In the mid-aughts, Aloe Blacc was laid off from his job as a strategy consultant for hospitals and health care corporations. It was an upsetting setback, but it caused him to gamble on his music - which pairs uplifting lyrics with funk, soul, hip-hop and Motown sounds. In 2006 he signed with venerated local label Stones Throw Records.
Of course, it's hard to survive on an independent record deal, but his star kept rising. His 2010 recession-era single "I Need a Dollar" became the theme song for HBO's How to Make It in America and sold a million copies.
Blacc next was snagged by American Idol creator Simon Fuller's management company and scored the gig of his career: co-writing and singing vocals for Swedish DJ Avicii's mega-hit 2013 "Wake Me Up," which sounds like something you might hear at a cowboy rave. It peaked at No. 1 in more than 20 countries, advancing his career in myriad ways.
He won a role in the upcoming James Brown biopic Get On Up - as Brown's guitarist - and his own major-label debut album, Lift Your Spirit, peaked at No. 4 earlier this year. Tracks from Lift Your Spirit were featured in commercials for Lincoln cars (during the Grammys) and Beats Music (during the Super Bowl). You also might remember Ellen DeGeneres dancing to his track "Can You Do This."
Blacc, who was born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III, has reservations about this corporate fame: "It makes me look like the guy who's going out and putting my face next to all these brands," he says. But it's all part of his master plan: to create positive social change. "How can I do that best? Taking every opportunity to let my voice be heard, no matter who's paying for it."
The 35-year-old Blacc was raised in suburban Laguna Hills, the middle child of Panamanian parents. They grew up poor, but his father achieved the rank of major in the U.S. Marine Corps and his mother was a judicial assistant. After discovering hip-hop in high school, Blacc dubbed himself Aloe to suggest his smooth rapping skills, and Blacc to symbolize his relationship to the African diaspora.
In 1995 he paired with DJ Exile to form Emanon, a hip hop group with whom he still makes music. Blacc met his wife, Mexican-born rapper and former Australian television host Maya Jupiter, in 2006, when she interviewed him for her TV show in Melbourne. They live in Glendale with their 10-month-old daughter.
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But though his star is currently in orbit, the USC grad with a degree in psycholinguistics spends much of his time on social activism. He and Jupiter have partnered with Chicano rock band Quetzal to host bilingual workshops and educational events in East L.A., and he's also looking to help foster community-oriented artists.
"I didn't expect to be doing it from this angle," he says. "But I have a talent, and music became the tool that I use to engage my mission."