Goapele Mouhlabane, known simply as Goapele (pronounced kwa-pa-lay), is one of the Bay Area's most promising soul singers. With her mother and brother, she formed her own label, Skyblaze Entertainment, as a vehicle to promote her singing career. Her sophomore album is due out in June, released jointly between Skyblaze and Columbia Records, though, as the singer explains, she and her family still maintain an independent work ethic and attitude. Here, Goapele details her dedicated journey from performing at local youth rallies and all-ages clubs and starting a family business to landing on the international radar.
Tamara Palmer: You recently sold out eight shows at Yoshi's. How long and hard has the road to that success been?
Goapele: I've been performing in public informally since I was probably 16, more so at community events and in the underground hip hop scene or at youth rallies. Which is kind of a different way to get into the music business, but it was just my way of participating. I started to get familiar with different people and people started getting familiar with me in that way.
Before I had a band I was performing with my brother, DJ Namani, over hip hop instrumentals at places that were all-ages. That probably started around when I was about 18, and then I went away to school to study music in Boston and came back two years later, and I had started recording my own music already and informally started working on an album.
Through the support of my family, before we officially started a label we started pressing up CDs and going to sell them at Rasputin and Amoeba [in Berkeley] on consignment. Then I got a band together and started performing those songs with the band, and that was probably about four years ago I'd say.
TP: Has it been key to your career that you started out with all-ages venues?
Goapele: I've just always performed in front of my peers and also at all-ages things, which are usually multigenerational, and performing where I could when I could, and when the next step was available, taking it. I just kept trying to improve the show, and the opportunities kept improving.
TP: Did you serve as your own booking agent throughout?
Goapele: No, my brother was managing me — is managing me. That really helps, to have good management that you trust and has your same vision. Because there's a lot of talented artists that are trying to do it all themselves. I'm a hands-on person and I like being involved in all the different aspects, but I would never try and do everything myself.
TP: Are there ups and downs with keeping the business in the family?
Goapele: I'd say [our experience is] pretty positive. I think the music business in general, no matter who you work with, is up and down. So I don't really see any advantages of working with people that aren't familiar.
TP: You started a label called Skyblaze Entertainment with your family several years ago. Have any major labels tried to buy you out as you've gotten more popular?
Goapele: There were some early on that we were having conversations with, but we just kind of took our time. It felt like for our label to join up with a major label, we'd have to find one that was willing to continue on the path that we were going on. So about a year ago, Skyblaze joined up with Columbia so that the rerelease of Even Closer [Goapele's 2002 debut] was Skyblaze/Columbia and the new one, which will be coming out soon, will also be a Skyblaze/Columbia album.
TP: How has Columbia allowed you to enhance your business and what it is that you do?
Goapele: There are a lot more resources available. There are a lot more people working on one project, and they're an established company so there's financial support. We're still really hands-on with Skyblaze and as far as the music production and recording locally at our own studio that we recently built in Emeryville. But it's definitely helpful to have a larger company behind us for support.
TP: You've worked with a wide range of local musicians, from J Boogie to Zion I to E-40. Will we see any collaborations from them on the album?
Goapele: I'm sure I'm going to continue doing stuff with them. I'm not exactly sure for the album. I think those are people I work with off and on and then after we do a song we kinda figure out where it makes sense. I worked with Amp Live [of Zion I] on the last album and he's definitely still producing stuff on this album, and I'll probably do something with the group Zion I. E-40 I know is working on a new album; I'll sing something and we'll see what happens. I'm just kind of going with the flow. And there's some new artists coming out, so I'm always keeping an ear to that. That's exciting for me, working with other people that are up and coming.
TP: Does that fuel your creative process, when you work with a lot of people who are so different from yourself?
Goapele: Yeah — I definitely like working with different kinds of people and finding different productions that are more fulfilling to me. And I just like being unpredictable.
TP: You had a lot of lasting support from [urban radio station] KMEL for your debut single, “Even Closer.” KMEL is not always celebrated for its support of local artists, so did that happen by design or by accident?
Goapele: I think by both. There have been a couple people at KMEL that have been supportive for a long time. [On-air personality] Chuy [Gomez] and [on-air DJ] Mind Motion and [Music Director] Von [Johnson] we knew from a while ago, just from DJ Namani doing parties and stuff. And I think I didn't know how much it was gonna grow, and I think it was just really good timing that people wanted to hear something from the bay and that the station was willing to make the choice to support an act from the bay. They received some pressure, the public was calling in to support it. I think it was a planned effort, but I also didn't expect what happened, and I was really happy.
TP: Now it's a couple years later and the landscape has changed a little at KMEL. It still comes under fire for not having so much local content, but there is a difference.
Goapele: Yeah, there's a huge difference. There's, like, hours and certain days of the week that are dedicated to playing hip hop artists from the Bay Area, and I think that's different and it hasn't been that way for years.
TP: Do you feel like there is more attention being paid to the local music scene by major labels right now as opposed to the last 15 years?
Goapele: I do. I definitely feel like we are building a stronger presence in the Bay Area and starting to get recognized for it.
TP: Do you find it hard when trying to break out of the area? Is there a stigma to being a “Bay Area artist”?
Goapele: I think there really can be, and for me I never really just wanted to be considered a local artist. I think it's really important to get outside the Bay Area. I mean, I love the Bay Area and love living here, but I would never really wanna only perform here. And it would be kind of impossible to support a career that way. You kind of have to record, get your stuff out there, and perform as many places as you can.
I think even me moving away from the Bay Area and going to school on the East Coast for a little bit opened my eyes a little bit to that in just seeing the standard that people operate on when they have to compete and it's not so laid-back. It's pretty amazing, and I think it's just good to go to other places and just see what's going on. I think we definitely have something unique going on here in the Bay Area and it's great to mix that [with other impressions] and bring the bay out to other places.
TP: What's the best general advice you can give to talented local people who want to give the music business a real shot?
Goapele: I would just say building the live show and getting the core audience is pretty important. Getting a supportive team around you that you can trust and really believe in you and either has experience in the music industry or can learn fast — I think that's also really important. And just trying to record the music and produce it to the best of your ability. I mean, the recording quality of Even Closer — I mean listening back to it I'm not necessarily proud of it but I know I did the best job that I could then. The people that I was working with did a good job and we basically tried to do it to the best of our ability. Each time, try to grow.