It’s been 10 years since Goapele traded the tight-knit community of Oakland for the expansive prospects of Los Angeles, but her love for her hometown hasn’t faded a bit.
Hunkered down with her family since the start of the pandemic, she’s playing her first concerts in nearly three years, returning to her favorite stage for a four-night run at Yoshi’s, May 19-22. If Goapele still carries a torch for Oaktown, the feeling seems to be mutual, as six of her eight shows had sold out as of press time.
After a decade of creative growth and opportunities seized, Goapele doesn’t regret her move to L.A. in the least. But there’s nothing like leaving home to gain some perspective. Thinking back to her formative years in the cultural triangle of Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco, the 44-year-old artist said one of the things she loved most about the area’s music scene is how intertwined it was. “I identify as a soul artist,” she said, “but I feel I was part of the hip-hop generation, working with Hieroglyphics, Zion-I, E-40, and other legendary artists.”
Hip hop was hardly the only vibe she absorbed. Long before Goapele ever performed at Yoshi’s in Jack London Square, she would frequent the club’s previous Claremont Avenue incarnation to see artists like Gil-Scott Heron, rising Oakland star Ledisi, and trumpet legend Hugh Masekela (a particular thrill, given her South African heritage).
She’d run into friends and musical colleagues at gigs of every kind, as well as at political rallies and community events. While treasuring the Bay’s cultural cross-pollination and the way that it shaped her, Goapele also noted the way socioeconomic forces are now placing tremendous pressure on the region’s increasingly roiling melting pot.
“Sometimes, other cities I go to, the scenes are really separate and segmented,” she said. “I loved the Bay Area’s close-knit, intertwined, and rich environment. That shared view is something very unique and it’s given me a really broad perspective. It’s also a challenge now. With the rising disparity [it] seems like there’s an unpredictableness, violence, and tension in the air.”
It’s entirely predictable that Goapele is hitting Yoshi’s with a powerhouse band featuring long-time collaborators like L.A. drummer Chris Johnson, Oakland guitarist Andre Redmond, keyboardist and Berkeley High grad Mike Aaberg, and L.A. backup vocalist Erin Stevenson (a rising force who’s gained recognition on the indie soul scene in recent years). The combo is directed by bassist and Berkeley High alum Eric “Pikfunk” Smith, who’s toured widely with stars such as Janet Jackson, Lalah Hathaway, Rihanna, Fantasia, Babyface, and Jill Scott.
“These are all extremely talented musicians who are well-versed in so much music,” she said. “They’re able to translate all that into an intimate setting. Eric Smith has been with me to Yoshi’s many times and he’s just an incredible musician in his own right. He and Chris play together in Legally Blynd,” the stylistically expansive band led by Smith’s brother, guitarist John “Jubu” Smith, best known for his years with Tony! Toni! Toné! and the funk band Maze, featuring Frankie Beverly.
She’ll be introducing some new songs on the bandstand (from a yet-to-be-named album due out later this year) and an ambitious new venture at the merch table. She recently launched Dreamseeker.com, a platform named after her seventh and most recent album that offers fragrances, candles, clothes, and other items. At a time when musicians are scrambling to make up for income lost to streaming (to say nothing of all the gigs canceled and never booked due to the pandemic), Goapele is testing her entrepreneurial muscles.
“I’ve been expanding more into fashion and merch,” she said. “Not just show merch, but more lifestyle stuff. I’m releasing a candle that goes with the new music as a whole tone or mood. It’s inspiring for me to get to express myself in more mediums.”
The move to L.A. provided numerous opportunities for Goapele to explore new territory. She got a quick look at the bright lights of Hollywood with an appearance in the 2012 Whitney Houston vehicle Sparkle (contributing the Motown-inspired track “Running” to the film’s hit soundtrack). She also worked with award-winning director Ava DuVernay on her short film The Door with Gabrielle Union and Alfre Woodard.
One of her most gratifying film assignments brought her right back to Oakland. She contributed the central song for Pete Nicks’ Hulu documentary Homeroom, which captured the extraordinary, COVID-interrupted 2019-2020 year-in-the-life of Oakland High School. With a soundtrack that thrums and bumps to angst-filled teenage energy, Goapele’s soaring theme “Look At Us” with Rexx Life Raj offers a moment of reflection amidst the uncertainty.
Much like the students she celebrated, Goapele was also in unfamiliar terrain. “Recording that was pretty wild,” she said. “It was a big production and we were all working from home, the choir and musicians. I was doing my verse at my place and Rexx was doing his verse at his place. But I think it came out beautifully, and those kids are so inspiring.”
No matter where she moves, Goapele keeps Oakland in her heart.
Goapele is appearing May 19 through May 22 at Yoshi’s (510 Embarcadero Way, Oakland). Ticket info here.