One Good Reason Not to Give Up on “Neo-Urban-New Soul,” or The Only Reason This Decade to Thank Clear Channel
Outside of the Bay Area, Oakland has a sordid rep. While the sunny city is better known for turf killings in East Oakland, the birth of the Black Panthers and those recent Super Bowl losers, The Raiders, the roots of Oaktown produce a myriad of fiercely independent and game-changing artists. The most recent example of the latter is South Africa-born Goapele (pronounced Qua-Pe-Le) Mohlabane, a 25-year-old soul siren with the funk/soul roots of the Bay in her blood. After training her velour voice as a member of the Oakland Youth Chorus, then a stint at the Berkelee College of Music, Goapele penned a debut album that has put neo-soul aspirants to shame. Even Closer was released nationally in January, but had gained an underground buzz long before its release date because of the seamless production of its 14 songs and Goapele’s elegant delivery.
Backed by the family-operated and conceived Skyblaze Recordings, the album has been distributed through Red/Sony recordings. And Goapele was made for the pseudo-indie approach. A self-proclaimed nonconformist with a gorgeous face, a stage presence that would give Halle Berry fans pause, and a smoky Jessica Rabbit alto, Goapele is just what the “all pining, all the time” soul music climate needed to cool it down. Her vivid lyrics are both sultry and melancholy, jazzy up-tempo confessionals to outright game-throwing ballads. From “Red White and Blues”, a political, post-9/11 world commentary over a hypnotic track to the seductive “Romantic” featuring Soulive’s funky compositions, there is nothing artificially sweet or concocted about Goapele. “Too Much the Same”, a simplistic assessment of why relationships go awry, is delicate and poignant. It’s hard to name one song on the album, actually, that isn’t on point. “Butterfly Kisses”, for instance, sounds like a song made for Mariah Carey fans, but Goapele is no screeching diva—just a poetic singer with a penchant for emotional honesty. The inspiring and seductive single, “Closer” has been in constant rotation at all the urban stations here for about six months and has climbed up the local charts to #1. As a result, she’s garnered an international following and her live shows draw an eclectic, diverse crowd—she appeals to the bohemians, the suits and alternative music lovers alike.
Practice pronouncing her name: you’ll hear it quite a bit. Even in one of the most downtrodden music industries in the country—thanks, again, to those dot-commers—Goapele has catapulted herself to the precipice of soul infamy. It’s rare that authenticity, charisma and talent converge anywhere in music these days, let alone in “neo-soul.” Those things aside, the combination of her physical beauty, spiritual mores and electric stage show will ensure that she’ll continue to put herself and the right side of Oakland on the national music radar.