In Ava DuVernay's silent, short film The Door, Oakland-bred soul singer Goapele Mohlabane makes a cameo. She appears as the friend of a grief-stricken protagonist. In an effort to push her pal past the turmoil of a recent divorce, Goapele shows up at her doorstep, beaming with a hopeful smile. She flashes two concert tickets.
A few scenes later, Goapele is on stage, singing her own "For Love," a song about there being no substitute for her love of music and, in this case, friendship. The song elicits a smile.
Goapele, 37, has had that effect on listeners since the release of her inspirational single "Closer," which even moved rapper Drake to remix the record. Goapele has made several broad neo-soul records in the decade since, including her recent and most vocally assertive album, Strong as Glass. Meanwhile, she moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. That decision netted a role as a singer in Sparkle alongside Whitney Houston, the last film the icon ever made.
Goapele is the daughter of international activists, so she's no stranger to racial unrest, both here in America and abroad. She spoke about her view on the protests sweeping through the country, how she sees music's role in such situations and how music, film and activism can inform one another.
INDY: Your family background is somewhat rooted in racial politics. What do you make of the current racial tension in America?
GOAPELE: I'm blown away in some way. I'm not surprised in others. I feel like this is the civil rights movement right now. Having these views from everyone on social media not be enough, having visual evidence not be enough, having a man who wasn't being aggressive but was choked out and died at the hands of a police officer and it being caught on camera: Racism has never been so blatant. That part blows me away. But I feel like we're at a special time, specifically because people are coming together and organizing nationwide like I've never seen before.
But being from the Bay Area, you must be used to seeing this type of activism.
I'm totally used to it. And my father is from South Africa, so, when I was a child, we would go to anti-apartheid marches and music concerts to raise awareness. I was in youth groups, and we'd do rallies against curfews. There was always a way to combine music.
That was always my niche. I'm not a politician, and I'm not someone that's going to try to give a motivational speech, but I will find some kind of path to bring people together through music. I wrote a song on the album called "Perfect." When we were mixing it, some of this stuff was going on. People's lives aren't being valued. I feel like the numbness and hopelessness is dangerous.
Speaking of this record, you've said that your previous records were more personal, but you begin Strong as Glass with a song about love and its breaking points. What's more personal?
I started out writing songs by developing journal entries. Everything was based on my own life and my own emotions and my own stories. This is my fourth album. As a songwriter, at a certain point, I have to draw from other people's stories. All of these songs aren't based on my own life, but from these overarching experiences that we have as women at different points in love.
You and Eric Benét duet on the surprisingly fast "My Love." Why that, rather than a slow ballad like "Some Call it Love?"
I love writing ballads with him because I feel like his ballads are always heart-wrenching. When I listen to a ballad, I want it to take me through an emotional journey. But it felt like the right balance for the album for us to do an up-tempo record together. It was something that was different for him, too.
You also recruited Snoop Dogg for Strong as Glass. You emerged through hip-hop. How much are you still connected to the rap scene in The Bay?
I just performed at Hiero Day in September. The City of Oakland gave Hieroglyphics the keys to the city. It was dope. They got 15,000 people out there. We still support each other. Before I had my own band, I was a vocalist singing over hip-hop instrumentals. So, it's natural to still keep one foot in that world. I don't really care if it's underground or not. I also worked with E-40 early on, and I wouldn't necessarily call him an underground artist. He has more of an independent vibe or story to him.
You're spending a lot of time in Los Angeles now. The city has a reputation of having negative effects on the people who go there in search of stardom, or furthering it. How has it worked for you?
I wasn't competing or losing myself. It was important for me to start in the Bay Area and really build my roots. I had a family label, Skyblaze Recordings, recorded most of my music there, worked with producers from there. That's where my grounding is. It propelled me to get to so many other places in the world. I felt pressure to move to Los Angeles or New York early on, before I put out my first album, but I chose to stay in the Bay Area.
Me moving out there recently was because I wanted to get more involved in the film world. Also, all of the collaborations that take place on Strong as Glass—like Eric Benét, Keith Harris, Cornelio "Corn" Austin, TrakMatic—happened because I was in L.A. In passing, we would always say that we wanted to work together, but being there benefited me. My family is still in the Bay Area. But there's so many amazing things that go on in L.A. that just open up your mind to all of the potential.
To that end, how much time did you get to spend with Whitney Houston while you were on the set of Sparkle, and what do you remember most about her outside of her music?
By the time I recorded my scenes in Sparkle, Whitney Houston was off of the set. I didn't interact with her. I just missed her at a party the night before she passed away because we were in two different rooms.
But I remember the connection between she and I being surreal, because she inspired me as a little girl wanting to grow up and be a singer. I saw her perform when I was 10. It was probably the first concert that I went to that wasn't because it was music that my parents appreciated. It was a ticket that I wanted. Being on a project that she was on was like full-circle.
I want to get into more movies and television. It's just a whole 'nother challenge. Salim Akil [Sparkle's director] was welcoming to me. It was a family vibe. They filmed it, purposefully, in Detroit, to give it a rich Motown history. They went to a club that had been going since the 1920s. I got to work with Ava DuVernay, who I met through her placing one of my songs in her movie, Middle of Nowhere. From there, I got to be in Ava DuVernay's short film, The Door.
What kind of roles would you want to take on?
I feel open, but I don't feel like I would need to play a role anything like myself—acting and being a singer-songwriter. What I'm doing on a day-to-day basis is personal, and there's not much separation. With acting, you're drawing from pieces of yourself, but you can take on different characters.
You don't think that one necessarily informs the other?
They improve each other. I took acting classes a while back, before I even considered taking any roles. That was only because I wanted to feel more comfortable on stage and let go of my inhibitions.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Matters of soul"