Singer Goapele Mohlabane's multicultural background shows in her music.
"Closer" was the title track on Goapele's 2001 debut album. It's also the song that Love Me Not—username of a fan on the singer's message board—will walk down the aisle to on her wedding day. "I've had people tell me that it helped them get out of an abusive relationship," Goapele says. "I've had a couple of women tell me they listened to the song while birthing their child. Someone told me that there was a fight happening in Oakland in the middle of the street, and a car drove by playing it really loud and [everyone] started dancing."
It's been played at countless graduations, too, and hit number one at urban radio stations across the country. This anthem that breaks up fights, helps bring babies into the world, and marks ascensions of all types "started as a personal kind of interlude song that I didn’t know if anyone was going to relate to," says the 28-year-old Californian who wrote it. "It was just me finally letting go and thinking about my music getting out into the world."
Of the nerve she's struck with fans—including Shaq, Stevie Wonder, Magic Johnson, and Prince—Goapele says, "I think it shows that sometimes things appear easy, but usually anything that means something to us is never easy. There's always that feeling of 'How can I get through this?' or 'I'm never going to get there,' or 'This isn't happening fast enough.'"
Now, she has to admit, "there's something special happening." It's her 28th year, "supposedly when the earth is positioned in the same way it was when you were born, an important time in your life where a lot of things come together," and her sophomore album is just out. "Even Closer was eclectic, but Change It All stretches out even farther in different directions, from soul music, where we really used some vintage sounds and tried to create a classic feel, to some songs that have an edgy, '80s feel," Goapele says. "Everything from fun love songs to songs where I really got to talk about the times that we're going through now."
The granddaughter of South Africans who lived through apartheid and German Jews who survived the Holocaust, Goapele Mohlabane might sense dangerous currents more instinctively than most people. "As Americans we can feel like we're the only country that exists. But not only being multicultural, but having my family spread throughout the world, I can't forget that we're not," she says. "I know how people can be singled out. I think now is a scary time that we're in—the way that Muslim people are being singled out is scary to me."
Change It All juxtaposes political awareness ("I wanted to open it up: How can we think differently, and if we could change things, what would we change?") with intimate emotion. Instead of being odd, the mix—with hints of Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and D'Angelo—is poignant. Clearly, Goapele is at home with contrast. "On this album, [musician and arranger] Mike Tiger and I worked on a lot of the music together and the whole theme was 'It should be pretty but gritty,'" she says. "I don’t want it to sound soft, but I want it to be beautiful."
It is beautiful, and beautifully layered, a lovingly baked cake in which the personal parts are the sweetest. Goapele evokes a different feeling at every turn, from the soulful lament "Battle of the Heart," to the giddy "Crushed Out," to the addictive "Love Me Right," a primo getting-ready song in the vein of "Little Red Corvette" or "Hey Ya." It makes you want to get dressed up to go out, simply for an excuse to bounce around in front of the mirror and sing: "I’'m not the type to holler, but somehow you know just what I like."
And then there's "First Love," perhaps the most revealing track on the album, and the one Goapele wrote most recently. The song describes how true love can sometimes be too close to see clearly, especially when you're distracted by other things: "I never thought you'd be the only one/I dreamt of fairy tales, that's how we begun/I was waiting for some magical moment that would prove to me/for ever would be fine/meanwhile my first love was standing first in line."
"It can look so many different ways when it’s right in front of you," Goapele explains. "And to be able to see it in a new, exciting way is what 'First Love' is about."
Yes, the song was inspired by her current relationship—or was it the other way around? She won't divulge details, merely saying, "When I was writing 'First Love,' it all came together." You only need to listen to know that she’s telling the truth.