From hometown heroine to international soul star, Goapele's still expanding her horizons

Boom, boom-clack, boom…clack. It was sometime around ’03 and “Closer” had every car thumping with those drums. My mom would drop me off at school to it and my boyfriend would pick me up with it slapping in the trunk. It felt like “Closer” was on every radio station, from rap radio to quiet storm to Top 40 countdowns, as the Bay watched Goapele rise to stardom off a song that defied genre or target audience. But that’s the Bay, am I right? Only an Oakland native, half-Jewish, half-South African songstress could lace her sultry vibes with slap so hard that it could soundtrack side shows and emotional romantic comedy scenes alike. It was the early 2000’s and Goapele had blessed the Bay.
In the years since, she’s cut her locks, expanded her musical repertoire, toured the nation numerous times, and raised a daughter, all while managing to drop another four albums, including this fall’s Strong as Glass. Goapele’s latest finds her making a few departures from earlier work, with occasional nods to more traditional piano-driven ballads and sleek disco-pop. Still though, this is a Goapele project through and through, textured, immersive R&B with a forward-thinking approach. This month she’ll debut that new material live, kicking off a multi-city tour that starts in NY tonight, stops off at the El Rey in LA, and wraps up with a host of shows at Yoshi’s in Downtown Oakland. But in the meantime, I had the chance to catch up with her about the new album, her relationship with the Bay, and her intentions for creating community around her art.

I wanted to say congratulations. I’m so juiced about the new album. Can you speak to that album title a little bit?

Well, Strong as Glass is the title track on the album and I usually end up naming an album after a song. I just feel like it embodies a lot of what I go through as a woman–and other women out there go through it too–of just how much responsibility we’re taking on. In one moment feeling like an empowered, independent woman, and in the next moment feeling fragile, you know? And it can be just as easy to break down as it is to hold everything together. And just not wanting to be taken for granted. So that’s what the album speaks to, those different qualities of glass and who we are…just being human.

Totally, I’ve always known you as like a real woman of Oakland. I see you as a mother at events with your child and whatnot, and I think people definitely see you as representing for women, in Oakland.

I’ve also heard you, in other interviews, talk about how when you put out “Play”, and other songs, how your views of womanhood may have shifted as an artist. Could you elaborate on that?

Yeah, so on my last album, Break of Dawn, I kind of felt like I was shifting into being a grown woman, and into being free to share my more sensual side, publicly. With songs like “Play” and “Milk & Honey”. And you know, I’m an artist and I use my real name, and there’s so much of my stories and so much of myself in the lyrics, so it’s always a balance [in terms of] which parts of myself I want to share publicly and on stage. I feel like when I was starting out in the Bay Area with the Closer EP, I felt that I really wanted to lay a solid foundation and not be exploited or taken advantage of, and it was kind of so I could have my own voice and not have the music industry convince me to be something else. The photos and everything were just very raw, it wasn’t anything glossy. I think women are so exploited in entertainment and over-sexualized, and there’s a difference between when it’s being put on you, and when you’re just deciding to share that part of yourself in an empowering way. So I just had to kind of wait ’til I could get to where it felt like it was really on my terms and I feel like I finally got to kind of share my sexy side in a way that was comfortable for me.

I think being a mother kind of made me explore like, OK, this isn’t just about how my parents see me, we’re all adults now (laughs). Like, now I can say whatever I want. When you’re in the studio, you kind of just have to be free to go with the moment, and that’s what some of those songs were. And afterwards, I would be like, “Was that saying too much?” I always want it to be kind of subtle in there too. But it was fun. I feel like with this album, it was more about expanding vocally and showing a little more range and getting to explore some ballads, which I love but don’t always include on albums. Songs like “Some Call It Love” and “What in the World”. I also wanted to have some uptempo, feel good songs you can dance to and I got to do that with “Hey Boy” and “Powerful” and “My Love”.

Yeah, totally, I noticed that the album is such a real mix of different songs, and also that the visuals are such a departure from your previous album covers, as you mentioned before.

Yeah, yeah, I mean my first album, it was just a candid shot of me in my backyard. We had done some [initial] artwork with me where I was all made up and–I don’t know–it was just too much for me at the time so we went with like, “this is the real me” as an introduction to the world. On each album we’ve been able to build a little bit and on Change It All, we even got to include some Bay Area landmarks in there and have different things, mixing fantasy and urban rawness together. With this fourth album, I really wanted something that just felt like a classic album cover, like if you had a real album, on wax, or a magazine cover–as if it wouldn’t matter what year it was from. I got to work with Lance Gross who is a phenomenal photographer, and who made me feel really at ease. It was a fun experience to get to try something new.

Yeah, it’s beautiful. Since we’re talking about the Bay Area, I just wanted to ask you about your upbringing here, and how Oakland informs your practice or your songwriting.

Well, I think where I come from definitely effects my music, and I think it’s a part of the contrast you hear in my music, coming from some of that cultural contrast. I was born in Oakland and spent most of my life in Oakland and Berkeley, but my family is also from South Africa, on my dad’s side. So it was an even more unique experience. The South African community in the Bay Area had a lot of artists and students that were leaving the Apartheid system in South Africa to get a different experience in the US. Some of them were fighting to change things in South Africa and some of them were spreading the word about the segregation that was going on, and a lot of them were doing it through art and music. So I always felt like music is an outlet to think about how you want to impact the world, and that the music that my parents listened to…so many of those songs helped motivate people to change the world.

I think I’ve started with that as a larger mission and I think the Bay Area is such a great place for that. From the whole history, with underground hip-hop from Hieroglyphics and Zion I…it’s really about telling our stories and impacting the world, but we also want it to have that beat…and to feel good. There’s that beauty but there’s also that rawness.

Yeah, I also see you doing a lot of community oriented performances, fundraisers and events that are Oakland-oriented, so there’s definitely an activist angle to your image. Do you have any concrete interests in change that Oakland can make? What are the important issues to you?

You know, a lot of songs I do at this point are about relationships and perspectives on love, but I do feel like whenever people are coming together for a good time, no drama, that alone speaks volumes in Oakland. There’s a history of things getting turned out. You know, all these people come together and it’s so good, and then it turns into something else; something breaks out and something happens and then gatherings don’t happen anymore. So I feel like just coming together and having a good time, and having it be all right, and everybody leaving in good conditions, no drama, is such an accomplishment.

But I feel like there has been a lot of friction between youth and police in Oakland for a long time. People do always wise up. You know, with Occupy Wall Street, the Bay Area was really one of the first places to bring large groups of people together, and that was so inspiring to me. There’s so much potential when people come together. Even out of the craziness of Oscar Grant…what happened to him is probably a similar story to the violence that’s happened to a lot of young men in Oakland with police over the years. But with that having been in public, and captured, people really came together to organize around that. That’s something that’s definitely an important issue to me: awareness in ending police brutality, having not as many young people go to jail.

I think that stems from keeping good alternatives out there–keeping music and arts in the schools so that people have positive distractions and feel like they have different options for their future, and feel supported, and aren’t criminalized. Also, part of my upbringing was going to different youth conferences and being involved in empowerment workshops. I feel like it was a place where I got to really figure out what I wanted to do and how to push through my fears so I could get to my goals and not self-sabotage.

That’s beautiful. I wanted to bring your music back to talking about Oakland because that’s how I was personally introduced to your music. When I was in high school, I remember dudes driving around in their scrapers with rims and shit and slapping “Closer”…and I think that was like one of the few times when there’s ever been such a crossover like that–of that kind of music into that space. How did that feel for you?

That felt like a dream come true at the time (laughs). Because when I ride around in my car–and if I’m not on family time with my daughter in the back side–I want my music full blast and I want it to bump until the speakers almost distort. When I’m recording songs, if it’s something vibey, I want it to knock like that. So I’m always secretly happy when I hear a car drive by and it’s blasting my music and like, you know, the trunk vibrates.

I think that “Closer” is one of those songs that was really just a personal stream of consciousness of how I felt about putting out my music for the first time, sharing my music, and really just trying to follow my dream, and having no idea if I would have any success at it; feeling really excited to finally be doing what I wanted to do and feeling really scared, and it just captured that. Amp Live and Mike Tiger out in the Bay Area did the music on the song, and that’s really what that was. It was just going to be the introduction to the album, and it ended up resonating with people so much. I just feel like it’s been the hugest gift in my life, because I’ve seen the full spectrum of people tell me that song has been a part of their lives and that’s the most gratifying thing to me.

Keep up with the latest from Goapele here, and catch her on tour at the El Rey in LA, Yoshi’s in Oakland, and select dates across the country. Strong As Glass is available now.

Danielle Schnur

Danielle is a woman and a girl. A self-proclaimed "Bay Area enthusiast", Danielle spends her time eating sandwiches at the lake, defending Hyphy music, and complaining about gentrification. While technically a graduate student and fervent fighter for radical social change, Danielle is perhaps better known for her paintings of extremely thick women.