Goapele, ‘It’s all about getting a feeling across’

Courtesy of Flor-Ann Estiler / FDRMX
Courtesy of Flor-Ann Estiler / FDRMX

Goapele, whose name means “to move forward” in the language of Setswana, has been fulfilling that prophecy with fire. Raised in a South African exile community by parents who fought fiercely against the Apartheid system, she found her voice at a young age. Even before high school, she was active in combatting racism and sexism with various organizations. She channeled her passion into soul and R&B, self-releasing her first album in 2001 and launching her independent label the very next year. While never afraid to tackle political and socioeconomic issues in her music, she upholds that the broader message is love. FDRMX met up with her for an exclusive interview at Primary Wave Music in Manhattan to discuss her newest album, Strong as Glass.

“The album overall is different phases of love, and I feel like it’s the heart, soul, and mind of a woman,” explained Goapele. “In the beginning [of a relationship], it feels different, and that’s more what ‘Hey Boy’ [with Snoop Dogg] is; flirtatious and exciting. You get more in the depths of it with ‘Some Call it Love.’ Then there’s ‘Perfect,’ which addresses love from the standpoint of a community, with some of the craziness and violence that’s been happening for a while, especially over the summer. It’s for people who feel like they’re fighting for their lives every day; the criminalized youth. I wanted to come at it with a love perspective. Strong as Glass is about feeling strength and vulnerability as a woman and not wanting to be taken advantage of, in relationships or by the world.”

With feminism playing such an important role in Goapele’s message, we wondered how she felt about its current state in our society. “I think it’s an interesting time. In some ways, I feel like my personal life more empowered now,” she said. “In the beginning, I felt like I really didn’t want to be exploited and I needed to come into the industry on my own terms, but now I feel like the foundation has been laid out so I can do songs that are sexy. And that’s okay, because there is a balance there.”

Goapele was so opposed to this exploitation in the initial stages of her career that she decided to forego a professional photoshoot for her first album cover. What many may not know is that the photo was taken without makeup, in her backyard.

“I really wanted put myself out there authentically,” she explained. “I had done a photoshoot that was all made up and everything, and it probably looked good, but I just didn’t want it to be about the marketing. I wanted it to be about the music. So I was like, ‘Let’s just take a photo now! No makeup, no nothing.’ I wanted to feel like people were getting the real me and see how they gravitate towards it. It was super raw, and a lot of the production was also super raw, but the feeling was there. I feel like I’ve been able to let down my guard more as I go, but also give more of myself. I’m trying to give the best of me each time and not be afraid of that.”

Her upfront attitude is integral to her stance on feminism. “It’s important as women that we can be our whole selves. Just because we’re being sexy doesn’t mean that we don’t think about the world and that we don’t have depth. I don’t like trying to fit in a box. We should be able to be complex, and I feel like new artists that are coming out shouldn’t feel pressured to be just one way.”

While she feels music can be instrumental in starting discussion about difficult topics, she doesn’t think all songs have to have a cause behind them. “I think art is a good medium. I think art impacts our lives whether it’s visual art or performance art or music, and I think it’s always been a part of changing the world and affecting how people feel. Most of my songs aren’t political, but my overall vision is to have a positive impact on the world, so I always feel obligated to include social activism or social awareness somewhere in my music or messaging. But at the end of the day, most of my songs are about love. I just feel like you should be allowed to talk about anything. But you don’t always have to.”

“I think it’s okay to have silly songs. It’s okay to be in the moment with music. I think ‘What Does the Fox Say’ is funny,” she says with a laugh. “It’s not going on my album! But I think it’s funny and I don’t mind that my daughter might want to dance around to that.”

“There’s room for almost everything if it’s coming out of truth for the artist. That could be a silly moment, or it could be a sexy moment, or it could be an emotional moment. You just never know what song is going to tap into people and motivate them. It’s all about getting a feeling across.”

With such a strong family history of doing just that, we were curious how her upbringing has affected her music. “I think it’s had a big impact on the reward I have through music. When I look out into the audience, I see so many different faces. I see families, I see people that would normally just go to a club that don’t even usually see live music, I see people that are just into jazz music and wouldn’t even normally listen to R&B, I people that maybe heard me on some rap feature that ended up there, I see people of every different sexual orientation and race.”

“When I see all that in the audience, and people are just enjoying themselves together when they wouldn’t even normally kick it in the same place, I feel like I’m fulfilling part of my purpose. Even if it’s not a message I’m saying, bringing all those people together is what I want to do. I feel like that is validating.”

Goapele’s tour starts tomorrow with a performance at the Highline Ballroom in New York City. While on tour, she hopes to continue collaborating on sessions so that she can be creative throughout the process. “Piece by piece you just do what you can and make it happen,” she says. For more information, you can visit her website here.