Helado Negro on code switching, Jamaica Kincaid and “our cloudy country”
Written by Ayana Contreras on March 18, 2019
South Florida native Helado Negro draws from multiple cultural threads to create genre-defying avant-electronic sounds. He is also a visual artist and recent recipient of the USArtists award.
Reclaimed Soul’s Ayana Contreras sat down with Helado Negro to discuss his latest album, This Is How You Smile, as well as some of the surprising themes behind it.
Helado Negro: I think the title [This Is How You Smile] is really relevant for me in respect to the concepts in the record. The title’s taken from that Jamaica Kincaid poem called “Girl” and that it’s about an immigrant mother, Jamaica Kincaid’s mom I’m supposing, teaching her daughter… like second generation or first generation. Being a woman as well, or being a person of color and saying like ‘this is how you smile in front of people you like’ and ‘this is how you smile in front of people you don’t like’… All these ideas of presentation in different spaces and places. And how you’re supposed to act. And the record kind of revolves around that in a lot of respects.
Ayana Contreras: Tell me about this title, though. You’re saying it came from Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl”. Where did that come up in your bag of tricks? It seems like an interesting reference point.
Helado Negro: So, last summer, I was finishing up the record… maybe early earlier in the summer, and so couldn’t really decide on the title. And Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, she had asked me to deejay this event, and it was like an event about mothers. It was at the MOMA [in New York] and it was all these different poets and writers… amazing writers. Like, I think Saeed Jones was there and more. Lots of folks were there and Jamaica Kincaid was supposed to come and read, as well. Rachel read a piece, as well. And so [I was] just sitting there listening to everybody read. And, when I was listening to Jamaica’s piece, it was read by somebody else.
When I heard that line I was like ‘pssssh‘. Everything started to resonate, all of a sudden and I started to vibrate in my mind. And I just read that poem a million times after that. It was so relatable but so easy to read… but so crazily complex…
And also in a sense like gives me a perspective on something I don’t understand. A lot of women of color have like a completely different thing that I don’t even… Didn’t even experience. So there was like a big huge portion of that where I’m like ‘oh I feel this’ and then there’s another portion like… damn.
Thinking even of my mom, all the different experiences that I know that she’s gone through.
Ayana Contreras: So let’s talk more about that. That sounds like a good entry point that ‘This Is How You Smile’ is the name of the album, and this idea of code switching. Right? Like the idea of ‘this is what you do in this situation, and this is what you do in that situation’ How do you feel like that manifests throughout the record?
Helado Negro: You know, I’ve always sang between Spanish and English and used Spanglish in a lot of respects to communicate. So, the Spanglish is kind of like in a way a second generation feeling.
Second generation, like you’re living with your folks, your grandma. People who don’t even speak English. And then, you’re kind of like hearing these mutations, in your mind these phonetic mutations that kind of like lend themselves to like English ways of describing something.
Even like thinking about my landlords in the past, a lot of my landlords in Brooklyn are from the Caribbean, and you know they’ll like lay on the heavy patois. And sometimes ‘I’m like what’d you say? I’m sorry’. Because it’ll just be quick… and then they kind of like snicker, laugh you know, and then kind of like you know, make it very, very clean, the English.
I respect that because it’s like there are these moments that you have to know that you’re like not everyone’s gonna be able to communicate the same way you do, and that’s the beautiful thing about language. It was a necessity that’s created to communicate and it has nothing to do with them. I mean grammar is something that people invented to kind of restrict and bind people into these things of control.
Because even with hip hop culture, I remember growing up listening to rap and just loving that. In respect to words being invented. And that’s a continuous thing.
Ayana Contreras: I think a lot of folks that are native English speakers they don’t know this, but English is probably the most impure languages. Meaning that it has so many to so many things that have fed it to make it what it is today. And that’s part of why it’s also one of the hardest to learn, because a lot of those rules for pronunciation of different things are not the same across the board in English. And that’s because these words came from all over the place.
Helado Negro: Yeah.
Ayana Contreras: But I think what you’re talking about this idea that you have to switch up in order to communicate with folks is such an interesting concept, and it’s something that people do all the time. And actually that is like a connective tissue to why I like your music. I mean, it’s good music…but, it’s one of those things where you can’t immediately put your finger on it of what it is.
Do you know what I’m saying?
Helado Negro: Absolutely, I don’t even know what it is. When people ask me, I’m like I don’t know.
Ayana Contreras: Yeah, I like the ‘I don’t know what it is’ because it’s coming from so many different places but then it’s like taking the music and sort of balling it up, and putting it out into something new. Making into something that isn’t any one of those things… But is all of those things kind of simultaneously. I think that… I mean you know whatever maybe like weird… but.
Helado Negro: No, not at all.
Ayana Contreras: When a musician does that, that’s really exciting to me as opposed to I’m just gonna do this record it sounds like you know James Brown or T-Rex or whatever.
Helado Negro: Right. And there’s a lot of folks who have done that in the past, where I’ve learned throughout my own music making and then you see historically the folks who have been in it have done it. Like someone who I think is a beautiful example someone that I respect a lot… I don’t know Portuguese that well. But, Caetano Veloso is like a very exceptional example of someone who like uses Portuguese and English.
I don’t know that he’s ever lived the United States and know he lived in England, but it’s still it was it’s kind of beautiful when you listen to songs how much he can like he’ll reference pop music throw in words in English referencing pop music from the United States, or England, maybe, and thread these into these phonetic feelings of Portuguese and then just kind of like make these like weaving and tapestries of the two.
And I think that’s a good example of historically, music that can do that can touch on that like kind of like code switching like ‘Hey. And this is a song in your language that someone else sung. But this is a song in Portuguese that’s a completely different song but it’s got the same feeling’ and I like that.
Ayana Contreras: I want to ask… the one I want to say is… “Pais Nublado”?
Helado Negro: “Pais Nublado”. Yeah you said it right.
Ayana Contreras: Really? Yeah! Okay. I’m proud. I just… I’m trying to loosen the back of my [throat]. My Spanish is you know… whatever.
Helado Negro: Right. And that’s a lot of people.
Ayana Contreras: Yeah.
Helado Negro: I mean that’s like most people who are from like Latin American. Part of what happens on tour is like I meet a lot of folks on the road who are of Latin American descent. Someone in their family spoke Spanish or something like that and they’re like ‘yo, my family specifically never wanted to teach me anything they wanted me to like assimilate and not have any kind of accent and be… blend in’. And part of this idea of what we’re talking about.
It’s like this kind of like ‘let’s use the Blur tool [in PhotoShop]’ and like ‘let’s blur you all in so it kind of just looks like you were in the background the whole time’.
Ayana Contreras: And, that’s the song… essentially, thematically about…
Helado Negro: “Pais Nublado” is kind of like this feeling of like being in this cloud in country but also like kind of like starting to like define and come into focus and being like, ‘OK. OK. OK. I’m still here. Knowing that we’re gonna be here long after you’ It’s a nod to that feeling of ‘OK I know who I am. I’m alright with that. You’re the person not okay with that. And I know… that this resilience and this endurance to feel good about all the things that I’m doing is gonna be here’.
Ayana Contreras: And “Nublado” is cloudy?
Helado Negro: Cloudy.
Helado Negro: So the song is “cloudy country”.
Ayana Contreras: Yeah. Because I’m… Yeah, I’m assuming that people know that they might not know. They might not know. So from that out there though it’s something else.
Ayana Contreras: This Is How You Smile is definitely one of these albums that it does a disservice to just like use a bunch of adjectives about what it sounds like, if that makes sense because it is so many things at once.
Helado Negro: I appreciate that. Anyone who makes music spends all this time making the music and it’s kind of like the time we spent articulating all these things in the music, and then to ask us ‘what did you mean by that?’ It’s kind of like damn that’s… It almost feels you’ve failed explaining it through the music.
Ayana Contreras: So this is a weird question. OK. You know how people pair wines [with food]?
Helado Negro: Right.
Ayana Contreras: OK. What activity do you see people. I mean they could do whatever with this album but I mean what do you see people doing listening to this album.
Helado Negro: Damn…. I can tell you what I was doing and that might be better because I don’t know what people do. [laughs] Everybody does somethin different.
After I would finish mixing. I would actually put it on headphones, and walk 15 or 20 minutes to the bus. It was like at midnight or 1, and be like the only one riding on the bus back home and it would be another like 25 minute ride home from the studio. And that’s what I would do, just be on the bus and just to see people get on and off at night. It was great.
Ayana Contreras: And it sounded right.
Helado Negro: It was just like I was in my own world and I would catch the outside world, and just look outside the window and it was really… It was interesting. It was nice.
Ayana Contreras: Was there anything in particular that you were listening to when you made [This Is How You Smile]?
Helado Negro: There’s a record that I fell in love with a few years ago and it’s by musician his name is Beverly Glenn-Copeland. And the record is called Keyboard Fantasies.
But there’s a song on there that I feel like spoke to me a lot during this time. And it’s called “Sunset Village” and it’s one of those like albums that was quote-unquote ‘rediscovered’.
He has a jazz background, and then put out this DX-7 and drum machine record in the 80s, and then somebody, you know somebody found this and then it was like…
Ayana Contreras: Yeah.
Helado Negro: I’ma put this out but then I’m glad that they put up because it’s gentle and warm and beautiful and you can feel a lot. I recommend that record to anyone who wants to just get their mind right.
Ayana Contreras: I think that’s so interesting. Prescription through music. I mean it’s something that we do but I know that we necessarily think about it. They’re like we’re basically like medicating ourselves. Like the wine pairing… it’s different for different people but sometimes some music is just so perfect to do, you know, X, Y or Z.
Like, right now, I really want to hear some Bread. Like, it’s so specific…
Helado Negro: Yeah.
Ayana Contreras: I heard like a 30 second snippet. I was like in the middle of doing something. And I’m like, ‘Oh my God I need that in my life’.
Helado Negro: I was just texting the owner of the label Revenge, who releases my music, I was just texting with him and I was like ‘Yo. What are you listening to today?’ And he’s like ‘Oh man. Scandal. “The Warrior”‘.
Ayana Contreras: Oh…
Helado Negro: And, then we’re just like talking about how like that period of time how people are like mad into like warriors, gladiators, and barbarians. And just that feeling of like, OK that’s what was happening.
Ayana Contreras: You know, it’s true…
Helado Negro: What’s up with that?
Ayana Contreras: What IS up with that?