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Bardo finds musical inspiration in world travel

With a collaboration with Disney under his belt, the Chicago artist is mixing hip-hop, R&B and Latin influences to make music that feels good

A plethora of passport stamps ranging from Brazil, England, France, Italy, Japan, Spain and Venezuela (to name a few) document what has been a colorful ride to this point for 30-year-old Chicago rapper Bardo.

“Living abroad growing up did wonders for me in terms of being able to approach music from different angles,” Bardo said.

That worldview made Bardo, who uses his last name as his stage name, an ideal artist to re-create the classic song “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” for Disney’s Reimagine Tomorrow initiative. The original, written in 1964 by Richard and Robert Sherman and performed by Rex Allen, was the theme song to two famous Disney attractions, the Carousel of Progress at Magic Kingdom and Innoventions at Disneyland.

“What struck me most about Bardo and why we chose him, was beyond just his talent,” said Abby Allen, founder of Neon Butterfly, a brand strategy and marketing firm that helped Disney launch Reimagine Tomorrow. “It was his heart and genuine passion for using his music and life experience to bring people together. From his use of both English and Spanish in his songs to the infusion of different lyrical styles, influenced by his travels and life abroad, you can feel his empathy and care for humanity in all he does.”

Added Bardo, “I’ve had the type of global exposure that allows me to weave different cultural elements and languages in and out to make my music more interesting and feel more fresh. That’s what I did with this project.”

Originally from Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side, Bardo grew up in an environment filled with music. At an early age, he recalls his parents exposing him to various ’90s hip-hop and R&B artists, many of whom he still listens to and draws inspiration from.

“You know, my parents were relatively young when I was born,” Bardo said. “So they were playing a lot of hip-hop. I was growing up on groups like A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots and Tha Dogg Pound. When I hear them now, The Roots take me back to being 7 years old, sitting in the kitchen of my family’s apartment in Tokyo, looking out of the window at the casino across the street with the huge neon lights. And Jill Scott and Erykah Badu’s music puts me back on my bike, riding past all of the older people washing laundry in Kawasaki, Japan. [Even now] I hear certain Erykah Badu songs and they just sound like they’re talking to me or something, you know?”

Bardo first started experimenting with making his own music when he was 12, incessantly writing lyrics to test his rhyming skills. In high school, he said, he spent hours freestyling for friends and arranging music. At the same time, he was also traveling the world with his family and experimenting with languages (Spanish in particular) as his father Stephen Bardo pursued a career in basketball. Stephen Bardo, now a sports broadcaster and college basketball analyst with Fox Sports and the Big Ten Network, was a four-year starting point guard at the University of Illinois from 1986 to 1990, including the Fighting Illini team that made a trip to the Final Four in ’89. After leaving Illinois, Stephen Bardo got married, started a family and went on to have a 10-year professional basketball career, with short NBA stops with the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Detroit Pistons. In between, he also played for clubs overseas, with young Bardo and the rest of the family in tow.

“My dad played basketball all over the place,” Bardo said. “The main places that I remember living were Italy, Spain and Japan. Japan specifically just kinda gave me this somewhat defiant mindset at times that was basically just like, ‘I see that there’s a whole other way to do things besides here in America.’ I saw that people lived a completely different way of life, listened to different music and it works for them. I was drawn to that.”

Like his dad, Bardo also played basketball in high school before enrolling at Illinois. “I was kind of trying to hoop in college,” he said. “But after being abroad so much, I wanted to have the big college experience and I ended up just doing that [instead of basketball] and being a regular student. Illinois was dope, though. Then I transferred to Southern Illinois for a year. Still, music was always there.”

While in college, he continued to write music and study Spanish, later adding Portuguese language classes to his studies, which further piqued his interest in Hispanic history and culture.

“I love studying languages. I love studying history,” he said. “Even before we got on this call, I was kind of listening to a Brazilian radio station via this app on my phone. Even when I’m here [in the U.S.] I’m still abroad. I’ve always had a ton of love for Brazil because I have Cape Verdean and Portuguese blood on my mom’s side, and obviously those countries share a ton of culture via the language, which was a big motivation for me to study Portuguese in college.”

Bardo began making his own music in 2009 when he and childhood friend Antonio Robles-Levine formed the group Allied Forces. Like Drake, Bardo uses his smooth baritone voice to both sing and rap in melodic tones throughout his music. In 2011, he released his first mixtape, Out of Body. The following year, he released his second project, Game Tape. After those releases, he then started to look beyond hip-hop and began studying and experimenting with classic soul, funk, reggae, blues, neo-soul and Latin music, adding those sounds to his 2017 album, Gringo.

“I went back to albums that my parents loved when I was a young kid living in Japan like Omar’s For Pleasure, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Street Songs by Rick James,” Bardo explains in his bio on his website, whereisbardo.com, an ode to his life of music and travel. “At the time, this music was too slow and mellow for my taste, but for my parents it represented comfort and familiarity in Japan’s seemingly homogeneous society where we were obvious outsiders. I didn’t know it at the time, but those songs would cement themselves deep into my memory and subconscious. So much so that 15 years later, they produce emotions and reactions inside me that are so strong they’re almost impossible to control or explain.”

Then in 2021, Bardo began dabbling and experimenting even more with Latin sounds, beginning with the remake for “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.”

When approached by Disney to do the song, Bardo said, he was given carte blanche with his creative process.

“I just remember them telling me, ‘We really want this to be your song,’ ” Bardo recalled. “ ‘We really want you to feel like this is your creation.’ I definitely wanted to add a Latin flair and Spanish element to it.”

In a promotional video for Disney about the song, Bardo added, “In this country alone there are so many people who speak Spanish but aren’t always being spoken to in rap or other mainstream music. Still, one of the hardest parts [in making this song] was rapping the lyrics and not just singing them, because the original song was not written with rap in mind. It was written to be sung. But I definitely wanted to add a hip-hop twist on it without it sounding forced. And then adding Spanish to the lyrics I feel just made it pop and gave it my own signature. It was tough, though, trying to keep the translation true to what the original lyrics are.

“I feel like a lot of times in the United States, African Americans tend to feel like it’s just us and that Black just means African American, but it doesn’t,” Bardo continued. “It means people in the Caribbean, it means obviously people in Africa, even Black people that live in Germany and Black people that live in the U.K. We’re all Black and I wanted to express that with this song. I wanted to give it that wide feel that it can stretch across the diaspora, that I am talking to somebody in Cuba or the Dominican Republic, or I am talking to somebody in Lagos, Nigeria. I just wanted to stretch my arms out as far as I could with this one.”

Bardo continued his foray into the fusion of hip-hop, R&B and Latin sounds on the September release of his fourth album, San Marino, which includes him rapping and singing in English and Spanish on several tracks. But his journey doesn’t end there. On a recent trip to Spain, Bardo was cruising the streets of Seville, plotting his next project and musical adventure.

“Me and a couple of my friends were driving scooters around the city and it was just weird, but invigorating,” he said. “We went through what seemed like this abandoned kind of area, but it had this big, huge stadium [Estadio La Cartuja de Sevilla]. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s dope!’ Like, it would be dope to perform there, a concert or a video. Maybe create some music there, you know? Sights like that inspire me. So, I’d like to throw that on the [bucket] list.”

Kianah Robinson-Chery, a senior journalism major and cinema studies minor, worked for a year in videography and photography for the Hampton University band’s media team.