In Conversation With Cocoa Sarai

This is not a drill. This is not another protest song. This is a call to action against police brutality. Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter, Cocoa Sarai, releases visuals for ‘Strange Fame,’ a track recorded in reaction to the tragic death of George Floyd and a police assault of her little brother. This was no longer just a political issue for Cocoa; it was personal.  

Cocoa is a Jamaican singer, born in Brooklyn and now based in L.A. Yes; she is an established artist, but talking to her, you feel she is just another person that is sick and tired of standing by without expressing how she really feels. We chat about her musical upbringing, her ‘rollercoaster’ of a journey, the reason behind the motto ‘Earn Yo Sleep,’ and inspiration behind ‘Strange Fame.’ 

“Everyone in my family can either sing or play an instrument”, Cocoa says that all of them got their start singing young in church. “My earliest memory has to be at about four years old: leading the children’s choir. I don’t remember which song I was singing, but I do remember wearing this big, pretty, pastel pink dress and being terrified. Music has always been a part of me,” she recalls. 

Brought up in New York, in the melting pot of the world, Cocoa credits the city for her ‘in your face’ writing. She gives us a rundown of how New York looks like through her eyes: “At this point in my life, I’m grateful for the way that culture was such a big part of my upbringing. New York is such a melting pot. I am Jamaican, even though I was born in Brooklyn. On any given day, you were going to experience hip-hop blasting through car speakers and boom boxes. Reggae and R&B music blasting on a Saturday morning while my mother cleaned the house. Gospel music every day of the week because my grandmother was a devout Christian. There is a certain edge that you have to have in New York City. An edge that you learn in elementary school. If you were soft, then you were going to be bullied. Fashion, food, and culture! I know for a fact that my ‘in your face’ writing style most definitely comes from my New York attitude”. 

You can take the girl out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the girl. We established that we would not catch Cocoa getting soft anytime soon. As well as her work ethic has the ‘city never sleeps’ approach. She lives by a motto ‘Earn Yo Sleep’ and here is why: “It just means that we all have 24 hours in each day. We all get to decide how to use that 24 hours. Not everyone has the same opportunities in life, but we do all get 24 hours in a day. I don’t wanna waste my time or energy when I have goals and dreams. So, I feel that it’s only right to do something — at least one thing — every day that allows me to feel like I’ve earned my sleep when I lay down. Doesn’t matter if that’s researching something you want to learn or do, if it’s putting money away to save for equipment that you want to buy, or if it’s taking some time to brainstorm and write down all of your ideas and figure out a plan for them. We all have the ability to Earn Our Sleep. Go get what you want out of life. You owe that to yourself!” if you’re reading this now, promise yourself you will do everything for your dreams. 

Cocoa Sarai is not the first or the last person whom music has helped to get through hardships life’s thrown at her. Realizing it may sound like a cliché, Cocoa pinpoints specific life moments where music was present like no person could: “When my mother passed away, music is what saved my life. And when I had surgery on my vocal cords in 2012, healing from that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Music is what kept me going. So, life and what I want out of life inspires my music”, she explains. 

Her debut album ‘The Black & White’ came out way back in 2012, the same year Cocoa had to undergo a vocal chord surgery. She describes her career so far as ‘a rollercoaster’ and ‘a movie with a million different parts where the setting, the antagonist, and protagonist change.’ As much as she envisions her success, she dreams of giving back: “There are so many things that I still want to accomplish. It would be amazing to be an EGOT recipient. It would be amazing to have a platinum-selling album or five. I want to start a nonprofit for children and single mothers. I want to inspire people to empower themselves. I want to give back to the people who believe in me”. 

“I think that in the words of Nina Simone, ‘It is our job as artists to reflect the times’.”

With the release of Cocoa’s newest single ‘Strange Fame,’ she dissects the limitations to the phrase ‘art is meant to comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.’ Cocoa admits it wasn’t an easy process, but it had to be done: “I believe that artists have been doing that for a long time. Music has always been a form of protest. I think that in the words of Nina Simone, “It is our job as artists to reflect the times.” Not to say that there shouldn’t be a balance. Somebody has to make the music for people to dance and party to. I make all sorts of music, but when something is bothering you so deeply, when something is afflicting the world and has been for so long, sometimes the song will drag its way out of you! It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than all of us!”

She continues by elaborating on the pressure she was under: “I didn’t want to write this song. I feel like everyone was expecting me to make a song about what was going on and not really allowing me to feel all my feelings. In some ways, I guess I was selfish. But another worry I was trying to deal with was my own mental health. Before I am an artist, I am also a woman and a black one at that! So this wasn’t political; it was personal. The song wrote itself — if it was up to me, I probably never would’ve done it. That’s when you know the music is bigger than you. That’s when you recognize that your gift doesn’t really belong to you. It was painful, and it became the only way to get that anger, frustration, and sense of hopelessness and pain out. I’m just grateful that my gift is able to help other people as well”, she courageously speaks. 

Cocoa is brave to let us in as ‘Strange Fame’ is not a reaction to a political issue; it is personal. If police brutality triggers you, skip to the next paragraph, as Cocoa explains in detail how everything went down: “Well the day that I wrote it, I finished the song and sent it off to the producers. I then picked up my phone and saw a notification on Facebook that someone went live an hour before. It was a video of my little brother being beaten up by the cops. He was handcuffed on the ground with seven officers on him. I watched for over three minutes, holding my breath, just praying to God that he was alive at the end. This was a few days after George Floyd was killed. They locked my brother up for 10 days because they beat him up so bad. It was hard to deal with that; it was hard to ask my friends to stage a protest after being part of a real one, it was hard to come up with a concept for the music video that was hopeful while I was also trying to figure out how to get my own brother out of prison. I felt a responsibility to do all of this correctly with the visual. I felt like we were creative enough to get the point across without using footage of my brother’s assault or anyone else’s in the video. I just wanted people to feel hopeful; II wanted them to understand that we have to do something about it. Strange Fame is not just another protest song; it’s a call to action. That’s why was created. If the video of the song makes people feel anything, at least they have a resource to donate, sign a petition, call or write their local government, and demand justice. Whatever your individual activism looks like, just do something”.

On another note, Cocoa’s last year’s release ‘Coffee In The Morning’ is a celebratory track. Don’t miss out on the music video where her elegance is undeniable; her every move screams with grace and pride. Cocoa gives us the backstory: “Colorism inspired ‘Coffee In The Morning’. I was a teacher, and there was a dark skin girl being teased in my class. I took the time out to speak to my middle school class at the time about colorism. It was an a cappella song at first before Rick Hertz added the music around it. I just wanted to celebrate blackness in a way that wasn’t being celebrated. With the visual, I just wanted every frame to look like a picture. Something that Black people of every complexion could be proud of. All of the people in the video are my friends, so it was a lot of fun. The reception to it was incredible, and I’m just grateful that people feel good when they see it”. 

That’s not everything; Cocoa Sarai has the right to introduce herself as the Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter. She collaborated on 8 out of 14 songs found on Anderson .Paak’s 2018 album ‘Oxnard’ and also provided her vocals and pen on .Paak’s latest album ‘Venture,’ which won a 2020 Grammy Award for Best R&B Album. She shares how this all came about how this year, the celebration was bittersweet: “I met Dr. Dre through a producer/engineer, and he’s an extraordinary human and big brother. I was working with Dre and met Anderson though him. We just got cool and started rocking out. He is extremely talented, and it never felt like work. That’s one thing I’ve learned from my Aftermath Family: music is supposed to be fun. I remind myself of that on tough days. When he won the year before, there was a celebration. This year, Kobe passed away on the same day, so it was a somber time”.

Based in L.A., Cocoa reveals she is rehearsing for a new music video in which we will be able to see her dance for the first time. Patiently waiting for everything to calm down, Cocoa is eager to collaborate with producers overseas and get back on the stage. You didn’t hear it from us, but the album is almost done. 

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Words: Karolina Kramplova