Seven years ago, Goapele Mohlabane would flit in and out of hip-hop shows like a Queen Cleopatra. She was beautiful in a striking and unconventional way: long and narrow, with wiry braids and pristine facial symmetry. She also stood right on the cusp of fame, having sold several thousand units of her debut album, Closer, and become an It girl in local periodicals. Goapele had even broken the glass ceiling at 106 KMEL, appearing on the Chuy Gomez morning show and garnering frequent radio play at a time when Bay Area artists were all but shunned by the popular hip-hop station. Still a couple of years away from inking a deal with Sony, the young singer had an extremely well-put-together cottage industry backing her up.
Goapele's success owes partly to her mysterious, Delphic persona and partly to an unusual vocal style that blends African influences with American R&B. But much of it can be credited to a homegrown business model that benefitted her more than her major-label deal with Sony, which ended in 2006. Goapele's three-person family label, Skyblaze Recordings, has remained thoroughly intact and is poised to release the singer's third album in October. They now manage a swank recording studio in West Oakland. Goapele's brother, Namane Mohlabane, is partnering with San Francisco club owner Michael O'Connor to open a new live music venue on San Pablo Avenue, in the building that once housed Sweet Jimmie's. At a time of mass bloodletting in the record industry, Skyblaze seems inured to the effects of a bad economy and the move to digital. Goapele Inc. always finds ways to work within, but also get around the system.
Granted, the singer didn't always have a pool of money and resources to shore up her career. She came from a family of modest means. Born in Oakland to a Jewish mother and South African father, she spent her childhood moving throughout Oakland and Berkeley. Her mother co-owned a boutique and cultural center on 40th and Telegraph called the Urban Village, which, Goapele says, was where she became "a passionate shopper." Her older brother Namane was a DJ associated with the popular crew Local 1200. As teens, they did community activism with the youth group EYES (Empowered Youth Educating Society), which led social justice workshops in local high schools. Goapele honed her chops singing in Oakland Youth Chorus and making cameos at Local 1200 shows, where she would croon over other people's instrumentals. She sang her first local hit, "Childhood Drama," over the Super Cat song "Dolly My Baby" (a dancehall track based on a Headhunters sample). Even at that time she had a sound unlike most other vocalists, influenced both by classic soul and by the Miriam Makeba records that she listened to as a kid.
A few interesting twists of fortune led to Goapele's rise. She spent two years at the Berklee College of Music, where she sang in a James Brown ensemble that also featured keyboardist Jeff Bhasker, who would later become one of her producers. (He's the current music director for Kanye West and shaped many of the songs on West's last album, 808s and Heartbreak). When Goapele returned home in 2000, she'd already completed much of the work for Closer. Over the next couple years she would create a well-oiled marketing machine with the help of Namane and Local 1200 graphic designer Theo Rodrigues. They teamed up to put out Closer in 2001, made their own posters and organized street teams to promote Goapele's shows. At that point Namane became Goapele's official manager. He worked for City Councilwoman Nancy Nadel by day and spent his nights DJing and advancing his sister's career. That year Lee Hildebrand wrote the first profile of Goapele in the East Bay Express, after he heard the album was moving units at Amoeba.
Two things distinguished Closer from other local albums and caused it to generate an instant cult of fandom. One was its musical sophistication. The title track — made by keyboardist Michael Aaberg and DJ Amp Live — combines modal chord progression with simple drum kicks. The strangeness and edginess of the chords make a neat counterpoint to Goapele's fragile vocals. The antiwar track "Red, White, & Blues" includes a protracted, Hendrix-style guitar solo by Errol Cooney, blurred out by drum patterns meant to sound like choppers flying overhead. Her ballad "Romantic" with organ trio Soulive, harks back to an older, more low-down style of funk music; Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno uses a talk box to modulate the chords. All told, it was accessible as a pop album, but the songwriting was more studied and considered than what you'd hear on the radio at that time (or today, for that matter). The music hit pretty hard.
The other thing that Closer had going for it was extremely careful marketing, which would become a major hallmark of the singer's career. Once Team Goapele had sold about a thousand records, they began what Namane describes as "probably the most patient radio campaign in the history of radio campaigns." DJs were already starting to play "Childhood Drama" in clubs. (It ended up getting released as the B-side single, with "Closer" as the A-side.) Goapele had been featured in all the local periodicals and on indie radio stations like KPFA and KPOO. She performed around town just often enough to remain a hit (if you headline the neighborhood clubs more than a few times a year you're condemned to be a "local artist," her brother explained) and had concise, well-put-together shows that never dragged on. Through his DJ career Namane had kept in touch with all the main on-air personalities at KMEL — Chuy Gomez, Big Von, Mind Motion, Rick Lee — and he began courting them as Goapele's career picked up momentum. "I was in conversations with all of them. I didn't really understand the politics of radio," Namane recalled. "A lot of these people were aware of what we were doing, so when it did come to them having a mixers' meeting and the song was presented, the DJs were familiar." Within a few months, "Closer" was getting played on KMEL about three times a week.
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