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Aloe Blacc's Personal Journey Becomes A Communal One

Thomas Hawk/Flickr/Creative Commons License
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Beaver on the Beats/Flickr/Creative Commons License
Beaver on the Beats/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In the summer of 2013, Aloe Blacc's voice was inescapable. The L.A.based singer/songwriter co-wrote and provided lead vocals on "Wake Me Up," from Swedish dance music producer Avicii. The song was a party hit and a radio smash. It topped multiple Billboard charts in the U.S., as well as charts across the globe. And the earworm continued long after the season ended. At one point, it was the most played song on Spotify in the history of the streaming platform's existence. To date, it's racked up over a billion views on YouTube. "Wake Me Up," wasn't just Blacc's big break in the U.S., it was a worldwide sensation. But, this wasn't the start of his career by any stretch and the story of the song doesn't end with its success on the year-end charts. 

Blacc (real name: Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III) released his debut full-length, "Shine Through," back in 2006 on Stones Throw, the local indie label founded by DJ Peanut Butter Wolf. His first brush with success came four years later with the release of his sophomore album, "Good Things." The album contained the single, "I Need a Dollar," which was ultimately used as the theme song for the short-lived HBO series "How to Make It In America." While the song didn't hit big in the U.S., it did in the United Kingdom. With Blacc's voice sounding as if it was sampled off dusty vinyl, the throwback cut tackled a perennial theme that was particularly relevant at the time of its release. The Telegraph said the song had "the potential to be the first bona fide 21st-century recession anthem." Last year, in an interview with public radio station KPCC, Blacc noted that the song was inspired by his own layoff back in 2003. 

The son of Panamanian immigrants, Blacc grew up in Orange County and attended USC. After graduation, he told KPCC, he worked as a consultant, primarily in the hospital industry. It was only after losing his job that he turned music into a full-time gig. In a 2014 interview with Songwriter Magazine, Blacc explained that "Wake Me Up" was about how music went from being something he did on the side to his career. 

Blacc isn't just a musician. In the KPCC interview, he refers to himself as an "artivist." That's also the name of a collective for which he is a co-founder. As Artivist Entertainment, they have worked with and/or lent support to a diverse range of groups, from Boyle Heights Youth Community Orchestra to National Day Laborer Organizing Network and Peace Over Violence. 

Besides making music, Blacc has done work regarding social issues. In 2012, he traveled to Ghana with Malaria No More UK to gain a better understanding of the deadly disease and efforts to stop it. He wrote about the trip for Huffington Post. Last year, he released the song "Live My Life" for World Mosquito Day

After the success of "Wake Me Up," Blacc became an outspoken proponent of songwriter rights. He wrote about the issue of digital copyright laws and how they adversely affect songwriters for Wired in 2014. In the editorial, he pointed out how little in royalties were made off of "Wake Me Up," despite it being a mega-hit on Spotify and Pandora. He discussed the same topic on "Real Time with Bill Maher,"  and went on to advocate for songwriters to have more authority over their work in terms of who can perform it and what the value of their work is. 

Blacc released an acoustic version of "Wake Me Up" on this third album, "Lift Your Spirit," in 2014. Last year, he took that song and re-envisioned it was a part of the campaign for immigrant's rights. Working with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and director Alex Rivera, Blacc released a video for "Wake Me Up" that gives glimpses of an immigrants' rights march, a day in the life of a laborer and a desert encounter with border authorities.  A song that was originally about his own path has become a means to shed light on other people’s journeys.

Hear more about Blacc's advocacy and watch him perform on KCET's Studio A, August 22 at 10 p.m.

Top Image: Kmeron/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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