Get a copy of your work before you leave the studio. When I first started out, I would go to studios and lay ideas down, not get a copy of the session, and sometimes have producers hold it over my head when I asked for the copy that they promised me later. I’ve had people steal ideas and records. I was 14 when I started — so young. I was just hungry and I wanted it to work. We all have battle scars. But we learn and teach the next person.
As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Cocoa Sarai.
“Earn Yo Sleep” is the motto Grammy award winning singer-songwriter, Cocoa Sarai lives by. Raised in a musical family, Cocoa has worked with Grammy Award-winning artists and producers such as Dr. Dre, Anderson .Paak, Busta Rhymes and many more. Lending her song-writing skills to television’s Academy Award-winning director Lee Daniels, Cocoa has been performing since the age of two. Citing Mary J Blige, Tina Turner and Lauryn Hill as her biggest influences, inspired by her West Indian heritage, her church roots and her love for hip-hop, this Brooklyn, NY-bred, Jamaican-American songstress with three independent albums under her belt is establishing herself as a creative force to take note of.
After relocating to Los Angeles in 2018, Cocoa began working with producer and mogul Dr. Dre’s legendary Aftermath Records, which resulted in her meeting superstar Anderson .Paak. Building off of their creative chemistry, Sarai eventually contributed to eight of the 14 Songs found on the “Am I Wrong” artist’s 2018 album OXNARD and even dropped a rap verse on the Dr. Dre-featured “Mansa Musa”. She also lended her vocals and pen to Paak’s latest album VENTURA, which won R&B Album of the Year for the 62nd Annual Grammy’s Awards.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Well, I grew up singing in church. I come from a musical family, so everyone can either play an instrument or sing. My mother said that I started singing at the age of two. I don’t really remember that, but I also don’t remember a time when I wasn’t singing.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m not exactly sure how to answer that. It’s a loaded question. There was never a time that I didn’t think I was a singer. I didn’t choose singing, I think it chose me LOL as cliché as that sounds. I remember being at my kindergarten graduation — there was a woman there who asked me if I was going to be a singer when I grew up. I looked at her, confused, and said “I’m already a singer, I’m going to be a writer.” She asked me what kind of writer I was going to be and I didn’t understand that question either. So she eventually said “Are you going to write children’s books?” And I said yes. At that age, I didn’t understand the difference between “songwriter” and “author.” I was also singing lead solos in church on Sundays, so in my mind I was already famous LOL which is why aspiring to be a singer did not make sense. I admire my five-year-old self. The older we get, the harder it is to keep that fire. So I always knew I wanted to do music and I was in every after-school and community program that allowed me to do that. My mother didn’t have the money to get me vocal lessons or dance classes so I found the free ones and that eventually led me here.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There are so many! Meeting Dr. Dre is one of them. I’d just gotten off this TV show The Four on Fox. My episode wasn’t scheduled to air until the week after. I hit up my good friend and amazing producer/engineer Focus… and told him that I was in town. I figured I’d stay for another three days just to see what I could get into while being in Los Angeles, since I’m from New York. It was the night before my 9am flight when Focus… told me to come to the studio. When I got there, Dr. Dre was standing in the middle of the console room. We ended up working on a record that night and I told him around 5am that if we could work on more music that week, then I wasn’t gonna get on the flight. He said OK and then he disappeared LOL. I ended up moving to California three weeks later — divine timing! If I had won the TV show, I would not have had the opportunity to meet, work with, and befriend Dr. Dre. Faith looks like taking the first steps into darkness and knowing that the universe has to grant you something that is in line with what you were believing and working for.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have two, actually. One is learning really quickly that I need to wear something on stage that I can move in. I move around a lot on stage, I’m jumping in the crowd, I’m pulling people on the stage. There may be an occasional crowd surf. And I learned really quickly that if I’m not wearing something that stays in place, not only will it alter my performance because I’m too busy worrying about something slipping out, but I will be severely annoyed. I love interacting with the crowd, it’s my favorite part.
The second thing was learning how to put together my set list, making sure that the shows have a flow. A performance can be anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and a half and people need to be engaged the entire time. So at first, I was just guessing, doing whatever I felt in the moment. But I learned very quickly that if I felt like I was getting bored on stage, then the audience was also. New York City will teach you how to give a great show because New Yorkers are ruthless. It doesn’t matter that I can sing — people expect me to be able to sing. Did they go home singing the lyrics? Are they going to talk to their friends about something that happened at the show? Did it make them want to go and buy the music if they didn’t already own it? All of those things are gems that I’m glad I learned early on.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Oh man! This is so exciting. So I’ve launched a clothing brand, ”Strange Fame.” It’s my first time stepping out into this world. I’m nervous but I’m excited. My next single, “No Apologies,” is about to drop and I’m shooting the video really soon. I have a couple other projects as well: a reggae EP called Sugarcane and then the album that’s coming. I’m really excited about all of it. I’m excited to collaborate with friends more. I just want to make dope shit man lol. Things that feed my soul and others. Music and art that I can be proud of.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
Well, it already has. Colorism is one of those things. It exists but people like to pretend it doesn’t. They say it’s getting better but that means that it didn’t always look this way. I remember a label saying that I wasn’t marketable because I have dark skin. There weren’t many women who looked like me in the industry back in the day. So it wasn’t that I wasn’t talented, they just didn’t know how to market me because I didn’t exist. And I don’t think they wanted to figure it out. So I had to figure out how to do it myself.
Secondly, I was a teacher for about eight years, teaching elementary school all the way up until high school. Unrealistic beauty standards affect children in the most negative ways. I spent more time trying to help them unlearn things that negatively affected the way that they saw themselves. It’s heartbreaking to watch a fifth grader cry every day because he or she doesn’t fit societal standards.
Thirdly, because there are complete groups of people who are ignored in media, entire communities don’t get to see themselves represented. Things are changing now — slowly — but I do see changes. It offers hope for some! It offers perspective for many others. Being a woman, and a black one at that, occupying the spaces that I am afforded the opportunity to be in, I am very aware of my unique voice and perspective. Teachable moments allow for all of us to treat each other better. This is where being exposed to other cultures and finding the similarities with our own makes us question our bias and opens conversations that will hopefully eventually allow us all to live on this big planet together peacefully. I guess a girl can dream.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Get a copy of your work before you leave the studio. When I first started out, I would go to studios and lay ideas down, not get a copy of the session, and sometimes have producers hold it over my head when I asked for the copy that they promised me later. I’ve had people steal ideas and records. I was 14 when I started — so young. I was just hungry and I wanted it to work. We all have battle scars. But we learn and teach the next person.
- Learn how to use the Internet to reach your fans directly from the beginning. I did thousands of shows in New York City. I became well-known in the underground music circuit. I never collected data. I got hip to blogs, social media, etc. late in the game. I love my city. I get so much love when I go back home. I wish that I knew how to use the Internet better back then to maximize my relationship with my fan base.
- You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. So try not to take things personally. I’ve had people volunteer to be a part of my team. They’d put me in a space where only they were able to provide something that I would need, then they’d give me trash paperwork right before the next big step. Almost like backing me into a corner. In other cases, I would get upset when a person was smiling to my face and then I’d get the paperwork and it was terrible. I’ve learned not to let those things bother me anymore. That’s what my attorney is for LOL.
- Your passion can come across as aggression to people who don’t know you well. Tone is everything in communication. Be mindful or your tone as well as the tone of others. I’m from Brooklyn. We speak with a lot of passion. That works well amongst other New Yorkers and people who are genuine and honest about what they want or have to offer. We understand each other, we speak the same language. Being a teacher taught me that not everyone is receptive to the same way of communicating. It has helped me tremendously. And now I have a great relationship with my current team.
- People will take as much as you have. Not just as much as you give, but as much as you have. Make sure you’re saving some for yourself. I’ve had a lot of situations where people tried to convince me to only be a songwriter, even though they would come to my shows and see the room packed. They were still only interested in one side of my artistry. It would hurt. It was a constant reminder that I wasn’t good enough, or in the words of most of the A&Rs, that I didn’t have “the look.” So I balanced both for a long time, sometimes sacrificing my own music to work on music for other people because I was told that if I just get one hit record for someone else that it will be my way in. Nobody speaks about how many hours you have to put in, or how much time will go by. It sharpened my skills working on so many different genres. But I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t betting on myself completely. Now, I’m able to balance doing both and I’m happy about it, as opposed to feeling like I was only songwriting because that’s as close as I would ever get to my dreams. Before my first label meeting, I didn’t know that signed artists didn’t write their own songs. You live and you learn.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not burn out?
Do what feels good to your soul. Understand that you can never stop learning. Kiss your mother and grandmother — they won’t be here forever. Sleep helps your brain. Write your goals down because if you don’t, you will look back and realize you did amazing things but spent most of your time talking down to yourself because you couldn’t see the milestones. Doing music is not like going to school, where you get a degree that tells you you’ve completed something. It’s a never-ending journey. So write it down and celebrate the small successes.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people: My mom, who told me I could do anything and be anything. My uncle, who told me to question everything. So many mentors, producers, promoters, engineers, etc. who didn’t mind answering 50 million questions. I can be relentless when it comes to learning something lol. I’d have to say Rick Hertz, my long-time collaborator. He’s my big brother. We started working together when I was 16 or 17 and no matter what people said, he believed in me. He’s an amazing producer and engineer, my partner in crime. When I needed pictures, he learned how to do photography. When I needed help with marketing, he did research and presented resources. When managers came and went, he always stayed. When I was wrong, he told me. When I got all of my own recording equipment, he gave me his old speakers. The more I learn, the less I need. Most people are afraid of that. Rick Hertz never was. Having a team is so important. Whether 10,000 people believe in me or 10, Rick is always there to remind me that I’ve come really far from where we started and that the sky’s the limit.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When you come to the edge of all the light you know and are about to step out into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing one of two things: when you jump, either there will be something solid on which to stand, or you will be taught to fly.”
This is about faith, taking leaps, taking chances, and really genuinely beginning…anywhere, knowing that the universe will provide the tools if you do the work. That was necessary in my life. Everything I’ve done started as an idea with no clear direction. I do the work, I do the research, I seek counsel, and I just keep moving forward toward the goal. I make mistakes and learn, but everything eventually falls into place. I wouldn’t be here right now if I didn’t take the chances I’ve taken.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
-Jeff Bezos and the owners of Tesla. I feel like they are geniuses. They understand humans and innovation. They figured out how to take what they love and turn it into something major! They don’t fight with technology, they use it and create it. So they are always ahead of the curve. I’d love to pick their brains lol.
How can our readers follow you online?
@CocoaSarai on Instagram; Cocoa Sarai on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, and everywhere else. Also www.StrangeFame.com — there you can find resources that help fight civil rights issues and buy really cool merch. Talk to me, I talk back! Lol.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Thank you so much for having me!