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Lira, golden voice of Africa

In an exclusive interview, Carob Magazine catches up with South African songstress and 10 time SAMA award winner Lira, we talk to her about her international career, life and success in the music business. 

By Ntsako Mbhokota.

Without a doubt, Lira is a gem and an inspiration to Africa. She boasts multiple accolades in the music industry and a great number of followers and fans all around the world. She is a global African icon at work.

I’m in Rosebank seated at Tasha's waiting for Lira to arrive for a breakfast interview with Carob Magazine. Trying to keep as calm as I can, I also can't help but think of all the great things she's accomplished in her career so far, making her one of South Africa's most successful musicians. Just three days ago, she had given an astounding performance with Jill Scott at the Coca Cola Dome and in a few minutes she will be sitting next to me talking to us about her plans for the future, love, music and Africa.

Finally she makes an entrance in a red tailored jacket and a pair of sassy denim jeans. The songstress exudes positive energy as she walks and has an impeccable smile.
I was dying to ask her about my favorite song from her as we sat down.

Ntsako:  My all time favorite song from you is ‘Hamba’. What inspired such a bold song? What was your state of mind when you were writing the song?

Lira: I was looking at my friends who were trapped in relationships where there was nothing good left to say about their partners and actually trying to voice out their feelings and frustrations through my music.

Ntsako:  Did you always love to sing as a child? I read somewhere that when you told your family that you wanted to be a professional singer they didn't think it was possible, what made you go for your dream anyway?

Lira: Everybody sang at home but it was only treated as something fun that we do together, nobody ever looked at it as a career, and it wasn't up until I was a teenager that I penned my first song. It was called 'Let me be the one' I was sixteen at the time and I entered a competition In East Rand and won best composition, best vocalist and best live performance categories.  So that just told me that I had something special.

Ntsako: Your song ‘All my love’ in your first album was the most played song on South African radio, but still people didn’t know who Lira was, how were you able to correct the marketing strategy for the Lira brand?

Lira: I had two options, mope about it or do something about it. I did choose to be depressed in the beginning though but soon after I was tired of moping; I rolled up my sleeves, and did what I had to do. I took new publicity pictures, created a new press pack and sent it all over the place. After that I spent three years performing in what would seem like the underground scene. What that did is it exposed me to a new market; it refined me as a performer. And because I was actually in control of my bookings and image, things became easier. I guess the big attitude shift came from not moping about it and finding what I could do with those limited resources that I had to move myself forward.

Ntsako:  All your albums have gone platinum, I’m sure a lot of artists and fans want to know, what inspires you? What keeps you on top?

Lira: I believe in having a clear vision, having an end in mind, because if you are just going along, you are like a ship without direction and you are just floating aimlessly. It is good to have a sense of direction of where you are going, it channels your energy and it focuses your attention. And then to be willing to do the work, do anything that is necessary to get there, if you put yourself out there, you attract the right people and the right opportunities, the right avenues will come about. Work until you get there, you will be intensely challenged but don't give up, your challenges are your opportunities for growth. It's the only way life works.

Ntsako: I read that you had every intention to become the Lira that you are today. None of what you achieved came as a result of luck, tell us more about that...

Lira: The truth is I have been working at this for the last 13 years, it doesn't surprise me, I've been working at being this Lira I am. It was part of the vision. I have always said that I want to be a global African icon; I want to be celebrated for being African and for being an inspiration. I wanted to sell out arenas and be a respected brand. That has always been the direction I was building my career towards. At the moment I've made great progress, I still haven't made it yet. Until my music is known at every corner of the world, I can't say I've made it.

: Tell us about your look, I'm sure you can afford the best Brazilian weave, I’ve never seen you on a weave, why the natural route?

Lira: (Laughs) Yes Ntsako I can afford a weave but I’ve never worn one,  I've always liked the natural hairstyles, for me at the beginning of my career I wanted to make sure that I was representing myself for exactly who I am. I did not want to hide behind the frills, I wanted to be authentic, it was purely a matter being me and also coming from a township I felt I could reflect that we are all beautiful people.

Ntsako: Your thoughts on skin bleaching?

Lira: Using skin bleach continues to send a message that were not good enough as Africans. It is important to promote self love and acceptance.

Ntsako:  They say that romance is dead...A lot of your songs are  about love, would you say you are a romantic?

Lira: (Laughs) I am a hopeless romantic, and yes romance is still very much alive… And the notion that black men aren’t romantic isn’t true, I often get hired by African men to serenade their women on dates, weddings and proposals... So yes...Romance is very much alive.

Ntsako: What inspired the beautiful video of the song Phakade?

Lira: The song was inspired by my wedding but for the music video, I wanted  to create an African fairy tale because I suppose we don't have an African fairy tale. I wanted to create one.

Ntsako : Who inspires you?

Lira: The strongest role model I have is my deceased grandmother.  She died in 1995, I am so much like her and I think she just anchored me in certain things that I still live by.  My grandmother used to uplift the people that surrounded her. She didn't have much education, she was a hawker, one of the first hawkers in Gauteng but she built the biggest house in our neighborhood. We had the first fridge in our street… We had the first TV, literally all the first some thing was at our house... Our yard was paved, and nobody was doing that then, we had a bathroom inside the house. .. All out of being a hawker. My grandmother was a fine example of the fact that the mind can be refined in the University of Life, as she called it.  She probably thought to herself “Sure I can't read or write like you but I can make a plan. I can create a better life for me and my children,” considering where she started and how much adversity she was facing, she lived like a millionaire in the level of the people around her.  Proving to me that all things are possible to she who is willing to go for it.

Ntsako: Who’s your Icon?

Lira: An icon of mine is Oprah, she once gave me a piece of advice that I live by today. In a way she was already confirming that I am already in the right path.  She said to me, "I had every intention to be the person I am today, to dominate the media space, to be a philanthropist, I wanted to elevate the world, I wanted for people to live their best life. My intention was that, everything I did led to that.  Your doubts and your fears might make the road windy but I'm sure you'll always end up where you intend."

Ntsako: Tell us about your performance with Jill Scott, it was absolutely magical.

Lira:It was really amazing sharing the stage with her. The first time I met her was in Philadelphia USA, it was extremely hot, so we were in a restaurant and I saw her walking down the street, so I said to myself that I don't want to do the whole groupie thing but hey it's Jill Scott... So I follow her into a store, I go to her, I'm like, I'm sorry to bug you but I'm from South Africa, would you mind if I take a picture with you? She was a bit reluctant, so I said. ..It’s okay if you don't want to. Which she did not. So off I went.
A year later I meet her in Cape Town in an elevator, I tell her about our first encounter in the States, she apologizes and I told her I completely understood. We talked about the possibility of having her visit Joburg for a concert, and then she started following me on Twitter.
When this show came about I don't think she connected me to all these other meetings,  I was just an artist opening for her. Prior to the performance I didn't really make an effort  to meet her.
So she gets to the gig, I’m in the dressing room. I got on stage enjoyed my performance. I remember thinking it should not take an international artist for me to perform for such a large crowd. Anyway as I come off, her manager goes to my manager and I could not hear what they were talking about...  So he then comes to me and said, " Jill Scott is asking you to join her on stage for the last song.  Apparently she's never done that before."  The first time we meet on stage is during the actual performance,  there was no discussion as to what are we going to sing at all. .. literally right there on stage we connected. There was no ego,  there was no fear, it was just two artists who met on a platform that they share as souls. And we were having a conversation and singing at the same time, we carried on like that, and I think it was just us honoring what we mean to each other. ..It was the most genuine experience ever. ..
She said "I was in my dressing room and I heard your voice and I was like oh my god she is so beautiful... I didn't see you but I felt your beautiful spirit and you are the last few who sing and don't need auto tune". I was already running late for another gig so as soon as I came off stag I rushed off. So we never saw each other off stage.