At the end of 2011, Goapele (pronounced gwa-puh-LAY) released her fourth studio album, ‘Break of Dawn‘. Following a five year studio hiatus, her latest project is a welcome return for an artist whose tender voice melted hearts at the Southport Weekender after the DJ Spinna remix of ‘Closer’ earned repeat spins in The Powerhouse.
Southport Weekender’s Gavin Kendrick spoke to Goapele about her early influences, activism, and experience of motherhood.
What was it like growing up in a Californian South African exile community?
It was a very broad community to grow up in, there were a lot of people that I considered family that weren’t my blood. Most of the South Africans that were living in exile during that time left because they were politically active and wanted to change the apartheid system. So there were lots of examples of people who were free thinkers and intellectuals that felt it was important to not take things at face value but to question the system and be self determined. And then there were also a lot of artists because you could leave the country at that time as an entertainer, so there were a lot of examples I had of performing artists and of that being an attainable career. In your music, you could talk about everything from challenging realities growing up, political stuff, love, and having fun. I felt like that was a good example for me to have, and later on as a song writer I felt like I could touch on any subject I wanted to. People who are heroes to me like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela came to our humble house. These were people who, even though we didn’t know them well, could still be like aunties and uncles. That was all part of our world. Things changed around 1994 and people started moving back to South Africa. A little before that, my parents got divorced as the whole community was spreading out.
At Berkeley Arts Magnet School, you were involved in groups that combated racism and sexism. Can you tell me about that?
That was the elementary school I went to. When I was in the fourth grade, about ten years old, I got involved with an organization called the Black Women’s Help Project. That was about empowering girls and women through peer led support groups, where we could talk about our different realities and have a safe place to come together and share our stories, support each other, and form leadership. Later on, through an umbrella organization called Be Present, that format evolved to include all girls and women, and now it also includes boys and men. It was a place where I felt like I could truly be myself at my most vulnerable place and at my most confident place, and I think that anything like that for kids is great. It promoted being present and being conscious of the choices you make, why you are making them, and whether they are in reaction to other things that you might really want to be doing. I feel like I later took on some of those qualities in my music as a songwriter, always trying to write from a personal place. I was also part of a group for teenagers called EYES, Empowered Youth Educating Society. It was a safe place to go once a week and talk about different issues that affected us as youth, and how we could support and empower other youth. We got to organise around different issues that were important to us.
What do you think about the public education system today?
I would say that it is slightly depressing. I think that there are some great schools but it’s inconsistent, and not enough value is placed on the importance of good quality public education that everyone should be able to get. I really feel like educating children is the best way to guarantee a positive future for raising the next human beings that are going to be running and working in this world. The lack of funds and the devaluing of the creative parts of education, like the arts programmes for example, and libraries, and even physical education, is frustrating to me. These can all be ways that kids can grow confident in school and enjoy school.
How has becoming a mother influenced your music?
Becoming a mother has helped me to grow as a person and come into my womanhood. I’m giving myself more permission to feel free and confident because I feel like I’m more grown up now. I don’t feel like I need to worry about it being okay to do this or to do that. I definitely feel a sense of responsibility to hopefully have a good impact on the world and set a good example for young women. At the same time I want to be real and let myself have artistic freedom, even if I’m indulging more in trying to enjoy the senses, you know? Some of the music I did this time is more sensual and it felt like at this point, it’s okay to share some of that.
You’ve consciously chosen to set a positive example to women in the industry. What advice do you have for up and coming artists?
Trust your gut. I think for any young artist coming up, it takes a lot of work and a lot of patience, so be ready for that.
With record sales at an all time low, how do you see your future as an independent artist?
Skyblaze Recordings has always been involved since the beginning with me, that’s our family label, and we partnered up with Sony to distribute Change It All, my second album. Musically, there’s never been a difference. As an independent artist, I feel that I’m less affected by the amount of record sales or the huge budgets that people don’t get given! I’m thankful in a way that the internet allows us to connect directly with fans. People who are supporting our music are more in tune with what we’re doing, regardless of whether or not there’s a big budget behind it.
Is the commercial edge to the closing tracks of your album an attempt to reach a new, more mainstream audience?
I’m curious to what makes you think that! Which tracks?
‘Right Here’ and ‘Milk & Honey’. The production on both of those songs uses those hard hitting, programmed drums and synths that are popular at the moment in more commercial R&B.
‘Milk & Honey’ – to me – contains similar elements as ‘Closer’, which although had the most commercial success out of any song that I’ve done, I don’t think is commercial at all (laughing). It’s probably the most unconventional song that I’ve written. It doesn’t have any real form to it, it was just a stream of consciousness. The synths and programmed drums have always been a part of my style, but I have to say just as much as live, vintage instruments are a part of my style. I really like mixing the two together, and I’d say it is a goal of mine to keep reaching more people with my music. I wouldn’t ever use the title mainstream, because that makes me think ‘watered down’, and that doesn’t inspire me. But if I can create music that’s coming from an authentic feeling and it ends up reaching more people, then that would be great! That would mean I can keep doing music! (Laughs)
Speaking of ‘Closer’, DJ Spinna’s remix was a big track with the Southport Weekender crowd, what did you think of his version?
I was into it and it was something different to the way I originally recorded the song, which I think is the cool thing about remixes. Different producers get to express how they feel a song, put their style on it, and reach their audience. The song gets to reach more people. I’m always surprised by what people come up with when they remix my songs. I’ve gotten a crazy wide variety of remixes of ‘Closer’ over the past ten years and it never ceases to amaze me! The DJ Spinna remix though is reoccurring, different people will come and tell me they enjoyed that version. There have been a few different remixes of ‘Play’ out there already, and I always enjoy hearing different people’s take on it.
What artists are inspiring you at the moment?
I’ve really been enjoying the new Meshell Ndegeocello album, Oysters. And I’m still listening to Frank Ocean’s mixtape, James Blake, and Wiz Khalifa.
What music does your daughter listen to?
She likes Sade, she likes Double XX, Erykah Badu, Beyonce. Some CDs I can let play through, and some I have to edit! As long as it’s not saying anything inappropriate, I’m all good with her enjoying a wide variety of music.
You have also mentioned that you like to write poetry, do you ever plan to publish this?
Maybe one day I’ll collect the different things that I’ve written that may or may not have made it into a song, and put it together into a book.