A phone call from a sister he hadn’t known existed was the spark of a personal and musical evolution for Philly hip-hop performer Alexander Charles. His ambitious new album, Fortune Cookies, blends fluid beats with heartfelt words and is enriched by his embrace of a newfound sibling, as well as their Asian ancestry. He hadn’t known about that either, although as a kid he sometimes got teased about his looks.
“I really wanted to shine a light on something that happened to me, something a lot of people go through: trying to figure out what your identity is, who you are, what your purpose is,” said Charles, who began making and recording music while a New Hope-Solebury High School sophomore in 2005. “A lot of people wonder where they’re headed. If the album speaks to some of them, then I’m doing my job.”
A Temple grad who’s 30 and lives in a loft space/recording studio with longtime musical collaborator Bij Lincs, Charles grew up in Bucks County. His parents, Chuck and Petra Azar, an electrical engineer and an artist, respectively, adopted their son shortly after his Miami birth. They didn‘t know the identity of his biological parents.
“I realize fortune cookies aren’t traditionally Chinese,” said Charles. “But I’m not a traditional Chinese creation.”
He had on a Neil Young T-shirt and a trucker hat featuring the Fortune Cookies logo as he sat for an interview on a bench at Sunflower Hill, the funky and fun public space on North 5th Street where North Philly, Northern Liberties, and Kensington intersect. “My biological father was Jewish, and my biological mother is Chinese and Hawaiian,” he said.
Even behind a mask and at a social distance, Charles was accessible, and disarmingly open. Like his lyrics:
I’m hoping you didn’t notice my ego big as a buddha/this chip on my shoulder growing, it’s hard for me to maneuver/I’m losing all my composure, I needed to hear your name/I cried when I heard your voice, our speech is even the same/
“The first time we spoke it was a long conversation, and I just remember feeling a real mutual excitement. We were both really happy to be speaking to each other,” said Charles. “She’s come to my home in Philadelphia, and I went up to see her in New York. We’ve hung out several times, and when we hang out, we’re always happy.”
It turns out their uncle is the shoe designer Steve Madden, and Charles also is a designer, with a line of T-shirts, hoodies, and other merchandise, including some with a Fortune Cookies theme. But supply chains for the merch, like the release of the album itself, were disrupted by the pandemic. Fortune Cookies finally dropped in July, arriving amid the nation’s long-overdue reckoning with race and racism. A similar struggle informs songs on Fortune Cookies.
Discovering his heritage “answered a lot of questions for me,” Charles said. “When I was a kid I got called ’Kung Fu’ and ’Jackie Chan.’ I was growing up and I wondered, ‘Where do I fit into this collage of people?’ But when I saw my sister’s face, I had this moment of clarity.”
From her home in Upstate New York, Madden said she has become familiar with all of her brother’s music and was “really privileged and honored to watch the new album unfold...I’m so proud of him.”
Madden also said she and Charles “have made art through this unique and pretty miraculous” discovery of their kinship; she revised the final chapter of her memoir to include finding her brother. “Now Alex is the ending,” said Madden.
Charles’ close friend, Philly rapper Asher Roth, said identity and searching are “at the heart of an artist’s journey.” Connecting with Madden enabled Charles “to return home and begin again.”
Indeed, not only the songwriting but the creative direction of the album, including the cover photograph and other materials, were impacted by connecting with his sister. Working with Philly DJ and content strategist Marissa Le, “a big priority of mine was to visually illustrate the duality of finding out I’m Chinese American,” Charles said.
“This is who I am, mixed with who I was.”
Growing up amid what he acknowledges as white privilege, Charles played baseball and football (”I wasn’t big, but I was quick”) and was “the album review guy” for his high school newspaper. He idolized the era’s rappers, such as Jay-Z, and was consumed with writing and rapping his words over beats he traded with producers via AOL Messenger. A block of recording studio time — a gift from his mother — yielded a seven-song CD he titled Mahatma.
“For Gandhi,” Charles said. “I was trying to be a young revolutionary.”
Charles was a Temple journalism major when he, Lincs, and friend Malcolm McDowell, a poet and rapper, launched a collaboration that became Ground Up. This hip-hop trio debuted as a live act in a basement at 17th and Montgomery in 2008, got a record deal, and went on to build a devoted following on college campuses.
After eight years of music-making and touring, they called it quits, amicably, in 2016. Six months later, Charles was signed by a major label as a solo artist.
“But the guy who signed me left the label two months later, and suddenly I was this stepchild and people weren’t taking my calls,” Charles said. “It was a real harsh learning experience with sharks in the deep water on the corporate side of music. It shattered the confidence I had built with Ground Up.”
Eventually, he and Lincs started a project called 52 Weeks and released new, minute-long songs and videos weekly for a year. They’d made several other songs on what became Fortune Cookies when Charles got the phone call from his sister in late 2018.
“It kind of just changed our whole route, and the writing process changed,” said Lincs, who as Fortune Cookies’ producer and primary instrumentalist has provided a melodic, sleek-but-not-slick setting for Charles’ deftly spoken words. Lincs co-stars with Charles in a video — an exuberant chunk of eye candy shot in Cape May — for “These Days,” the first single.
“The inspiration for Fortune Cookies came at the right time. It was intense,” said Lincs.
“I’m thrilled with the new album,” said Charles’ mother, Petra Azar, 77, whose music of choice is Brazilian or classical.
Her husband, Chuck, is 85 and a rock fan. But he, too, appreciates their son’s work in hip-hop. “There’s a lot more music on this album,” he said. “It’s a step beyond.”
For Charles, it’s important to acknowledge that the art form and cultural force that is hip-hop was born Black. Which he wasn’t.
“Anybody who’s in hip-hop to say we haven’t been inspired by, and to take it a step further, taken things from Black artists, would be absurd,” Charles said. “And with it comes a greater responsibility.”