O My Soul

music goapeleGoapele focuses her sound, hangs with Snoop on new album ‘Strong as Glass’

Oakland singer-songwriter Goapele is known for the eclecticism of her hip-hop inspired, neo-soul sound. But her new album, Strong as Glass, the fifth of her career, is a straightforward soul record—which is exactly what she needed it to be.

“I wanted an album that felt a little more cohesive, genre-wise,” she says. “There are so many influences that come out in my music, and I wanted to be a little more focused on this project, so you could just listen to the album straight through.”

Goapele, whose full name is Goapele Mohlabane, says the new record is made up of love songs from different perspectives, including romantic, familial and societal.

“Part of it is me saying, ‘What can I say that’s going to make a difference?’” she says. “That feels powerless sometimes, but I know that everything we do in our lives does trickle somehow into a larger pool, and I just hope to be a part of that.”

Thematically, Goapele has always explored charged social issues including women’s rights, street violence and racial equality. She was exposed to the idea of music as a tool for social change at an early age—growing up in a community of South African exiles in the East Bay, she spent time with some of the most celebrated musicians to come out of Apartheid-era South Africa, including Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

The shared experience of being forced out of their country created an unspoken connection between the artists and the extended community of South Africans.

“Leaving South Africa and living in exile forced people that weren’t family to become part of a larger community and feel like family immediately,” she says, “even if you didn’t know each other well.”

As a young girl, her first performances were singing Sweet Honey in the Rock songs a capella. By the time she was in junior high, she was lending her voice to community gatherings, including workshops for women and girls empowerment.

“That was my natural contribution, and I could see the effect that music had on people,” she says. “It immediately struck a musical chord and connection between people. I’ve felt it since.”

In her own house, Goapele’s parents listened to a lot of Bob Marley, Roberta Flack and Nina Simone. When she started building her own music collection, Goapele gravitated toward Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder, EPMD and Digital Underground. These influences can all be heard in her music, and at the center of it all is her strong, clear and lovely voice.

Strong As Glass was produced by Keith Harris, who has worked with a who’s-who roster of artists, including Madonna, Michael Jackson, and the Black Eyed Peas. The album has plenty of smooth neo-soul tunes that spotlight Goapele’s vocal talents, including “My Love,” a mid-tempo jam with soul singer-songwriter Eric Benet. But there are a few upbeat songs as well, including “Hey Boy,” a laid-back, old-school groove featuring Snoop Dogg. Goapele says Snoop brought a great, down-to-earth presence to the project.

“With the type of retro, West Coast vibe ‘Hey Boy’ has, it was the perfect song and he added so much to it,” she says.

Goapele believes her success as an indie artist—she self-released her debut album, Closer, in 2001—has much to do with the support she received early in her life. At a recent concert at the Oakland School for the Arts, she was amazed at all the talented young people.

“You see what a difference it makes when people have access to music education and resources in the creative arts,” she says. “I can still remember teachers that pushed me really hard and were the first influences for me knowing how to have follow-through. That is so important in entertainment, because entertainment is such an up-and-down career.”

Goapele will perform at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 6 at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $20/adv, $25/door. 423-1338. PHOTO: Goapele at a show last month in her native Oakland. She plays the Catalyst on Saturday. DAN PULCRANO

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