Goapele, who debuts her new EP at Yoshis May 18 through 21. (James Theodore)
Goapele walks into a downtown Oakland coffee shop for our interview looking perfectly poised, in a banana-yellow tracksuit with subtle accents of gold jewelry. As she waits in line to order, other patrons start to notice and look excitedly in in her direction.
“It’s like this when we go to certain cities,” her manager explains -- like, for example the singer's native Oakland. As Goapele sits down, a woman comes over and nervously offers her a business card, inviting her to get involved with a nonprofit that advocates for immigrant women. Goapele thanks her warmly — not in the polite way of a celebrity interacting with a fan, but as if she’ll genuinely consider the offer.
Though she’s lived in Los Angeles for the past six years, Goapele is still an Oakland legend, celebrated in equal measure for her music and humanitarian work. She first entered the public consciousness in 2001 with her debut album, Closer, which peaked at No. 24 on Billboard’s independent albums chart. Add in her many collaborations with Zion-I and Hieroglyphics — as well as high-profile Bay Area acts like E-40 — and it's not hard to see why she’s made a name for herself as one of the most formidable local artists of her generation.
This week, she’s in Oakland to give her new EP, Dreamseeker, out May 19, a proper hometown reception. She’s introducing it to Oakland with eight back-to-back shows — two per night — at Yoshi’s from Thursday, May 18 through Sunday, May 21.
“The concept [of Dreamseeker] was just capturing different snapshots of emotions and vibes over the past couple years and putting it into a project that could just be played from start to finish,” she says. “I feel like we don’t always get to show the complexities of ourselves as women.”
Indeed, when Goapele was first coming up as a singer, she was one of a handful of women in Oakland’s male-dominated underground scene. Now, with local R&B artists like Kehlani, Rayana Jay, and Samaria gaining recognition, it’s clear she helped pave the way for a new generation of female talent.
“It’s nice to see a new wave of R&B coming out of here, to see more women making it out of here and having a huge platform,” she says. She downplays her role as a pioneer, but lets out an excited squeal as the conversation turns to the ways the scene is becoming more inclusive.
“The Bay Area is an influential place in terms of swag, but we don’t always get credit for it,” she says.
Dreamseeker shows Goapele updating her sound, moving towards a trap-influenced style of R&B --though the project also contains strains of jazz and neo-soul that have been present in her music from the beginning. The EP cruises along at a modest speed, building tension through dusky undertones in Goapele’s usually velvety voice.
Like Goapele herself, Dreamseeker strikes a balance between edgy and classic. The seductive lead single, “$ecret,” conjures images of a slow wind on the dance floor; airy anthems like “Power” celebrate self-empowerment and liberation.
“Coming from the Bay Area and coming from the family I did, I always felt encouraged to speak my mind,” she says of her evolution. (Goapele is the daughter of a South African anti-apartheid activist Douglas Mohlabane.) But “permission to feel like it’s okay to be sexy and it’s okay to be vulnerable — that’s something that I had to grow into.”
Dreamseeker also taps into Goapele’s activist roots. The stripped-down political track “Stand” grapples with the ongoing police brutality crisis. “It was a song I started writing years ago when Oscar Grant was murdered,” she said. “Since then, [police brutality is] happening all the time, all over the U.S.”
For a moment, she breaks her aura of calm. “We’re still not seeing laws change to protect citizens, really. I feel like with the current administration, women’s rights are being majorly threatened, [as well as] immigrant rights. So I felt like it was time to say something.”
Fighting for social justice causes comes second nature to the musician. Currently, she and soul singer Raheem DeVaughn have been traveling with the country with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation to educate vulnerable populations — especially women of color — about the disease.
“We’re not even really doing shows,” she says. “It’s more coming together as a community at these events that are free to the public, just to open up the conversation so people can be comfortable … and [hopefully] we can figure out where the disconnect is. If the information is out there, why are the statistics so high? And how can we shift that?”
In Goapele’s view, being a public figure comes with social responsibility. But as a savvy songwriter, she also knows that she needs to move her audience on an emotional level to get her ideas across. “When it comes down to it, it’s about ‘how can we touch lives?’ Even if I’m singing a song that has some political references, I feel like it has to affect you on a personal level, or else it’s just statistics that we’ve been hearing,” she says.
“It comes down to, ‘How can we connect with each other?’”