Old Soul/New Scene
Oakland’s Goapele is back, with a new album, a nightclub, and a hip boutique.
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Her political consciousness focused on women’s issues from a young age. “I noticed the way that women were portrayed in the entertainment industry. The stereotypes are so narrow-minded, and there’s so much exploitation.” In 2006, Goapele was given the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights’ first Cultural Hero Award for her commitment to human rights—demonstrated by her concerts, speeches, and participation in rallies.
Goapele spent several years performing with the Oakland Youth Chorus and attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Her studies at the acclaimed music school focused on songwriting, but her music-business classes directed her career path away from the major studios.
“I learned just enough to realize I had to be involved on the business side and to put out my own music,” she says. “I could not even describe the style of music I was writing and performing, and that was part of the reason there was no label involved for a long time. It seemed like a label’s interference could make the music switch direction. I really wanted to see if the music I wanted to do could succeed.”
Goapele moved back to Oakland and recorded “Closer” in 2001, and accompanied her older brother Namane’s DJ gigs. (“There was a short period of time when people would say, ‘Hey Namane’s little sister is a pretty good singer,’ ” says Namane, who runs the business end of Skyblaze.)
“Closer” and its eponymous EP made a splash on the R&B charts. In 2002, Goapele re-recorded her tracks and added several new songs to Even Closer, her first nationally distributed album. In 2003, she was listed as one of Rolling Stone’s 10 Artists to Watch.
Even Closer sold 175,000 CDs—a smash by indie standards. Soon, Columbia/SME Records came calling, and Goapele released her second full-length album, Change It All, in December 2005. The record got great reviews but, even with a big label behind it, sold no better than her debut. Goapele has gone back to an independent release with Milk and Honey, an approach that suits her fine.
“We’ve gone from being completely independent to having a major label deal, and now we are free to do what we want,” she says. “It’s a really unique time in the music business. There aren’t nearly as many middle men, which allows more creativity.”
While lyrics from Even Closer and Change It All came from her own life experiences and struggles, she says that on Milk and Honey, she explores a more creative side. “I think there’s a sense of fantasy and a more carefree feel to this album,” she says.
Milk and Honey’s title track was released through Goapele.com in July, and fans got to hear some of her new music at recent shows at Yoshi’s in Jack London Square. “I love playing there. I have friends and family in the audience every night,” she says. “There’s a laid-back kind of feeling, so the songs can stretch out; the music moves more organically than when you’re on tour.”
Goapele is involved in the soon-to-open New Parish nightclub in Oakland’s thriving new Uptown neighborhood. Also coming is Indigo, a women’s boutique in the same complex. The shop’s inventory will match Goapele’s musical style—a mix of classics, with fresh and contemporary accents.
Goapele says she finds it thrilling to see the resurgence of Uptown and raves about the newly reopened Fox Theater. “Oakland has been through some tough times. It’s nice to see the scene coming up again—and to be a part of it.” ■
»A Special Show
In December, Goapele sang in South Africa for the first time, just a few months after her father’s death. “The show was in a huge stadium—it was surreal. There I was, singing a Miriam Makeba song in a place where her music used to be illegal to play in public. I had wanted to perform there for so long, and my father told me that they played my music there all the time,” she says. “I got to ‘Closer,’ and people were singing along like we were in the Bay Area. When I heard that reaction, it made the world seem a lot smaller.”
“Closer,” Goapele’s breakout hit, was also featured on the soundtrack to Jessica Alba’s Honey and has been sampled by more than 30 artists since its release.
»Look and Listen
Go to Goapele.com to check out the sultry video for “Milk and Honey.” The clip has also been in heavy rotation on MTV Jams.
Goapele has more than 22,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 5,000 Facebook friends. In April, she hosted two surprise performances by comic Dave Chappelle at her soon-to-open Uptown Oakland nightclub, New Parish. Fans could only get tickets by responding to her posts on Twitter and Facebook.
»Friends in High Places
Stevie Wonder is a friend. Prince invited her onstage to perform at a Vegas gig.
Goapele and her brother, Namane Mohlabane, are behind a new nightclub in a renovated dining, entertainment, and retail complex at 18th and San Pablo. Goapele will be involved with the Indigo boutique, while Namane is an owner in the complex’s high-end Hibiscus restaurant.
Photographer: Lisa Loftus, Digital Tech: Brandon Kalpin, Assistant: Tyler Moriarty, Wardrobe Stylist: Shakira Holmes, Hair Stylist: Anana Scott, Makeup Stylist: Diane Catorc, using Benefit and Smashbox, Location: Blue Sky Rental Studios, San Francisco
To watch a video from behind-the-scenes at the cover shoot with Goapele, click here »