his creative spark first manifested itself when he was seven years old, his teenage years, when he began experimenting with instruments and creating music, catalyzed the artist X Alfonso would become. Throughout his 30-year career, he has used his music to highlight Cubans and Cuban culture, both of which often serve as the protagonists in his audio and visual work.
After the release of his 2011 album, Reverse, X Alfonso took time off focus on a new project, Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a studio where artists from the island are invited to explore their talents. Last year, Time magazine dubbed the project, which opened in 2014, one of the "World's Greatest Places."
"In Fábrica de Arte Cubano, we have created projects that have been seen around the world," X Alfonso tells New Times. "The most important part to me is the work we do with the children. We have more than 1,500 kids that join us in June, July, and August to take more than 34 specialized courses in the arts, and many of them stay throughout the year to learn more about each subject."
According to X Alfonso, slowing his musical output to focus on the studio gave him time to reflect on what's most important to him.
"I was doing other things. I was filming, doing photography, and directing Fábrica de Arte Cubano," he says. "It was a time to rest, because sometimes we don't realize that we fall into this system of working nonstop and not taking time to enjoy life as well."
With the studio on hiatus owing to the pandemic, X Alfonso is devoting all that energy to Inside Vol. II. Although he's had to shift the production for some of his music videos, he's been able to dig into the vast archives of moving and still images he has assembled over the years, using them to create the album's visual representations.
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"Artists have a huge responsibility with their roots, their people, and the world," he says — and he isn't shy about expressing those manifestations for better or worse, even in Havana, where he lives.
As an Afro-Latino, the racial tensions in the United States and Black Lives Matter movement's current impetus are also on his mind.
Those topics find voice on Inside Vol. I, on tracks like "Reflexión" and "Es Tiempo de Dar Amor." But despite their timeliness, X Alfonso notes that both tracks were conceived well before George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis.
"What is happening in the United States is something very deep that has already been happening for years," he says. "It's amazing that in the 21st Century these things are still happening. Serious measures need to be taken and very quickly. This can't continue."