Goapele (pronounced "kwa-pa-LAY," and meaning "to go forward" in Setswana) was there to warm up the audience for headlining hip hop crew Hieroglyphics. The boys in the audience -- arms crossed and caps slightly askew -- were looking less than pliable when the diminutive songstress took the stage, no backing DJ in sight. Adding to her anxiety was the fact that Goapele doesn't rap -- not even in the breakdowns between choruses, which the few singers who've managed to endear themselves to hip hoppers do. A jazz-trained soul singer in the tradition of Sade and Nina Simone, Goapele felt out of her element. But, as she says over a mocha weeks later, "I decided I was going to open them up to me." She laughs, which causes her cluster of thin braids to shake. "Not everyone was feeling it by the end, but most, I think, were."
Therein lies the challenge for Goapele, an Oakland artist coming up through the same grass-roots network that propelled local (or once local) hip hop dynasties like Hieroglyphics, Solesides/Quannum, and the Living Legends. She's using an underground system to boost a kind of music typically presented through mainstream channels, a music that often appeals to women more than men, in a scene flush with masculinity.
Goapele's shows are usually attended by "a whole lot of women," as she puts it. Her vibe fluctuates between soothing, as on her lilting lead single "Closer," and sassy (see the rambunctious tune "Romantic"), neither of which suggests the sort of outsider politics that drove the Living Legends crew to title its zine Unsigned and Hella Broke. And yet, the back of Goapele's new self-released CD, Even Closer, sports the three-eyed logo for undergrounders Hieroglyphics, and she frequently references the same principles that scrappy self-made rappers claim. (The Hiero affiliation comes via swapped collaborations -- Goapele sang on the collective's recent MTV2 Viewer's Choice winner "Soweto," and members Pep Love and Casual appear on her album.)
Goapele says she started her label Skyblaze with her brother, mother, and boyfriend, Theo Rodrigues (of the DJ/production group Local 1200), as a "tool to be able to get the music out the way I see fit, without having to compromise my values, my image, or any of my lyrics." As to the possibility of signing with a major label -- the route taken by presumably every R&B singer keen on a lengthy career -- Goapele is ambivalent. The only contract she'd consider would have to allow hands-on participation in her development. "Even though I don't really enjoy the business side [of the industry], I definitely like to be involved in the different processes. I still want to have control of my career and know what's going on. I really care about how I'm represented out in the world." Of course, an artist wanting to exert control over her professional development is increasingly commonplace, as the boundaries between art and business grow more and more porous. But the imperative Goapele places on self-determination is rare in the world of modern R&B, especially given the largess recording companies have been bestowing upon malleable young starlets (see Tweet et al.).
What sounds like an anomalous concept -- underground soul music -- is in fact being actively embraced by a burgeoning community in the Bay Area. Politically minded San Francisco crooner Martin Luther releases albums on his own Beyond Entertainment imprint, and Cafe Du Nord's resident soulstress Ledisi also has a label, Oakland-based LeSun Music. Goapele has shared stages with both artists, and says she sees a lot of exciting activity under the "neo-soul" umbrella (although she doesn't care for the term itself). She's been most spurred on by the success of Oakland's Mystic, the singer/rapper whose song with Planet Asia, "W," was nominated for the 2002 Grammy category Best Rap Collaboration, despite being on the indie label Goodvibe. (Mystic's record was reissued this year on DreamWorks.)
"I was definitely looking at her as an example of someone who proved that doing it independently could work," Goapele says. "She's talking about a lot of different subjects, and she's strong and underground, too. But she's still beautiful, and she just seems like she's being who she is and not concentrating on what people might want her to be."
Of course, the advent of underground soul begs the question of what it's reacting to. While alternative hip hop was responding to the good-natured triviality of early '90s rappers like MC Hammer, today's urban pop market is more diverse, with such boho-friendly, consciousness-minded singers as Lauryn Hill and India.Arie. But for every peasant-bloused Hill wannabe, there are 10 G-string-clad aspirants to Lil' Kim's throne. Goapele, who prefers denim, isn't about to make the skin-for-SoundScan exchange. Her decision to keep Skyblaze a family affair was motivated at least as much by her desire to keep control over her wardrobe as over her lyric sheet. Plus, as was the case for underground hip hop at the time of its birth, there's been a recent explosion of neo-soul acts, with the major labels choosing to promote only a few. Therefore, artists who are too headstrong to wait for a slot to open up, like Goapele, have started labels and finagled distribution deals (Hiero helped get Skyblaze a pact with Red/Sony).
In terms of the content of her music and lyrics, there isn't much that separates Goapele from urban radio fare. KMEL-FM (106.1), which is usually blissfully ignorant of local acts, even began airing Goapele's "Childhood Drama" recently. The main reason for the local fervor over her is Goapele's unfailingly emotional, beseechingly honest voice. While not possessing the vocal pyrotechnics of an old-school diva, she sings with a clarity and an earthiness that's at once startling and totally believable.
Most of the songs on Even Closer deal with the familiar R&B subjects of relationship tension and the longing between lovers. The few exceptions include "Red, White & Blues," which asserts that "if you don't claim them [America's colors], they'll blame you," and "Childhood Drama" and "It Takes More," which broach the topics of fatherless upbringings and the cycle of violence such childhoods can create, respectively.
Goapele, now in her mid-20s, probably would have imagined herself a more overtly radical lyricist when she began singing in her preteen years. She formed her own peer-led support group for young girls at an early age, and her first public performances were at the annual retreats of such grass-roots organizations as the Bay Area Black Women's Health Project and the Sisters Knowledge Training Project, where she would sing a cappella. By the time she was 15, Goapele was adding topical lyrics to old soul songs she was performing at community gatherings, which she attended as a member of Empowered Youth Educating Society. Political consciousness was in her DNA -- her father is an exiled South African activist, and her New York-born Jewish mother was on the board of the anti-sexist, anti-racist group Be Present Inc., along with her teenage daughter.
But after moving in 1995 to Boston to study music theory at the Berklee School of Music (alma mater of Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock), Goapele decided to disentangle her roles as artist and activist so as not to allow one to subsume the other. She stayed on the East Coast for two years and then returned to Oakland, touring with Michael Franti's quintessential mash-up of soul, hip hop, and lefty consciousness, Spearhead. When writing her own songs, Goapele decided on a much subtler approach than Franti's. "I don't have one political view I'm trying to get out there," she remarks. "I feel like there's a delicate line between me wanting to just express myself and me wanting to use my music as a tool to represent the views of those who are usually underrepresented.
"I want people to appreciate it for the music and for what I'm saying -- hopefully it's not just one way. That's not too much to ask, is it?"