Some projects begin on a whim or a chance. Others seem forged from the fabric of their creators' souls, invested with as much heart as blood, sweat, and tears. Oakland's Goddess Alchemy Project, if its name didn't give it away, is unrepentantly of the latter type: an all-encompassing art and social experiment that has become inextricable from the identities of the four core members who cultivate it.
Goddess Alchemy is serious business, and has been since its inception five years ago when founding members Celena deLphi and e.Ma Luna had a revelation while attending the University of California at Santa Cruz. They'd both been writing poetry for most of their lives, but discovered that as college life sent creative sparks flying, they had trouble finding new outlets for expression. Worse yet, they felt sidelined within an artist community dominated by men's voices.
"We saw something that needed to be fulfilled," said Celena. "There was so much space for women artists to create their own forum because it wasn't really happening." This was followed closely by another, more pragmatic realization: "We're the only people who can represent our own voices. We're the only ones who can be responsible for making that happen." Thus was born Goddess Alchemy, and although its scope has expanded beyond women alone, the principle of self-empowerment continues to be its guiding light.
Building upon its founding members' backgrounds in poetry, the project first went public through spoken-word performances in Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Around the same time, a small-scale exercise in screen-printing lyrics from their poems onto shirts, sweatshirts, yoga pants, bags, and dance clothes began to expand and yield financial dividends that would, four years later, allow them to introduce themselves to the world through an even more universal and visceral channel: music.
For Celena and her sister Dakini Star, who joined the project in 2004, music and art were part of their upbringing. They were born to artist-musician parents in a Tennessee counter-cultural community known as the Farm, which was founded in 1971 by a few hundred San Francisco hippies. In 1984, when Celena was two and Dakini was five, their family left the Farm for Oakland, where their mom had previously lived. Both sisters drifted toward music among myriad artistic pursuits, with Celena learning to DJ and Dakini becoming involved in the Bay Area's underground hip-hop scene. Years later, the Farm would play a more direct role in the birth of the Goddess Alchemy Project when Celena and e.Ma jumpstarted their screen-printing business using the commune's own equipment.
Selling their clothing hand-to-hand from the trunks of their cars while traveling across the country, attending festivals, and performing spoken word, the members of the Goddess Alchemy Project began to gather momentum through their fashion line, dubbed al.KEM.y designs. Their pieces treated fashion as an artistic medium for expression and activism, but at the same time were groomed to finance future Goddess Alchemy Project endeavors. That's still the case today, and the members' intense artistic and spiritual focus is balanced by a savvy business sense. "We're moving it ourselves so we have to be really aware of our margins and not undercut ourselves," said Celena.
It took nearly $20,000 of earnings from al.KEM.y designs' five-year history to fund the Goddess Alchemy Project's debut album, Frequencies of the Motherland, due out this week after a series of delays. By pumping all of the fashion profits back into the music, they were able to record, produce, and release their record independently, which is more than a point of pride.
"It's been a crazy journey to witness the unfolding of the project," said Dakini. Unlike Goddess Alchemy's premeditated beginnings, the album developed organically and was allowed to take as much time as it needed — which amounted to nearly four years from start to finish. "It was intensely challenging at times to keep letting it go, and pushing it back," Dakini added.
The decision not to rush paid off by allowing time to involve a wide variety of Bay Area musicians. Along with guest vocalists Taylor MaidenSpace, Climbing Poetree, Daniella Magdalene, and Ilen Young, five different producers — including Soundtribe Sector Nine's Zack Velmer — helped shape the sound of the album. Nikila MamaWisdom and Aima the Dreamer, who joined the project in recent years, also contributed their talents. This many collaborators often muddles the end result, but Frequencies of the Motherland's slick fusion of hip-hop, spoken word, electronic, and world stays commendably focused in its breadth. Clean, pulsating nightclub beats, subtly transcendant synth and keys, and vocals that waver between forceful rap and prayerful spoken word strike a balance between urban rap and new-age consciousness.
Yet more intriguing than the sound of the album is its content. Listening brings the Goddess Alchemy Project's underlying message into greater focus at the same time that it calls more into question. We are taking back what was taken from us is repeated like a chant at the end of "Secrets." The bridge of the next track, Existing in a rift/Prepare for paradigm shift, is followed by In the in-between/time to permeate the mainstream unconscious beings/wipe your slate clean. Album closer "Transcendent Realms" implores listeners to Invoke yourself as the source/Merging with the whole entire universe.
The liner notes dig even deeper: "At the core of this album exists the presence of the divine mystery we recognize as our source," its introduction reads. "We acknowledge the immense community of people, energies, deities, ancestors, and angels supporting our lives and expression." Further down, references to Satya, a Sanskrit word meaning truth, and "the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers Council" hint at deep spiritual roots that reach back to Celena and Dakini's childhoods on the Farm.
While the Goddess Alchemy Project's adherence to indigenous and aboriginal spiritual paths may not connect with every listener, it should be familiar to the group's core audience of artists, free-thinkers, and socially conscious globe-trotters, many of whom find common ground at Nevada's Burning Man Festival. Goddess Alchemy has performed at the massive counter-cultural gathering each of the past four years before ever-larger audiences.
Looking forward, the group envisions international touring and simultaneously pursuing service and outreach within communities around the globe. But while the Goddess Alchemy Project was born of anything but apathy, its members are content to apply a whatever-may-come-will-come sensibility to the future. "I feel like this creation has its own life and its own destiny," said Celena, "and I trust that it will go exactly where it needs to be."
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