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South Africa’s Lira Forges Her American Dream

South Africa’s Lira Forges Her American Dream

A Johannesburg Afro-Soul legend is heading stateside with a mission. Can America handle her good vibes?

By Halley Bondy
January 23, 2013

Lira is already a megastar in South Africa. Now, the queen of Afro-soul, R&B and positive-thinking is making her way to the States, armed with her first American release Rise Again. Over weekend, she entertained ambassadors and Obama supporters at the massive Ambassadors Inaugural Ball in Washington, DC. We caught her en route to her show tonight in New York City venue SOBs and talked American music tastes, ambassadors, and the dark legacy of apartheid.

How was the inaugural ball? 

It was incredible! We had 1,100 people there, of course in honor of Barack Obama.  It was spectacular. I’ve never have been to an inaugural ball here in the states. I loved the energy of it, and how everyone makes an effort to dress up. We had ambassadors, governors, different business people as well — just a very ice mix of people.

How has the reception been on your debut American album? 

It’s gone pretty well. People are  kinda picking up on it and discovering it. It’s kind of slow. It’s a new market for me, and we’ve been doing things cautiously and slowly. We want to build it solidly rather than on hype alone, so I don’t mind the slow approach to things. I want to earn my fans here.

What are some challenges about the American market?

The biggest challenge in this market is finding people to help me take it to the next level. In terms of the gigs, people love it and people get it. Right now it’s about getting the right team to help us amplify it. For me it’s about the resources of putting together a tour, and when you come from another country, when you deal with things like the exchange rate it’s a whole other ballgame. Those are the immediate challenges. I’d like to do a new album and in this new territory, so I have got to present myself to the American people in order for it.

It’s something new?

Yes, I’m busy working on something, but I wanna slow down. I’ve been working nonstop for the last nine years its insane! The longest I’ve had off was 2 weeks last year.

I know you’ve performed for royalty. Where is the most glamorous place you’ve performed? 

Well, the kings and queens these days don’t really have palaces! Though, Addis Ababa had one. We were in Haile Selassie’s palace. It looked more like a politician’s house, but the rooms were opulent. The serving plates were specifically made for him, the lion head emblem and all that. It was special being in there! And I would say the inaugural ball was  quite a highlight.

How has your music on Rise Again evolved since your last album? 

We had to tweak it to a more global market. My previous albums were pretty tailored to South Africa. America has a specific sound to their music. How I had it before worked pretty well, but it limited to a niche market. But, whats great as me as a composer is that I don’t have to change much. It’s just production. I don’t have to change myself, I just have to get it produced differently, and that’s the only thing I had to change.

What are some differences you’ve noticed between the music markets?

It’s more from a performance perspective. Usually when I perform I take my audiences through a journey, whereas here, you have to be “BAM!” from the beginning. It’s a mental shift for me. I also get the sense that everything has to happen pretty quickly here, which is somewhat foreign. Back home or even in Europe there’s an authenticity, or an ease of approach, instead of “BAM give it all right now!”

But in terms of the music, I’m allowing myself to grow naturally. I don’t feel like I have to step outside myself at all. Inevitably some of my fans will be like ‘oh you’ve changed!’ But it’s just the sound and not the essence contained within the music.

What are some of your goals for this album? 

I’d like the music to chart. That would be quite phenomenal.

Apartheid shaped your upbringing — how does it shape your music?

My music is very inspiring. It’s very uplifting. I always include those kinds of elements, and that’s been influenced by my upbringing. I’ve been able to take the experiences that I had and use them to fuel my passion and my fighting spirit — and I am living my dream. So I look back, and while there are lots of challenges about growing up on the African continent, there are challenges growing up everywhere in the world, so it’s not exclusive — it becomes a human story. With the music being uplifting, it makes you able to invoke that experience of fighting on, and we all need that. This was purely was caused by my situation. Either you sink or you swim.

We were taught how to bear the struggle and overcome it, but we weren’t taught to live freely. We weren’t prepared to live in a free society. Initially, we didn’t know how to engage with freedom, we didn’t know how to take advantage. We had to make it up as we went along. We were totally responsible for motivating ourselves and creating. Some of the things that I learned in my journey is that you’ve got to keep your spirit in a positive space. There’s nothing more debilitating than complaining. It’s a choice. You choose to stay miserable.

Watch Lira’s video for “Phakade”

I’ve learned that not only the people were physically separated, but that African music was more or less marginalized.Were you affected by this?

In the early stages it was very marginalized. But now, South African music is celebrated. It does better than anything else. For example South African R&B don’t do as well as musicians doing stuff that’s more African in flavor. I still sing predominantly in English because I want to be heard, but I find that my African songs are accepted and loved across all our cultures, and it’s because I haven’t turned my back on it because I want to celebrate the uniqueness of who we are.

What kinds of South African music are thriving? Stuff like kwaito? 

No, Kwaito is trying to survive. More Afro-pop and Afro-soul, and the female musicians are just killing it. Us female musicians have been in control of the industry for the last 5-6- years. And of course house music. South Africans love house music.

So you’re actually singing in multiple languages?  

I speak five South African languages, and sing in three: English, Zulu, and Xhosa. Predominantly Zulu, because I’m more fluent in that language.

It’s been nine years. How much of a shadow of Apartheid is left in Johannesburg, and how does it affect the music industry? 

We’re a young democracy.The legacy is definitely still there, and we’re trying. Even though we’re tolerant and get along we’re still segregated in many ways. There’s still a legacy for the apartheid in our government. There area lot of independent labels though — I run one. We are in the process of finding our feet, but this transition has been peaceful, and the world must remember that we’re still very young and it’s going to take time. But we are the new generation of young business owners and artists, and we can be more than our forefathers were. It’s beautiful to see.  Our children will see a different world and they won’t know — and unfortunately parents teach their children their own pain and hurt — but I think the children will do much better.

What’s next?

To be quite honest I’m going to quietly disappear into a mountain and go skiing. I need to act like a child not care about anything for a minute!  So I’ll either go to Vancouver or Colorado or something and I’m just going to have a nice time. I brought all my suits.


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