“Strong As Glass”: Goapele at the Gardner

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Goapele performing at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, March 31. Photo credit: Bob Packert

By Olivia J. Kiers

Goapele’s voice soars to the top of Calderwood Hall. “Closer to my dreams,” she sings, “I’m going higher and higher, I can almost reach…” It is “Closer,” one of her best-known and loved songs, the one her fans have asked for as they stand from their seats in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s intimate “sonic cube” at a sold-out performance on Thursday night, swaying in rhythm and clapping the beat. The Oakland, CA-based R&B artist exudes poise yet also warmth and humility as she sings about love and longing. The hall cheers as she says, towards the end of an energetic evening, “I think we have time for one more, don’t we?”

Later, in the green room, the 38-year-old Goapele (pronounced gwa-puh-lay, meaning “to move forward” in Setswana) has nothing but good things to say about being at the Gardner for the final performance of its inaugural “RISE” pop/rock/hip-hop music series curated by the Gardner’s Shea Rose and Simone Scazzocchio. As an alumna of Berklee College of Music, “it feels good to come back” to Boston, says Goapele. “Before I went to Berklee… I wasn’t used to performing with musicians and working with bands or figuring out how to adapt lyrics to melody. All of that was brand new, and it feels good to come back here now, four albums deep, and feel at home on stage.”

She certainly is at home on stage, now. There were many heartfelt improvisations in Calderwood Hall that evening—including an a-cappella rendition of Etta James’s “At Last,” partly in tribute to James’ musical influence, and partly in celebration of the Calderwood’s incredible acoustics.

Calderwood Hall. Photo credit: Bob Packert.

There’s no denying her voice is powerful and soul-stirring, but so is the message it carries. During the concert, Goapele took a moment before performing one of her latest, “Strong as Glass,” to refer to 2016 as “the year of the woman”—an intriguing statement to make at the Gardner, the brainchild of one of Boston’s most famous women. Backstage, she elaborated: “I feel like it’s the year of the woman, because we could finally have a woman president… Women throughout the U.S., but all over the world, too, are doing a lot more work than they are given credit for, so I’m just hoping there is a shift in that.” Goapele is known for engaging in activism, having sung at rallies and political events, and earning the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights’ Human Rights Cultural Hero Award in 2006. If her music could be a vehicle for anything, Goapele would like that to be “true equality and upliftment,” citing the recent visibility of police brutality against young black teenagers as a major source of concern in today’s society. “Subject-wise,” she explains, “I mainly sing about love. But my overall goal—what I’ve always wanted to do with my music—is have it be a vehicle of positive change and have it bring people together. So, I always want for the emotion to come across, whether it’s recorded or whether it’s live. I want an undercurrent to be felt…that is uplifting regardless of what the lyrics are.”


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