Front + Center is Rated R&B’s artist discovery series, putting new and emerging R&B singers at the center of your attention.
hey say you don’t make 100 percent of the shots you take. But, for Cocoa Sarai, the stats are quite favorable.
In recent years, Sarai put her stamp on the music industry, working on Anderson. Paak’s third studio album, Oxnard, racking up a few writing credits and a feature. She also penned a handful of songs for Fox’s musical drama series, Star. The world is starting to catch up to this shining Brooklyn, New York talent but understand, her name holds weight in the industry.
In her song “Big Dummy,” off the Cacao I EP, she discusses her journey of pursuing her dream as a singer. To be her most freeing song to date, channeling her process in this form took some introspection.
“That was a vulnerable song to make for me,” Sarai tells Rated R&B. “‘Ten years, you ain’t pop yet? You big dummy.’ That’s the way I feel. That’s the way I felt. I have some friends who are successful who heard it before it came out like, ‘I don’t get it.’ Some of these people never been in it for 10 years, didn’t see it as a thing. Maybe in it for three, four [years] and started seeing significant changes at the time. At the time, I wasn’t seeing it.”
Her three-part EP series Cacao was released over three months, dropping each installment every five weeks. Sarai realized that when it came to albums from independent artists, they tend to get overlooked if there isn’t a major push behind it. Aside from that aspect, she approached the release rollout from an enterprising viewpoint.
“I understood the side of the business that means you can only pitch one song to playlisting when you release one project, opposed to splitting it up into three,” she says. “On a business side, it was just smart for algorithm purposes. It was also gonna make it more palatable. It allows opportunities for marketing that I would only be able to do once if I did one [project].”
Before cacao ferments and turns into chocolate, it is rich with a bitter flavor. In its early stages, it may not taste good, but it’s healthy for you. From Sarai’s deeply felt experiences, she transformed those unpleasant moments into therapeutic anthems. Her inspiration to discuss the tough and murky situations of human encounters stems from the unapologetic ability to confront each facet of herself.
“I’m not afraid of myself. I’m not afraid to dance with my shadow,” Sarai reveals. “I think some people are so afraid to. [They tell themselves] ‘I don’t want to seem dark. I have to vibrate high,’ and the truth is, you’re not doing that all the time and if you are, then sometimes it’s a fight to stay vibrating high. I talk about the spaces in between. I’m honest about my feelings because I feel like I have to be.”
The first installment of the EP series covers how Sarai has navigated what she’s gone through on her career path, including colorism (“Coffee In The Morning”), as well as being silly in love (“Foolish Heart”).
She builds on the evolution of personal relationships in the second installment, whether it’s among friendships (“Brand Knew”) or a fully satisfying love (“Cacao”) that turns into resentment due to neglectful actions (“Bigger Person”).
The final EP of the trilogy explores the uncertainty of where the relationship lies (“The Fence”), standing up for what’s best for you (“Overreacting”), to setting boundaries and acknowledging what you will and won’t accept (“No Apologies”). As Sarai covers a vast spectrum of emotions, the musical tones and influences reflect the variety of moods of the EP.
“I really care about this project,” she expresses. “I wanted to present it in a way that would excite people and excite me. Cacao as a whole is touching reggae, funk, R&B, hip-hop, even blues and doo-wop. That’s all a part of who I am. I’m glad that it was split up into three parts so that people could grasp the energies of each of them and track the growth.”
In 2018, Sarai was a contestant on the inaugural season of the singing competition show, The Four. She initially wasn’t interested in auditioning for the show, but after numerous attempts from some associates, she ended up submitting her application. Even though she was eliminated by the second week, being in Los Angeles during that time eventually led her to meeting and working with Dr. Dre.
A month after meeting the gifted producer, Sarai moved out to LA. It turned into an opportunity to meet another high-profile music creative: Anderson .Paak. While Dre was already singing his praises about the singer-songwriter to .Paak, their working relationship unfolded with ease once they met.
“He never looked at me like [I didn’t know what I was doing] because he knew I was already dope,” Sarai shares. “You got to be in the room because you’re dope. So if you’re in the room, you’re adding value to it. It was never a matter of seasoned or unseasoned because we’re not far in age. I’ve been doing this just as long as he has, just more people don’t know [about the time I put in]. It’s more about, is this good or not? Is she good or not? [It’s] not how long has she been doing it? If you look at music and creativity that way, then you will stunt yourself by not allowing great ideas to come by. I came in as an artist working with Dre, just like him.”
The years of cutting her teeth, paired with her sheer talent were worth the extensive time put in. The connection of working with Dr. Dre guided her to become a close collaborator with .Paak (“He was on my vision board to work with before I met him.”), confirming that all the ways in which she approached and created music aligned with the greats. The partnership among the three taught Sarai numerous tips and offered advice on creating and how to continue to traverse in the industry. Now, she can lend those pieces of knowledge to her upcoming projects, including her new EP, Sugarcane.
As a Jamaican-American growing up in Brooklyn, Sarai’s West Indian heritage is an integral part of creating who she is today. It’s exactly why making a reggae-inspired project isn’t far-fetched.
She credits the EP as the most fun she’s ever had creating music. This became another moment where fear became disregarded for a greater good. Being born in America with a West Indian background, she didn’t want to come off fraudulent by partaking in a genre and sound that she wasn’t initially versed in. As a Jamaican, she has more right than most to partake and appropriately add to the culture. She may be dabbling in a different genre, but she’s aware that it’ll always return to R&B.
“R&B is the heartbeat,” she gleams. “People be having rhythm and no blues. I realized that all of that is important. That’s why I say it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to feel some s**t. It’s okay to be honest. That definitely belongs to the parts of you that allow you to remember and reminds you that you’re human.
I think people will call it different things, many things like, ‘Oh, you’re this,’ or ‘You’re that.’ I can’t change the way my raspy, soulful ass voice sounds on whatever I’m on. So on all things, all days I’m Cocoa. I’m just grateful that I get the opportunity to be considered in a genre that has raised me and has influenced me.”
Sarai has been through her fair share of obstacles: Dealing with the ups and downs of following her dreams, losing her mother to cancer and getting surgery on her vocal cords to eventually learn how to sing all over again are a few.
As she relates to her supporters in that way, she wants fans to see themselves in her music. In witnessing her journey, she hopes it inspires people to intentionally work for whatever they desire. Through it all, she remains vigilant in the calling she’s been guided to do and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I could literally not stop if I tried,” she says. “I tried to stop. I was the most unhappy I’ve ever been in my life. The business made me unhappy but the truth of it is, I make music because I need to express myself. I make music because I love it. I make music because when I put it out, if one person is sending me lyrics, I’m like, ‘Okay, Cocoa. You’re not crazy. It’s not insane.’”
She concludes, “Right now, I’m at a space in my career where I’m enjoying the process. I remember that it’s supposed to be fun. It’s important that I don’t stop. I’m grateful that I get to [create] and keep seeing myself grow. I hear a difference in my sound, my writing [and] who I am as a person. I have different things to say, different experiences. That’s where I’m at.”
Listen to Sugarcane by Cocoa Sarai below.