Sakai Smith and Nikita Germaine Houston Tour With Train
Oakland represents with two backup singers on the band's latest release.
Vocalist Sakai Smith.
This story from our October issue will be available online Oct. 22. Copies of our print issue are available by calling 510-238-9101.
When Train, the San Francisco rock band, released its latest album, Bulletproof Picasso, in September, fans could hear a bit of Oakland on it, thanks to background vocalists Sakai Smith and Nikita Germaine Houston.
The two are friends and are currently on a worldwide tour to promote the new album. Sakai landed a temporary Train backup gig in 2012 that turned permanent in 2013 after a convincing performance on lead singer Pat Monahan’s solo album, Last of Seven, in 2007. When Grammy award–winning Train needed another vocalist, Monahan asked Sakai for a suggestion, and she recommended her good friend, Oakland native, and singer/songwriter Houston.
It’s a dream come true for soul singer Sakai and Houston, both longtime fans of Train. “Pat Monahan is one of my favorite singers in the world, and Jimmy Stafford is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever met. I’ve learned so much from traveling with him and the band,” Sakai said.
Growing up in Oakland near Franklin Elementary, Sakai discovered a love of music at an early age, and music has always been an important part of her life.
“Whenever my extended family would get together at my grandmother’s house in Oakland near Foothill Boulevard, there would be lots of music and singing,” she said. “Music became a part of my soul and spirit.”
After singing in a fifth-grade talent show and receiving a standing ovation, Sakai found her true calling. She started singing gospel in her family’s Baptist church choir and found an informal mentor in her stepsister, Patryce “Choc’Let” Banks, who was the female lead singer in the iconic funk band, Graham Central Station.
“As a young girl, I was influenced by timeless artists, including Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, and Patti Labelle,” Sakai said. “When I was invited to sing backup vocals on tour with gospel singer Tramaine Hawkins after graduating from Oakland High School, it was a surreal experience.”
A former student in the UC Berkeley Young Musicians Program, Sakai fell in love at a young age, got married, and gave birth to two sons, Quinn and Jovohn, and a daughter, Sakai.
As a young mother, however, she found that juggling a full-time job with touring as a singer and managing all the family responsibilities were too difficult. When her marriage ended, her mother, Edna Banks, offered to watch her grandchildren so that her daughter could pursue the long-held ambitions of being a professional singer.
“While I loved being a mom, I knew that by resuming my singing career, I could also inspire my own children to follow their dreams,” said Sakai, who worked full time for an insurance company while re-launching her music career.
Sakai’s music career took off in a big way. She recorded vocals on records with Celine Dion, Tower of Power, Oleta Adams, and Curtis Mayfield, while also performing on stage with music superstars Narada Michael Walden, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and Chaka Khan.
At the same time, her longtime friend, Houston, was also making her mark on the music industry. After graduating from Merritt College and San Francisco State University, Houston began performing in Bay Area clubs. She was introduced to Grammy-winning producer Narada Michael Walden and quickly became part of his signature sound. Soon, Houston was singing backup vocals for artists including Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Curtis Mayfield.
While both Houston and Sakai were establishing solo careers, they also began working with record/producer Kevin “Darkside” Smith of Family Tree Productions to record albums. Shortly after recording her first solo album, It Ain’t No Miracle, in 2000, Sakai began dating Smith, who became her second husband and the father of her 7-year-old twins, Nairobi and Jakobi. With him, Sakai found her groove, performing at local clubs including Yoshi’s, recording a second album, Dream Big, in 2007, and continuing to write music and teach vocal lessons while touring with some of music’s biggest acts. It was in 2007 she performed on Monahan’s solo album, Last of Seven. Houston’s album, Just Kita, was released in 2008. And the rest is history.