The act of chasing one’s dreams isn’t a flimsy New Year’s Resolution or a future aspiration for acclaimed singer Goapele — it’s a never-ending way of life.
“When I was first doing music, I wanted to sell 1,000 CDs, because that’s how many I could afford to press before we had a label,” she said with a laugh. “Then it was 2,000, and then I wanted to sell 100,000, and then the first album ended up selling a couple hundred thousand, so that felt like success. And then it was, ‘what’s the next thing?’”
Now, less than a year removed from the release of her sixth album Dreamseeker, “the next thing” keeps moving further down the road for Goapele. Instead of chasing the next big innovation, however, she used the project as an opportunity to return to her musical roots, minimizing live instrumentation to create what she calls an “effortless” album reminiscent of her debut Closer.
Goapele has seen the full evolution of R&B in her 17-year career, a transformation she welcomes with open arms. Her discography has never been an exact fit into the box of R&B, but in an era where the borders between genres are crashing down, she finds it easier to create what she wants without having to struggle with labels.
“I feel like we’ve come full circle, genre wise, with independent R&B music,” she said. “It’s something that I’ve been doing for a long time, but I felt like I had to explain myself, when I was first doing it. Now, it’s understood and established.”
The fans themselves weren’t the ones Goapele felt she had to explain herself to — “they don’t care what it’s called; if they feel it, they feel it,” she said. But trying to convince the typical gatekeepers to promote her music was a struggle in the days when the walls were more rigid.
“I enjoy the songwriting aspect of what I do, and sometimes it doesn’t fit exactly in a genre,” she said. “In the studio that’s fine, but it can get challenging in terms of marketing, and radio, stuff like that. Sometimes it’s hard to get the exposure, that’s been more of a challenge than anything.”
The singer credits the initial years of her career she spent on her family label for not only instilling the extraordinary self-confidence necessary to succeed in her industry, but also giving her the tools to do it her own way.
“I just focus on being authentic when I’m in the studio,” she said. “I came out on my family label, Skyblaze Recordings, and we partnered up with major labels even when I was on major, so I’ve always felt empowered to do the music that I wanted to do.”
Goapele’s family has empowered her in more ways than one; she is finely tuned into social issues of inequality and seeks to use her music as a fuel to spark the change she wishes to see. Her late South African father Douglas Mohlabane spent his life struggling against his country’s oppressive apartheid system, and in the process, opened his daughter’s eyes to the work that needed to be done.
“There’s always been a questioning of equality out there, and an awareness that just feels natural to me,” she said. “I’m a mom now, I have a daughter who’s confident and empowered; even though she’s really young, she’s already learning about sexism from comments people make at school. Things still aren’t balanced the way they should be.”
Mass incarceration and its disproportionate effects on people of color certainly qualifies another one of those imbalances, and Goapele points to her recent benefit concert with Common and J. Cole, which aimed to highlight this issue as an example of how she can use her platform to improve the bigger picture. Billed as the Imagine Justice concert in Sacramento, an estimated 30,000 people showed up for the free concert in front of the Capitol building, and left with a firsthand understanding of the power of music.
“We got them thinking about some of our policies, but it was a fun event, and that gives me life,” she said. “Being on stage and performing with the live musicians that I work with is exciting. When it’s live, it takes on its own life, and it’s always nerve wracking, it’s exciting.”
Goapele will be hitting the stage again on Saturday, this time at The Theatre at Ace Hotel. The event is presented by UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance. Backed by live musicians in an intimate setting, the soulful singer is looking forward to traveling through her albums with the audience while creating a warm, comfortable atmosphere.
“Going through all five albums and different moods, it’s going to be a journey through my music,” she said. “It’s exciting to me that I finally have a long enough discography to dip and dive through all the albums, so it will definitely be dynamic.”