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Growing up in South Florida shaped Helado Negro's worldview.EXPAND
Growing up in South Florida shaped Helado Negro's worldview.
Photo by Anna Groth-Shive

Helado Negro's This Is How You Smile Is an Ode to the Beauty of Brownness

On “Please Won’t Please,” the opening track from Helado Negro’s latest album, This Is How You Smile, the bilingual singer-songwriter croons, “Brown won’t go/Brown just glows.” It marks the beginning of an exploration — and celebration — of culture, ethnicity, and growing up the son of Ecuadorian parents.

Yet Roberto Carlos Lange, the man behind Helado Negro, says each and every song can be whatever the listener wants it to be. This Is How You Smile has been universally praised by nearly every major media outlet and reviewer. Lange has no clear explanation for its acclaim.

“I don’t. I really don’t," he says. "I honestly feel like that kind of thing is a crapshoot. There are things that are extremely successful that I don’t like. I never think that success is ever a testament to the quality of work. I think there is so much quality work out there. I’ve always tried my hardest to make whatever I want to make, and somehow it’s all just aligned with a lot of people.”

As for his own relationship with the LP, Lange says the quieter parts are his favorites.

“I think all the music that doesn’t have me singing on it — the instrumentals. I like to sit in public and just listen. Some people might call it a form of meditation. That’s what’s kind of breathed into the album.”

He calls those pieces “the most crucial moments” of This Is How You Smile — a truly pretty, sublimely warm record that gently balances lush production and heartfelt introspection. Lange might be too humble to praise his own voice, but on songs such as the dreamy ballad “Todo Lo Que Me Falta,” his sweetly sung words provide the perfect accompaniment to the twinkling melodies. Lange recently told Pitchfork that he wrote “12 versions” of the song and that it was “the hardest to finish.”

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Like much of his work, This Is How You Smile contains songs in English and songs in Spanish, but there is no sonic divide. Lange is skilled at creating aural landscapes where the emotional, musical sentiment is never lost in translation.

“People ask me: ‘How do you decide on writing in English or Spanish?’ And it’s kind of the same as asking, How do you decide on being brown? I think it’s in the same realm as How do you decide what color to use in this painting?” Lange believes it’s something instinctive, a natural part of the creative process. “This song is feeling like this; I don’t sit down in a strategic, architectural way.”

One aspect of the album he did plan out was its thematic structure. A major inspiration for this record was Jamaica Kincaid's short story “Girl.” Lange lifted the title of the album from a line in the story about an immigrant mother listing all the ways to be a woman to her young daughter. It’s a familiar story to many in South Florida — a place Lange says "feels like home."

“It’s nice to come back to South Florida in general, and Miami specifically, because it isn’t like any other city in the United States. It’s an amalgamation; the Latin American cultures and the Caribbean cultures — that feels like home... There’s a sense of comfort, a deeply rooted comfort.”

Miami is also perhaps one of the few places where immigrants feel relatively more comfortable and safer in America right now. Asked about his thoughts on the challenges and fears so many brown-skinned people face daily, Lange says, “I don’t necessarily have any specific message. I think the best thing I’ve come to understand now is to find people in your community that can be a resource of knowledge. There’s a higher vigilance on this kind of misinformation of ‘immigrants are taking jobs’ or whatever.

“I never experienced that, but I have met a lot of people who have. I have experienced it now through people who come to my shows, through talking to people after shows, and that’s been the hardest part. I don’t have the tools to facilitate that conversation. More than anything, I think people are appreciating the presence and the time and the moment. And if I can help, I will.”

Still, as a Latin American artist succeeding in the overtly Caucasian world of indie rock, Lange understands his unique position.

“I think that’s something I took for granted, in some respects, in Miami and South Florida, where everyone is pretty much from Latin America. Most of the people that I hung out with that were in art or music were from somewhere else, or their family was. And all the white people I grew up with spoke Spanish."

Like plenty of Latinx kids around Miami who were christened with a nickname based on a superficial feature, Lange was no different. He wrestles with the impact of that and any greater meaning people can take from such experiences.

“I think the thing here is turning certain things on their head. For me, the name 'Helado Negro' — 'Black Ice Cream' — I found it to be a term of endearment like flaca or gordo or cabezón. It is crazy how they’re acts of trying to toughen you up. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s horrible.”

Immigration, discrimination, the use of language, and, indeed, many of the difficulties that the Spanish-speaking people of America face — from within and from outsiders — are all topics Lange believes are part of one larger discussion.

“We’re at this moment where we are sending and sharing information on everything: the things we hate, the things we like, the things we don’t wanna do or say. And no one wants to have the conversation; they want everyone else to have the conversation, like just a headline," he says. "And no one wants to come to their own conclusion based on what they’ve read or understood. I think something like this is nuanced... That’s where I’m at with a lot of this. It’s fun. It’s art. And it’s about what you want it to be.”

Helado Negro. 9 p.m. Thursday, October 3, at the Ground, 34 NE 11th St., Miami. Tickets cost $10 to $25 via thegroundmiami.com.

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