Old Soul/New Scene
Oakland’s Goapele is back, with a new album, a nightclub, and a hip boutique.
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GOAPELE MOHLABANE is sitting in front of keyboards, microphones, and mix panels at the Zoo, a high-tech recording studio in West Oakland that she built with her Skyblaze production team. The singer—whose blend of hip-hop, R&B, and classic soul is a genre of its own—is putting the finishing touches on her long-awaited third LP, Milk and Honey. The album should put Goapele back on the top of the R&B charts.
News of the album has energized her fan base, which has grown steadily since she broke onto the Bay Area music scene in 2001, with her signature hit, “Closer.” Her last album came out in 2005. Since then, the 32-year-old Oakland native has been performing in clubs across the country and being a mom to her two-year-old daughter. Early in 2009, her daughter started going to child care, and Goapele dove back into songwriting and recording.
“I’ve been enjoying the family time, but after we opened the Zoo in January, I said, ‘All right. It’s on,’ ” she says. “I’m ready to put out some new music.”
This is a busy time for Goapele. In addition to working on the studio and new record, she’s a partner in a soon-to-open designer boutique, as well as a nightclub in Oakland’s booming Uptown neighborhood. But when she sits down for a one-on-one, she turns off her constantly buzzing BlackBerry and turns her full attention to the interview.
In person, Goapele is stunning. Dressed in designer jeans and a tiger-print tee, her dark eyes and sculpted face are model beautiful. In conversation, she is serious and thoughtful as she speaks about her creative process. “A lot of what I do is solitary. It’s me in a room, writing a song,” she says. “It’s hard to know if this will connect with an audience.”
Onstage, the serious artist gives way to a warm and gracious entertainer. At a recent concert at the Oakland Museum of California, she belted out songs from each of her albums to an enraptured crowd. Goapele seemed just as delighted as her audience, grooving to her band’s accompaniment and beaming smiles between every lyric.
Born in Oakland in 1977, Goapele (pronounced gwah-puh-LAY, which means “to go forward” in her grandmother’s Setswana dialect) is the daughter of an exiled South African political activist father and a New York–born Jewish mother. Her parents married in Kenya, then moved to the East Bay.
“Music and politics were integrated into my upbringing from a very young age. A lot of my family is from South Africa, and during my childhood, there was a rich South African community in the Bay Area,” she says. “There were lots of parties where people would break into singing a cappella or playing conga drums.”