Cocoa Sarai should be your favorite singer. The 27-year-old, Brooklyn-born and LA-based R&B act checks every conceivable box: she comes from a musical family, getting her start in the church; she’s a natural vocal talent; she has a reverence for the artists who came before her; she has a strong message; she works alongside her producers and engineers; she’s got a Dr. Dre co-sign; she’s got an Anderson .Paak co-sign. And she knows how to have fun. What’s not to love?
Cocoa Sarai’s latest single, “Coffee In The Morning,” nods to both her spoken word roots and her affinity for jazz. The way Cocoa plays with space while delivering a message of positivity in the face of colorism is both catching and admirable. There’s an elegant vibrancy to her work, with her bubbling vocal tone ensuring the single becomes an instant earworm. The classic flair of her music—her early inspirations range from Billie Holiday and Tina Turner to Lauryn Hill—gives body to the modern twists that make “Coffee In The Morning” so dynamic.
“With ‘Coffee In The Morning,’ it was an a capella first. I wrote [the song] for one of my students,” Cocoa tells me over the phone. “Fast-forward, and my boy Rick Hertz, my longtime production partner, friend, brother, he hears it and does three different things to the a capella and I don’t like it. The fourth time, he does the upright bass line, and I’m like ‘Yes!’ That’s what I heard in my head.”
Cocoa is more than a catchy single, though. She’s got three independently-released albums to her name, with a fourth project on the way. Cocoa’s music is unctuous on its own merit, and within the industry, she’s garnering the right attention. A chance meeting with Dr. Dre put her on Aftermath and Anderson .Paak’s radar. She’s all over Anderson’s Oxnard and toured with the man she now sees as her brother. From their time together, Cocoa learned to “keep it pushing,” because there’s always going to be someone looking to rock with your sound.
“I just have to do what feels good to me,” she says. “Again, working with Anderson, I learned that there’s a demographic for everything, so just be happy.”
Our full conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: How did you realize you had a knack for singing?
Cocoa Sarai: I come from a musical family. My whole family’s in church. I was in church six, seven days a week. My family is the choir, is the band. It’s just a part of my family. So, I’ve been singing since I was two years old.
Aside from church, what artists influenced your early work and your early style?
Oh, my God! My earliest sound? As a kid, it was Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill. It was them. Faith Evans. Nineties R&B… Around high school, I fell in love with jazz, so Billie Holiday. I started listening to neo-soul, too. By the time I got to doing music, between that and all the hip-hop from my mom and coming from Brooklyn… By that time, I started making music, that aggression and the soul of church, and being the only singer in the cypher… It’s hard to pinpoint because it’s a mashup.
As a kid, I realized it wasn’t easy for me to mimic other artists when I was singing their songs. In my neighborhood, they called me Chocolate: “Chocolate could sing anything. Chocolate, sing this.” And I wasn’t a soprano; I’m an alto. If you ask me to sing a Mariah Carey song, I have to make it my own. Even in church, you’re singing the song, and you make it your own. So, I started off making songs my own. And I’m grateful for that. Being in church taught me how to put my genuine feelings into whatever I was singing.
You’re also such a sharp writer. Favorite thing you wrote in the infancy of your career?
Oh, man! I’m thinking “Raining In My Room” would be the one. I’m a poet first. I do spoken word. I realized that people weren’t as receptive to spoken word as singing. I understand the value of incorporating all of my artistic things into my art, as a full-on experiential [piece]. Back then, I felt like I couldn’t [do that].
By the time I did “Raining In My Room,” that one meant the most to me because at the time I wrote it, there was a tornado in Brooklyn. My house had been burned down, maybe three weeks before it. I was staying in this loft on Atlantic Ave. and the windows were from floor to ceiling. I could see the rain in a way I wasn’t used to seeing because the windows were so big. I was also going through a break-up, so I was sad. I started to write the record back then. I didn’t come back to it until a year later when my mom got sick. That song became dedicated to her, because three days before she passed, I played it for her. She loved it and wanted me to put it out, I put it out, and she passed right after.
Now, talk to me about working with Anderson .Paak on Oxnard. How did you first connect?
That was one of the most amazing times of my life. It’s so funny because before meeting Anderson, there were a couple of artists on my vision board. He was one of them. He was always someone I wanted to work with. I met Dr. Dre through Focus 3 dots, a phenomenal producer-engineer. He’s just special. Focus saw something in me even before I got over to Aftermath. I was in town because I was on tour. I decided to stay in town, and hit Focus like, “I wanna come to the studio.” I come to the studio, and Dr. Dre is in the middle of the console room. I didn’t know he was gonna be there [laughs].
After that, I ended up staying for a week and a half. In that time, I met Anderson. He came into the room one day when I’m recording with Dre. He was like, “Oh, you’re Cocoa.” It was like that; I guess Dre told him about me. He played some stuff, and I was like, “What’s that? I wanna hear the rest of it.” He’s like, “I’ll be in the back, whenever you’re ready.” At the end of the night, when I finished working with Dre, I see him when I’m about to leave. I just listened to music, and I played some of my music. He’s so down-to-earth, so real, so honest, so creative. We just kinda clicked.
I went to New York; then I moved to Cali 11 days later. I was in there every single day, working with Dre and working with Anderson at the same time. It never felt like work; it felt like I was just chilling with my brother. He’s taught me so much just by being himself.
Pivoting to your own music, you have such a clear love for classic R&B with these fresh sensibilities. Especially on “Coffee In The Morning.” How do you balance the old and the new in your music?
That took some time! I’m excited to finally say, I feel like I figured that shit out, especially for the new project that’s coming. I haven’t put out a project of my own since 2015, and now I feel like I’m finally ready. It was a lot of living I had to do.
With “Coffee In The Morning,” it was an a capella first. I wrote [the song] for one of my students. I was a teacher, and I was teaching at a middle school. A little girl was getting teased because she was dark-skinned, because colorism is a thing in the Black community, and it’s also something that’s embedded in our children. Instead of me going and getting at the kids who said that to her, I used it as a teachable moment for the class. I pulled them all into the classroom and did a lesson on colors and dissociating it from the way they see in it in marketing. They were like, “Ms. Cocoa, what color is heaven?” I was like: “Black.” I wanted to help them dissociate black from bad and white with good in any form.
From that, I was like, “Let’s make a song,” or something creative surrounding that. Fast-forward, and my boy Rick Hertz, my longtime production partner, friend, brother, he hears it and does three different things to the a capella and I don’t like it. The fourth time, he does the upright bass line, and I’m like “Yes!” That’s what I heard in my head.
I know it doesn’t sound like anything else, but I don’t care anymore. I have to do what feels right to me. Again, working with Anderson, I learned that there’s a demographic for everything, so just be happy [laughs].
Finally, R&B is so vibrant. I’d love for you to shout out some artists you admire in the scene. Bring me into your vision board.
Oh, my God! I love H.E.R.; I think she’s a genius. I like Pink $weats. Kyle Dion, I rock with. He’s somebody I wanna work with! I wanna work with Kaytranada. Masego’s dope. Working with Ari Lennox would be really, really dope. I feel like there’s so many and I’m just forgetting names [laughs]. For the Afrobeats, there’s an artist named Rema. I wanna work with Kendrick, man. My girl Nai Palm from Hiatus Kaiyote, I think she’s amazing. Lalah Hathaway… There are a lot of people!