Hailed as an original and mesmerizing voice in the new soul genre, singer Goapele has gained national attention since the release of her debut album, Even Closer, in 2001. Promotional materials on the Web site of her agent, William Morris Agency, claimed that "her music combines elements of soul, hip-hop, jazz and rhythm and blues into a smooth and seductive blend uniquely her own."
Goapele (pronounced "gwa-pa-lay") was born around 1978 in Oakland, California, the daughter of a South African father and a Jewish mother from New York City who had met and married in Kenya. Her name, which she uses without her surname, means "to move forward" in Sitswana, one of the languages spoken in her father's homeland. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, Goapele and her brother inherited their parents' commitment to political activism. "What [my parents'] two cultures faced historically forced my brother and I [sic] to be sensitive toward various cultures and social issues," the singer explained on the William Morris Web site. "These issues were not only important, but the focus of our everyday lives." At age ten, Goapele organized a Bay Area Black Women's Health Project peer-led support group, its first for preteens. She later served with her mother on the national board of directors of Be Present, Inc., and also participated in peer education efforts of the community group Empowered Youth Educating Society (EYES).
Music was equally important in the Mohlabane household, where recordings by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Billy Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Marley shared space with those of African artists such as Miriam Makeba, Zulu Spear, and Hugh Masekela, whose music was banned in South Africa at that time. From her earliest years, Goapele loved to sing, using her family as a practice audience. During high school she often sang at community events, and at age 14 she joined the Oakland Youth Chorus. She also sang with the ensemble Vocal Motion. Determined to make music her life's work, she enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, after finishing high school.
Returning to the Bay area after her stint at Berklee, Goapele concentrated on writing and recording songs, and with the help of her family she put out a promotional 9-song disc, Closer, in 2001. Industry insiders liked what they heard, and the EP sold 5,000 copies, largely due to word-of-mouth recommendations. At the same time, she was building a devoted audience through her popular live performances in the Bay Area. In 2002 she reworked her debut record, adding five new songs. To distribute the CD, titled Even Closer, she, her brother Namane, and friend Theo Rodrigues formed their own independent label, Skyblaze.
Even Closer was another regional hit, with San Francisco hip-hop station KMEL giving airtime to the CD's single, "Closer." It also brought Goapele to national attention. The CD received a three-star review in Rolling Stone and a positive review in Billboard. The CD features a mix of love songs and more politically oriented material. "Red, White & Blue," for example, written after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, expresses her feeling that Americans should not automatically support a militaristic response to terrorist threats. As a writer on the William Morris Web site noted, Goapele was "torn between the need to express her feelings … while maintaining respect for those who had lost their lives and families." In the writer's view, the resulting song "is equally disturbing, reflective, and uplifting." Neva Chonin of the San Francisco Chronicle, in a review of a live performance by Goapele, described "Red, White & Blue" as "an elegantly soulful critique of lockstep patriotism." Chonin added that the artist "possesses a keen social sensibility that, coupled with a poet's eye, delivers heavy messages with uncommon grace."
"Closer," Goapele's first single, "showcases the singer/songwriter's impeccable ability to mix classic soul with rhythm-and-blues along with new-age funk, [and] drips with sensuality," according to the William Morris site, where Goapele explained that "The song is about me being thankful for the blessings that I've received so far and how far I've come in the scheme of things. It was a stream of consciousness kind of song, very personal…. When I hear or sing it, I still feel all the emotions I felt when I wrote it." She added that "All of my lyrics come out [of] truthful experiences that I've had, a journal entry or maybe a melody in my head that stemmed into something. But what's important to me that sometimes gets lost in the pop world is that their music doesn't reflect the artist's real life. It's really important to me that I stay true to myself and I'm writing lyrics that I believe and not just to sell."
Indeed, recording on an independent label has given Goapele the creative freedom she needs. "It was nice to put out what I wanted to say and do what I wanted to do," she told San Francisco Chronicle writer Joshunda Sanders. "I enjoy being able to do different kinds of music," she added, "not just to be eclectic, but because those are all a part of me." In 2003 Goapele was nominated for a California Music Award. She has recorded with The Hieroglyphics, Aceyalone, and E-40, and is sought after for guest appearances with major stars. She has performed onstage with Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu, Meshell N'Degeacello, Mystic, Jazzy Jeff, The Roots, Talib Kweli, Jaguar, Donnell Jones, and many others, as well as opening for MTV2's Sisters of Soul concert. Her second album, Change It All, is scheduled for release in late 2005.
The singer has also launched a Website called Change It All, which focuses on individuals who are working for positive social change around the world. The site features exclusive videos from such musicians as Kanye West, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Tekitha, as well as information on various organizations promoting progressive causes. Her hope is that the site will inspire more people to get involved with actions that can effect positive change.
Even Closer, Skyblaze, 2002.
Change It All, Skyblaze/Sony, 2005.
At a Glance …
Born Goapele Mohlabane on July 11, 1977, in Oakland, CA. Education: Attended Berklee College of Music.
Career: Singer and songwriter, 2001–.
Addresses: Agent—c/o William Morris Agency, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019. Label—Skyblaze Recordings, 360 Grand Ave. £327, Oakland CA, 94610.
Rolling Stone, June 26, 2003.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 10, 2003; August 25, 2003.
Vibe, September 2, 2005.
"Goapele," William Morris Agency, www.wma.com/goapele/summary (September 13, 2005).
Goapele, www.goapeleonline.com (September 13, 2005).
Goapele, www.goapele.com (October 27, 2005).
Inoue, Todd, "Move On Up: Goapele's Goal for 2005 is to 'Change It All,'" Metroactive, www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/02.23.05/goapele-0508.html (September 13, 2005).