Aloe Blacc is very calm. He’s in the backseat of a grey Porsche Macan at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport parking bay waiting to enter the city. Fresh off an 18-hour flight alongside his tour manager, Farmer Greif, he’d coolly wheeled his luggage into arrivals, boisterously greeted the old friend at hand to receive him as if there weren’t flashing lights and roving cameras capturing his every move.
These same cameras would follow his tall, trim figure to meetings with high-ranking officials, media interviews, on a game drive and track him as he performed before thousands. All through, Aloe cultivated that characteristic aura of stillness.
Never seeming fazed or caught flat-footed, Aloe was indeed The Man. For instance, when a journalist asks why his videos are so elaborate, he dug deep. He went through four different songs explaining the thought process and intentions behind each one.
Born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III, this Californian-based musician took on the stage name Aloe Blacc to match his smooth style. He may be an unabashed soul singer now, but Aloe started off as a rapper. At age 9 he wrote his first rhymes—words Aloe can still spit on cue—before releasing his first mixtape in 1996 as part of Hip-Hop group, Emanon (“no name” spelled backwards). Aloe was a conscious lyricist and achieved success as an indie rapper but the industry grew increasingly toxic during his first decade in the business.
Opting to pursue music of a different style and persuasion, Aloe released debut solo album “Shine Through” in 2006. The LP’s soul/RnB leanings and thoughtful lyrics began to loudly echo those of his new role models: Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. This gave way to 2010 sophomore release, “Good Things” then “Lift Your Spirits” in 2013.
Over the years these albums and various collaborations have spawned smash hits including “I Need a Dollar”, “The Man” and “Wake Me Up”, songs that grew Aloe’s popularity across the globe enough to make the American board a plane to sing before a Kenyan audience.
And not just that, for his first concert in Africa, Aloe Blacc was fully backed by a Kenyan band. Musicians Joe Were, Chris Bittok, Christine Kamau, Kato Change, Sedar Malaki and Richard Wandati plus background vocalists Joan Sarah, Grace Wachira and Janet Nyakhayo spent weeks rehearsing Aloe’s 75-minute set.
“I enjoyed working with the band. I like working with new musicians, even when the songs are familiar. The chemistry and artistry is always unique and keeps life interesting,” Aloe says.
That was evident from how happy Aloe was onstage. “That's the joy of performing. The stage allows you to express things that don't have the opportunity to share in everyday life, and allows you to explore new parts of your personality.”
And as for the Blankets & Wine crowd? “It’s easy to be energetic when in front of a lot of excited people. The fans in Nairobi were very friendly and willing to participate in the performance, and not just watch. A concert should be a mutual experience, not just a one-way delivery of music.” Everyone had so much fun, the crowd broke into a Soul Train and Aloe went well over his set time to perform three encores that including a silky, bluesy version of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.
Images courtesy of Boniface Mwangi.
Don’t miss the next edition of Blankets & Wine on July 10th at Ngong Racecourse.