Event Recap: Goapele Talks Music, Activism and Being ‘Strong As Glass’

Goapele courtesy Alex MateoSongstress and Bay Area native Goapele recently brought her beauty, brains, and impressive pipes to NYC to chop it up with fans about her latest album, her family’s activist background, the state of R&B and how she feels the music biz has finally come full-circle.

A small group of fans patiently awaited one of R&B’s most unique voices, Goapele, with some voicing their confusion over her tardy arrival.  Still, as the crowd waited and began to fill in, many struck up conversations about the singer, mostly revolving around her first hit, “Closer,” a song that multiple audience members claimed motivated them through some pretty difficult times.  It’s admittedly one of my go-to tracks when I need encouragement, and this spontaneous group chat proved I’m not alone.

Twenty-three minutes after the scheduled start time, the soulful vocalist made her way to the stage looking radiant, her smile bright enough to illuminate the room.  Her deep dimples, flawless skin, and short blonde cut grabbed the room’s attention immediately, and as she sat, a woman behind me murmured under her breath, “I ain’t even mad at you, yes honey.”  We no longer cared that she was late; after all, she’s in the middle of a tour and fresh off of several stages, and happened to have another performance that night.  Things happen.

Moderator Andre Barnes began the sit down by asking about the new album, and more specifically, why it’s entitled Strong As Glass.  Goapele responded by saying she, like most women, is incredibly strong, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel vulnerable or breakable at times, similar to glass, which can be strong enough to last for years while still being undoubtedly fragile.  It essentially speaks to the nature of womanhood and was an important message she wanted to convey.

When it comes to the album’s release, she is still on her own family label, but explained that throughout her career she’s sought distribution from the majors while retaining her creative freedom, the best of both worlds.

“My family and I started Skyblaze Recordings ourselves.  It was a straight-up indie label.  Eventually, we made a deal with Sony where they would help with things we needed while allowing me to creatively explore my music with very little interference.  This new album was done in partnership with Primary Wave, which Eric Benet brought me to. I met him at a radio station’s holiday concert and we really liked and respected each other’s music.  We co-wrote ‘My Love’ together on the album, which was fun.”

She also shared her thoughts on the state of the industry, saying she believes it’s truly come full-circle, especially for indie artists, while revealing a secret about one of her most popular songs.

“I feel like things are getting back to the way they used to be, with people hustling anyway they can to make the music they want and pushing it even when big names and labels don’t believe in them, and you just can’t afford to wait around.  I recorded ‘Closer’ in [producer] AmpLive’s closet.  Eventually, we got to record it in a proper studio, but I liked the closet version better [laughter], so that’s the one we put out.”

Speaking of songwriting, this time around, Goapele decided to let other writers pen a few tracks as opposed to her writing the whole album herself, one of them being “Insanity.”

“I actually didn’t write ‘Insanity,’ which, based on the title, is probably a good thing, right? This time around I was okay with letting other writers share their stories through me.”

Barnes then brought up Goapele’s activist background, as both of her parents have been fighting for social justice for decades.  She obviously picked it up from them, and being raised in the Bay only cemented her fate as an artist not afraid to speak on real issues.

“Where I’m from, Oakland, Berkeley, that whole area, they’ve always been able to mix art with activism, it’s just ingrained in the culture. My parents of course were very active as well, both here and in South Africa. I know how important music can be in bringing about social change.  On the new album, ‘Perfect’ addresses all of these recent killings in the news and everything going on right now.  It’s important for that to be a part of my music.”

Yes, she isn’t afraid to speak up, and she also wasn’t afraid to keep quiet when a certain former president asked her to sing for his campaign, something she couldn’t bring herself to do no matter the paycheck or publicity.

“I don’t think it was the White House, but I was asked to sing the national anthem at an event supporting Bush, and I just couldn’t do it.  I was already mad he was re-elected, I even wrote a song about it! I just knew he didn’t represent what I stood for and even though it would’ve been great exposure, I couldn’t see myself doing that.  Seven years later though, I sang for President Obama in San Francisco and just took a tour of the White House the other day.  I feel like everything that is meant to happen will happen at the right time.”

Speaking on the current state of R&B, the “Hey Boy” singer admits that there seems to be a lack of support, but that doesn’t mean soul music has met its maker.

“I always keep an ear to the up & coming singers and musicians.  They may not be on the radio, but that doesn’t mean R&B is dying, you just have to look a little harder to find it.”

Soon, the stage was cleared and Goapele grabbed the mic.  With nothing more than a guitar accompanying, she proceeded to impress, singing “Strong As Glass” the sexy “Play,” from her last album, Break of Dawn, which she said she performed “just for fun.”  As she exited, she reminded the crowd to hit up her full show later that night, an offer I decided to take her up on.

Goapele is obviously living her dreams, but that should be no surprise.  After all, she’s been getting “closer” to them since the start of her career, and she’s put in the work to make those dreams a reality.

—Jessica Bennett

Jessica Bennett is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City.  She fell in love with Hip-Hop the first time she heard 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” and hasn’t looked back since.  Follow the Compton-bred music lover on Twitter and Instagram at @Lady_CPT.

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