“I always felt like I was the exception to the rule,” Goapele Mohlabane oozes on “Childhood Drama,” a track from Closer, her recently released debut CD. A hypnotic two-note South African pennywhistle ostinato and looped hip-hop drum-machine groove underscore her sweet, jazz-imbued mezzo tones. There’s definitely something different about the 24-year-old Oakland-born-and-based singer-songwriter — right down to her name. “The beginning is like a Spanish ‘j’ or a ‘wh,'” she says of her first name, which is how she bills herself professionally. “It’s South African.”
Her mother and father met and married in Kenya. He was there for military training and planned to return to South Africa to fight with the African National Congress for the freedom of his fellow black countrymen. She was a Jew born in New York and raised in Israel. They met and fell in love, settled in the East Bay, and had two children.
“I’m a South African Jewish American,” Goapele says. “Because I have so much family still in South Africa, my history is different from a lot of African Americans. When I leave this country, I’m an American, even though I don’t identify strongly with being American.” But she is thankful for her multicultural lineage. “Growing up, I just felt like it was [a] rich [experience]. I’ve come to appreciate it more as I’ve gotten older.”
Unlike most R&B singers, Goapele didn’t come up singing in church and/or in clubs. Instead, she cut her musical teeth as a teenager performing a cappella at retreats sponsored by the Bay Area Black Women’s Health Project and Sisters and Allies, and later at political rallies put together by the youth organization Underground Railroad. When she was nineteen, Goapele joined the Bay Area club band Cleveland Lounge, then left for Boston to study voice at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. “I didn’t even know what a chart was before I went there,” she says. “I had never counted in a band or known what key to sing in and what difference that makes. There were basic things that I didn’t even understand before I went there, and I met so many incredible musicians that I still work with.”
It was during her year and a half at Berklee that Goapele began recording songs that would turn up on Closer, all of which she had a hand in writing. Others were cut in the Bay Area with such producers as Amp Live (of the hip-hop band Zion I) and her boyfriend, Theo “the Duedaddy” Rodrigues of the DJ crew Local 1200.
Perhaps the catchiest of the disc’s ten tunes is a sexy slice of funk titled “Romantic.” Goapele went to Vermont last year to write and record it with the then-little-known acid-jazz band Soulive. Another version of the song, featuring a different vocalist, appears on Soulive’s current best-selling Blue Note CD Doin’ Something. Goapele’s original version is funkier and, unlike the Blue Note track, contains the “f” word. “I wasn’t even thinking about airplay or anything when we recorded it,” she explains. “It was just a gut feeling that I had. I had the chorus in my mind when my brother said something sweet, and I said, ‘That’s fucking romantic.’ I wanted to write a song, like a Prince song, [that had] sweetness, but [also had] something raw. I didn’t even think if it would be a problem on the radio, because I didn’t even know if anyone would ever play it.” Although they have competing versions of the same song, Goapele and Soulive remain on good terms and she even makes guest appearances with the band when their schedules permit.
Closer is the product of a business partnership formed by Goapele, her mother, brother, and boyfriend. “I wanted to get some music out there,” she explains, “and I was afraid that if I got signed, there’d be all these issues that I [wouldn’t] want to deal with and ways that I [wouldn’t want to] compromise myself, so we said, ‘Okay, let’s figure out how we can make it happen [without a record deal].’ We fundraised — family and friends — and got a small budget together for me to travel and record different songs.”
Still, the singer doesn’t rule out the possibility of going with a major label — if the terms are right. Asked if she can imagine her career being on the level of that of an Erykah Badu or Jill Scott, Goapele says, “I can picture it at times, but I don’t know what they had to go through to get where they’re at. I see them and am inspired by them and happy for them, because they seem like artists that I think are saying what they want to say, and they look real and seem down-to-earth, which is great and not that common in the music industry. But who knows what they had to go through to get where they’re at? So I can only hope and pray for success, but I’ve got to just take it a step at a time and do the best that I can, and hopefully I’ll be able to do music for as long as I want in my life.”