Cocoa Sarai is a Bellwether of Change

Cocoa Sarai
Photo Credit - Iris Laurencio

At this stage in her career, Cocoa Sarai’s music isn’t political, it’s personal. The Grammy-Award winning songstress has provided a new meaning to the term unapologetic, leaving no stone unturned in route to exposing an ugly truth — “There’s so much undoing and unlearning that needs to be done.”

The Brooklyn-bred, LA based R&B sensation comes from a musical lineage, getting her start in the church. With a vocal texture that’s considerably ethereal, Cocoa is a natural when it comes to harmonious prose. Moreover, she’s a bellwether of change, using her platform to speak out against social injustice, police brutality and other racial inequities. “The one thing that will be consistent in all of my art is my intentionality and my honesty,” she affirms. She’s purpose-driven and anointed; she’s quick-witted and compassionate; but above all, she’s tired. No more pacification, Cocoa wants justice.

With ‘Strange Fame’, one of her most vulnerable efforts to date, Cocoa revisits the infuriating, yet equally poignant moment in her life that allowed her to shift focus, artistically speaking. Following George Floyd’s death, Cocoa’s brother was assaulted on live video captured by bystanders who were peacefully protesting.

With tears in her eyes, Cocoa witnessed her brother being dehumanized by local authority via Facebook Live, engulfed in angst and hopelessness as she watched in disbelief.

A woman of virtue, our conversation follows below.

When and why did Cocoa Sarai become a musician?

Ah, this is a loaded question because I was raised in church, and I come from a musical family — my entire family can sing and/or play instruments. I’m a preacher’s grandkid, so I’ve been singing since forever. Around 11, I started writing poetry. At 13 is when I wrote my first song and got in the studio. Outside of all of that, I was singing in church like 4-5 days out the week. I think that making music and deciding that this is what I’m going to do, be a recording artist, that was around the age of 15. I would have to perform at the block parties, I’m from Brooklyn. Anything dealing with the local government, I’d be at all of those things. I had something to say and I wanted to do my own songs. 

How does faith play a role in your ethos as an artist?

I was raised in church, I was raised as a Christian. I believe in God, I believe in a higher power… I believe in the creator. I believe in the power of energy and what energy creates in other people. If I felt like crying when singing a song, for some reason everyone else would cry. I learned that really really young, and my grandma would call that an anointing. What I learned is that music is a tool and you use it for the Lord, and that’s it. But I think that our gifts are given to us so that way we can get through life, and all of us need it. I think that’s an important balance in all of that, meaning that I am going to speak about heartache, and I am going to speak about social injustice, and I am going to speak about love — and sometimes I might speak about twerking on the ceiling on a Saturday. All of that is a part of the human experience. 

As an artist, as a creative, what I feel plays a major role in what I sing because other people somewhere can feel it. It doesn’t matter what you do, there’s a demographic for it somewhere. The one thing that will be consistent in all of my art is my intentionality and my honesty.

I am in this space right now where I’m going to be unapologetically honest about how I feel. Not just because it’s for someone to feel it, but because I need to get this out of me and I need to feel better. I need to throw my stuff on a wall and look at it, and that’s what my songs are sometimes — me feeling frustrated and trying to stay sane. Feeling like I don’t matter, like I can’t do anything. Feeling hopeless, like if I had a child, I can’t protect it, and the world may not rally around to protect me. The thought of my child being targeted is scary. 

I don’t have the answers, I just don’t want what I’m doing to be in vain.

Personally, what does it mean to be a Black woman? 

It means loving in a way that the world is not loving us [Black women]. It means surviving, breaking new records, setting new standards. It means innovation, creativity, culture, strength, beauty, intelligence, perseverance, power. It means being the teacher and the student, the protector and the nurturer. It means love in all of its forms. It means a big heart and stern tone. It means food, fashion, education, grit, fire, water and all the things you can’t see but you can feel. It means entrepreneurs, it means getting shit done. It means ancestral energy. It means GOD! It means the birth of civilization. It also means passing down whatever we get. The role of a mother in any home, no matter what race she is, is a part of passing down that nurturing. We, as Black women, have had to learn and unlearn things to ensure that we are surviving. It means working together, having vision and foresight. It’s about balance, and I think a lot of people are afraid to dance with their shadows. If I don’t dance with my shadow then that means I’m ignoring the parts that are important. 

‘Strange Fame’ is such a riveting account of the social inequities that exist for Black lives. How strange is it for black death to be pacified with words and not swift action?  

I’m frustrated and very angry that Breonna Taylor’s killers still aren’t locked up. It is infuriating. It’s the reason why we walk around saying Black lives matter, that’s why we keep screaming it. The problem is that it’s not strange anymore because it’s normalized. I know something’s being protected, but I know it ain’t us. The most beautiful thing that I saw before writing this song is that I went to a protest. When I went to this protest, I was wearing all black, writing my friends’ numbers down and putting it in my bookbag. I’m bringing milk of magnesia and a spray bottle in case I get maced. Making sure I bring my ID with me and leave my wallet, I’ll use Apple pay. I’m really preparing to be killed, to be taken to jail, I don’t know what’s going to happen — but I was prepared for that. I was able to see that maybe one-third of the people at this protest were Black, but the other two-thirds were everyone else. This man with striking green eyes walked up to me and screamed, “Your fucking life matters!! — I don’t know you, but your life matters,” crying, tears rolling down his face. I’m seeing white people putting their bodies on the front line to protect us from more police brutality, and it’s shameful that it has to be this way right now, but it’s important for everyone to talk about it. 

I think we all have to figure out what our own personal activism looks like. There’s so much undoing and unlearning that needs to be done. It is frustrating. It is a step in the right direction, but this ain’t marketing, this ain’t media, it’s my Black life. 

We got to start somewhere. 

What is the overall message with this song?

That it’s strange to be famous for dying! This is not just another angry protest song. it’s a call to action. It’s important to feel all of our feelings. It’s important to talk about what’s happening. It’s even more important to heed the call to action. I would love for this not to be a conversation that my grandkids need to participate in. The only way to do that is starting now. The only way to do that is figuring out what our individual personal activism looks like and beginning… Anywhere! This is why www.strange was created. A resource where people can go donate, sign petitions, call or write letters. I don’t have the answers but we can try until we figure them out.

Is there any significance behind the timing of this release? 

It’s very interesting and terrifying. I did the record initially for a major artist and sent it off to the producers’, they went crazy over it. I closed my laptop and a friend of mine was there – thank God he witnessed it – I opened my phone, and my little brother had gone live [Facebook] an hour before while I was recording the record. It was a video of my little brother sitting down on the concrete with a cop on him. He’s already cuffed. He already has a lawsuit against this precinct because they have been harassing him since he was 9. At this point, I’m watching this video for over 3 minutes, terrified. I’m just watching until the end, hoping he’s not dead. Straight anxiety attack, just watching, crying. They held him for 10 days because they said he had a warrant in another state. The only reason I was able to check on him is because I know somebody that was a CO [Correctional Officer]. My brother told me he wouldn’t go to the doctor because he didn’t want to let them put chains on his feet, because he didn’t do anything wrong. In the middle of that, I’m waiting for him to call, and I couldn’t even bail him out. It’s painful to think about. It’s a reminder that I cannot protect my own, and I don’t like how that feels. It’s so much deeper than what’s just happening. 

Do you find comfort in knowing that change is plausible? 

I’m not sure that I feel it is. History shows that it hasn’t been. And that it might not be anytime soon. I hate to have to feel like “well I’m not a slave so at least there’s that” I hate that there are people who feel like “ at least you guys are not slaves so yeah it’s better than it was” Hope is what keeps most of us alive. Action is what changes things. Change is never easy! I don’t have the answers! All I can do is hope that my music sparks the mind that does! We don’t have 400 years to undo what’s been done. So yes I do believe that change is possible but Im also realistic enough to know that it won’t happen overnight and maybe not even in my lifetime. But I do have faith that if we work at it, not just Black people but all people, because this is a human rights issue… That hopefully things will change for my children and my grandchildren.

What does justice look like in the eyes of Cocoa Sarai? 

It looks like my brother not getting beat up by the cops for no ass reason! It looks like me not having to answer this question! It looks like a justice system that holds anyone that commits a crime accountable for the crime. It looks like convictions and changed laws! It looks like my five-year-old cousin not crying when his dad gets pulled over by the cops for having a broken tail light because he should not be afraid of people that are supposed to protect him at five. It looks like me being able to text one of my male friends or family members “get home safe“  and not feeling like I have to check back in to make sure they did. It looks like a world that has never existed for Black people. I still believe that things will change because they have to.

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