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Lira and Kabelo Khanye.

Lira and Kabelo Khanye.

A new standard has been created and Lira is every bit responsible for it. Place charm aside and give centre stage to the facts: they speak to this truth. She is the highest selling vocalist in South Africa, all five of her albums have been certified Platinum, a regular at award shows: including the South African Music Awards and now, a world-class performer soon to let her light shine at President Barack Obama’s Inauguration in January 2013. 

Together with my good friends Bonolo and Viwe, we are soon led by Glamour Magazine South Africa’s Woman of the Year (2008) into what she calls one of her meditative spaces: a neat garden on the Jazzworx recording studio property in Randburg. She first engages us on our respective university subjects and we soon ease into an hour-long bold and illuminating conversation about her thoughts on her success, the five-year plan, the fresh announcement of her historic Washington invite, what Oprah personally told her and why she once swore at God. Lira is the rising “African-global icon” whose light, that leaves one panting for more in their own life, is piercing right on time! By: Kabelo Khanye.
Photo: Sizwe Ndingane.

Photo: Sizwe Ndingane.

Kabelo: There’s a joke that goes: if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans. However, He doesn’t seem to be laughing at your plans, instead He’s making them come true.

Lira: [Laughs] I believe in telling God your plans, He just directs your steps and He does it in His own time, which is actually the perfect time. When I look back at my journey, I was 22 when I wrote my five-year plan. I’m still on my five-year plan. Looking back I realize that mentally, character-wise and possibly spiritually, I wasn’t ready to receive what I put on my plan. I wasn’t smart enough, I wasn’t educated enough in what I was doing. I was just 22 with this big dream. But as an artist I wasn’t refined enough and grounded enough. You are given exactly what you need at the right time and sometimes, songs like “Rise Again,” it’s realizing that it often takes a lot of hardship to finding your personality. You see, I could tell you a whole lot of wisdom now but if you experience it, you know it. Parents tell us all the time and we’re like ‘yeah, sure’ but until you’ve felt it, until you’ve walked it then you know it and that knowing can never be unknown.

K: Are you where you planned to be now?

L: Oh yeah, in God’s time.

K: Alright, so all five of your albums are certified platinum, Essence magazine listed you as 1 of 5 Unique Artists to Change Music, you are the highest selling vocalist in South Africa, you’ve won countless accolades including an MTV Africa Award and multiple SAMA’s. What does all this groundbreaking success mean to you?

L: I don’t think you set out to win awards, they come your way. I see them as your peers acknowledging you for outstanding work but you can’t sit there and decide ‘okay, this year I’m sweeping at the SAMA’s or at the MTV’s,’ it doesn’t happen that way. Though it’s been really wonderful and most of it has hit me by pleasant surprise because I never expect, I’m just putting out the best that I can. What it tells me is that my work is doing something out there firstly in South Africa and then in the rest of the African continent and getting a nod in the US [BET nomination] was telling me that the global audience was picking up on my music.

K: And what has been your environment’s response to your success?

Lira at the MTN SAMA's.

Lira at the MTN SAMA’s.

L: Excitement. You know what I think has been really good is that people saw me arrive in the industry and then crash and burn and then disappear and then reappear again. So, I feel like people have walked with me so they’ve sympathized … they feel like they can relate. This has been very important and it’s important for me because I always refer to myself as an ambassador of possibility. I remember in the beginning when I told my family I want to become a musician, everyone was like ‘who does that for a living? That’s something you do at church or on the weekends, nobody does that for a living.’ I am surrounded by accountants and teachers, my mother is a banker and my dad is more in the creative space but not really in the same vein. So everybody was like ‘what madness is this?’ and even when I was a working musician, my peers would laugh and say ‘no really, what do you really do? You can’t just sing all the time.’ So I realized that that was a perception, nobody sees it as a profession. Meanwhile, I was a tax paying musician, I contribute as much as any professional so I was determined to change the perception of musicians. We are not only people who can’t read, can’t write, who dropped out of school and wanted to go do something artistic. There’s a purpose, there’s a contribution that we make and it’s a proper industry. The more I grew in this industry, the more empowered I became. So I have placed certain people and strategically, my team is pretty solid.

K: I feel like this relates with education, that educating yourself is skilling yourself at working with your talent.

L: IsiZulu best describes my thinking of education: ikuhluza inqondo – it refines your mind. It helps you to think systematically and logically because typically when you’re artistic, you think flowers just grow and you just pray and sing, that we live in a spiritual realm and that’s perfectly fine. But we must also ground ourselves through activity so I find, coupled with education, you have to be trained. You have to look at it scientifically: they say the creative people use one side of the brain where as the logical use another. So if you couple your talent with education, using the wholeness of your brain …

K: You’re full.

L: And it’s important. What I say is that education, as an artist, allows you to function in this world in the way that it operates. You’ve got to build a system, how to read your contracts, how to run yourself as a business, you’ve got to control your finances because we can’t rely on salaries or someone else giving us work in this industry. Education is the only key to balancing this.

K: You spoke about being active, let’s talk about your schedule. This December you were in King Williams Town, Cape Town, Polokwane, the Candle by Candlelight event hosted by Jacaranda FM and you’re still going to Northriding, two shows in Pretoria and then Howick. Do you ever have a break?

Lira performing for an audience of about 10 000 at the Cape Town Jazz Festival (2010).Photo: Julian von Schumann.

Lira performing for an audience of about 10 000 at the Cape Town Jazz Festival (2010).
Photo: Julian von Schumann.

L: In between there are corporate events, the private ones during the week and then rehearsals – I just had a four hour dance rehearsal. So I cannot do what I do without scheduling it and this is actually what Kibi does for me: she coordinates my life. I am not a machine, I am a human being. I prefer for my day to start at 10 o’clock because in the mornings that’s me time and I need it on a daily basis because that’s how I function. I need to meditate, I need to slow down, I need to smell the flowers, I need to do nothing. I eat very well and I try to have one day off every week, like Sunday: I was with family yesterday which helped. Being on this level of success, people can really put you up on a pedestal and sometimes it can remove you from reality so having friends and family always grounds you, it keeps you connected to reality. I also find that social platforms are pretty good but the fans can also be terrible, they can just be the meanest people. What I realize is that fans are mean because they’re looking for attention and it’s impossible to give everyone attention, I’m only one person so even though I take care of all my social spaces, I can’t let everybody in because it’s too much to carry. I think I just found a nice rhythm of managing my existence. It’s highly demanding, but like I said, on a daily basis I just need some me time.

K: I love that you meditate and that you actually plan your mediation time every day, I love to meditate myself. Do you also use this time to reflect on your success and to be present?

L: I don’t reflect much on my success because the thing is I’m still on the journey, I haven’t arrived. I think I have created a pretty good foundation, that’s all I’ve really done. So if anything, I always give thanks. So my sessions are to give thanks and the fact that I woke up and I’m still breathing. We have a wonderful space here: there’s trees, the aroma … little things like this. It’s so important also for clearing the clutter in my mind: when there’s a lot of things happening, when there’s a lot of shows, it’s hard for me to shut my mind out of that and just be. So sometimes being in nature helps me to remove my mind from my schedule and that’s why I have surrounded myself with people that can worry, that can take the phone calls, do the scheduling, so that I don’t have to do that. I recognized that I needed to create an environment that can be conducive to me so that I can be the best that I can be. I didn’t know this in the beginning, and I’ve been employing people since being in my twenties, is that the members of my team have to have their own mission: the only way that you are going to work with me is if your work with me is somehow aligned with your personal dreams because then you will give your best. We all have to be excellent all the time, that is the spirit in this team. That’s the rule.

K: And I was reading in the Lira Thanks section of your Soul in Mind cd and when you thanked your PA, you mentioned that you can’t wait to see her flourish.

L: My success will be reflected if my team is doing exceptionally well in their personal spaces.

K: Okay, let’s go back. You used to study Accounting and then worked to pay for your demo and that’s when you developed the five-year plan you spoke about earlier. What exactly is your five-year plan?

L: The first year was me developing a repertoire because I was working full time and hadn’t been writing, so I had to prepare the music and then look for a recording label within that whole year. By year two, release the first album, work that throughout the country, and hopefully bag a few SAMA’s. In the third year, start the transition into the rest of the continent as well as the States. And I figured by year four, I would have been able to come into the States and start working in that environment. By year five, I would have bagged an award, particularly a Grammy. I figured by that time, I could retire a millionaire [laughs], done. Honestly, it didn’t feel too ambitious and even when I quit my job, I had saved up enough to survive for a year …

K: So you’ve had your first five-year plan?

L: No, I’m still on that sucker [laughs].

K: [Laughs] Okay.

Lira modelling at Sanlam Fashion Week.Photo: Ivan Naude.

Lira modelling Falata Coutoure at Sanlam Fashion Week.
Photo: Ivan Naude.

L: Let me tell you how life panned out and this brings us back to your initial question. So the first year I served my notice [to resign from the old job] and two weeks later I got a recording deal. For me, this was God-sent. I land up at 999 and everything is just working out. Today, I’m at 999 and tomorrow, I’m going on tour with them – everything was moving very rapidly. So I’m experiencing this whole celebrity life and it’s just overwhelming. I think it’s then that I decided I wanted a stage name because I wanted to separate this madness, this chaos from my personal life. I need to be grounded, that’s how I best function. It was just a mental coping mechanism. Two weeks later, Speedy and Ishmael get into 999 and there’s this great opportunity to release albums and all of that so ofcourse then I get sidelined, that’s unfortunate but stuff happens. Two years down the line, there’s no album.

K: You went from being at a peak to a gradual slow pace …

L: Pretty much a stand-still. Now I’m starting to nag because there’s nothing that’s happening. I’m horribly late. So I said to them, ‘guys, I’ve written music and I’m ready to work.’ They said ‘the market is not ready yet for what you have to offer so we need a way to introduce you. Why don’t you feature with Ishmael and Zombo as a way to introduce you to the market?’ but the problem with that is that to this day people think I sang Kwaito. It was a means to introduce this new girl using their popular artists so my plan was in a mess. Year three, 2003, the album comes out and I’m like ‘finally, I have something to show for the past few years. Amazing things happened: “All My Love” becomes the most played song on South African radio …

K: And I heard it knocked Beyonce’s “Dangerously in Love” off the national charts …

L: Yes …

K: [Laughs] Who knocks Beyonce off the charts?

Lira and her mother.

Lira and her mother.

L: [Laughs] My music was all over the place, they were loving it but they didn’t know it was South African, they did not know it was me. So the music was being enjoyed but they never made the association. So there I was frustrated, I’d have to go ‘that’s my song’ but they’d laugh in disbelief. It was devastating. You can imagine, I’m on year three of my five-year plan – horribly late! Now I’m desponded, I’m depressed and because I only saved up for a year, I’m completely broke. Oh best believe I was broke. I’m having to sell off stuff and I remember my mom saying “don’t sell your bed, just leave something” and ofcourse I was just feeling like a complete failure. I moved back home, my parents can’t keep supporting me because I’m a grown adult. I remember my mother giving me R100 per month to just exist [laughs] …

K: [Laughs] Wow …

L: And in a way I agree with that because my mother’s philosophy has always been ‘if you make a choice, you must bear the consequences of that choice.’ The basics were there but I couldn’t live lavishly. I suffered through it but this was the time, I believe, the essence of who I am got birthed because it crushed me to the bare minimum. I had to build it up anew, with a new sense of reality and purpose. When I look back, it was only then was I able to even pursue that initial five-year plan. Sure, my timeline was five years but what I have always wanted to become was an African-global icon and you don’t do that in five years. After my first album, I was depressed and exhausted and tired of feeling miserable. I was thinking ‘I used to get paid for being miserable, now I’m just broke and miserable’ [laughs], this is like anti-progress. Until I said ‘get yourself together. Your limbs are fully functional, you can still sing, you can still write so now focus on what you can do. In the morning I would get up and give thanks for the fact that I have parents, I was still receiving R100 at the end of the month, I had food every month, I had  a product I can still sell myself with. The first thing that I had to do was use the little bit of resources that I had had to do a brand new photoshoot, one that reflected who I am so that when I give you my cd and my profile, before you have even heard the music, the picture must grab you …

K: So now you’re rectifying what had happened with the “All My Love” single, now people will be able to attach the face to the music …

L: Exactly. This is what I could do, what I could not do was release another album. I was so disempowered on so many levels but I couldn’t focus on that. I took all my tools and just spread them everywhere, I knocked on every door I could find … I had no shame! I would buy my own material and if somebody in a restaurant said ‘you’re that girl hey, the one who sings that song “All My Love”, I can never find your album’ and I’d be like ‘R100, I’ve got some in the boot. Would you like one or two? I’ll sign it for you.’ Randomly, I’d sell five cd’s, in a supermarket even.

K: Now you’ve got more than R100 every month.

L: You see what I mean, easily. Then I would go to a gig and they’d pay me even R1000 but my cd’s would end up giving me more income than the actual gig and it didn’t matter for me because what I realized about human behavior is that you don’t necessarily need to be famous. If you gave a great performance and you touched them, they will want to buy that cd right there and then. That’s how I survived and gigs would start pouring in. Another thing that I noticed at 999 is that we used to arrive some two hours later and I wouldn’t even know that we’re late and the client is upset that I’m not even saying sorry. So when I was in control, I would arrive on time and I would over deliver so there was a thing of excellence, there was a thing of professionalism. I was then able to buy my car and pay it off in a year, I was able to buy myself equipment, I hired five people and I was so empowered.

K: Because you were in control.

L: And I am a working musician, halla back! [laughs]. Then one of the first clever things that I did, thank God for my education, is because you’re living from hand to mouth, you don’t know when your next income is coming. I forced myself to pay myself a salary, I forced myself to live off a certain budget so that if I have a dry season, I won’t even feel it. It’s something that I’ve carried on …

K: Till this day?

L: Till this day I earn a salary. At the end of the year, you have a lump sum and you can by something significant, you can invest, so I’ve been saving since forever. Wealth is not created by winning lotteries, it is created by being responsible with your finances. My team and I work all month, I’m not going to control it but let’s force ourselves to receive money monthly and then it becomes sizeable.

K: Were you planning on keeping the Obama Inauguration a secret until next month?

L: We were invited three weeks ago and it leaked last Friday. No, I needed the go-ahead from Washington to know if I could speak to the media and once I was given the go-ahead, which was this past Saturday, the news had already leaked so I’m doing a bit of a catch-up. This is huge! I am performing for Obama. I have been invited as an African to perform for him and two-hundred other delegates from around the world.

K: African-global icon.

L: Name it and you will experience it!

K: There are a lot of aspiring musicians who seek to be of your caliber, performing for President Obama. What practical advice would you give them?

L: Your gift, your talent is not enough. You have got to work to be the best that you can be, you’ve got to stand out. You know if you’re just scraping on your talent or flirting with it, so work at being the best that you possibly can be. Your talent becomes tweaked, more refined the more you use it, so you’ve got to use it and often so. You’ve got to have a vision, I had a vision and I knew the kind of artist I wanted to be: African-global icon. Ofcourse my advice is based on my principles. I knew that I didn’t want to be sleazy, I knew that I wanted to be inspirational and a role model so if your vision is clear, a lot of things will come your way but the things that you say yes to will be based on your vision. Keep working it until you get there because what I’ve discovered is that the journey is exquisite.

K: Let’s talk about your professional versus your personal life. I once heard you say in an interview that ‘unless it’s got to do with work, you don’t prefer to be out and about.’ Your personal life is not all over the tabloids, what informs this conscious decision to be in the media for only work-related reasons?

L: I have a purpose there. If I have to live my life with the public constantly glaring, I would lose my mind. Like I said, I always need me time and I could never do that with glaring eyes, I could never function and exist as I do if I did not separate the two.

K: Who are the people that you admire both locally and internationally?

L: Khanyisile Dhlomo: I love what she’s done with her brand. They refer to her as a media mogul and she has one of the most successful brands in the continent …

K: And she’s not even 40 yet.

L: That’s just divine, I love it. Khensani Nkosi: I love how she’s balancing family and work and she still has very progressive ideas and instills them in her family so those two are the epitome for me in this continent. Oprah: I had the pleasure of meeting her when I didn’t expect it and she said something so profound to me. I was speaking at her school and I didn’t know she’d be there, it’s weird, the girls have green uniform and I was talking to the green, she was right in front of me and I didn’t see her.

K: [Laughs] Was she wearing green as well?

Lira conversing with Oprah Winfrey.

Lira conversing with Oprah Winfrey.

L: [Laughs] She was wearing orange! The theme for the talk was ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ and I spoke about how I set an intention for myself and life responded: the right people, the right opportunities … the path just kept presenting itself and that’s where God directs your steps. Right at the end of my talk, I sing “Feel Good” and the girls jump up and Oprah also jumped, that was the first time I noticed her. It worked out beautifully because for all I know, I probably could’ve stumbled all over my words. She came back to me and basically affirmed this to me, she said ‘this is how she got here, she had every intention to become the Oprah we all know. Intention pinpoints your end-results and through our fears, our past, our hesitations and everything we go through, we might make the road winding however we do end up where we set out.’ One of the most powerful songs I think I have written is “Believer” and what I was trying to say in that song is the most exquisite lesson I have learned holistically: what you believe in is reflected by your thoughts, your words and your deeds. If you are not where you want to be, you must start by directing your mind towards it and then adjusting your behavior, adjust how you speak so that you affirm it.

K: Powerful. So Hugh Masekela is nominated for a Grammy, what is your response to this?

L: The excitement is two-fold: part of it is selfish because just by virtue of Hugh winning, it creates possibility and with a person like me, all I need is possibility [laughs].

K: Ambassador of possibility [laughs].

L: I can’t tell you how insanely excited I am and who better? No one is more deserving and I hope he brings it back home. You know, I was in the Virgin Islands and I think they declared 18 & 19 March National Hugh Masekela Day! We don’t do that here.

K: Do you still experience disappointment?

L: Oh yes, I live a very real life. It’s as real as they come. My friend often says that “tall trees must endure harsher winds” and it’s the case. There are certain challenges I won’t feel but life constantly refines you so the level of my challenges is much higher than what is was two, three years ago. It disappoints me greatly but I suppose I should be understanding: I don’t know how to behave like a celebrity, I still feel the same but people change and treat me like something else. A simple greet and a request to take a photo would be awesome but there are people who stick cameras in my face, I sit with my husband and people stick cameras in my face, there are people taking videos when I’m not looking … I hate that, absolutely despise that. I don’t know how to understand that.

K: Does it make it harder for you to go out, say for dinner with your husband?

L: We choose where we go. But I think people are generally kind and I can see the difference between the Lira of 999 and the Lira of now: people respect me and I really appreciate that. Now I know even when I wear short pants, no one will dare say a thing because I know I have earned it.

K: One of my all time favorite songs is “Soul in Mind” and you say it, “it’s a prayer.” What does God mean to you?

L: God is the equivalent of life and love. Everytime I say “return to love,” everytime I speak of life I am talking about God. But I have learned to talk about Him in a non-religious way because that’s life: the sleeping, the awakening, the eating, the reading, the doing-an-interview … it’s all of that. Those are my favorite words to describe God: life and love.

K: When you were in the brunt of all that disappointment and depression …

L: … I was looking for God. I didn’t understand: how are you going to give me a talent, enough urge, enough madness to walk away from my job and then not deliver? And then I was angry at being born in a township because it was so depressing. I wanted answers, I wanted a personal conversation. I was asking some hectic questions, I was very confrontational with God … I would swear at Him.

K: Really? [laughs] That is the most surprising answer I have ever heard!

L: Yes, I was like ‘what makes You think we don’t deserve to hear from You?’ You used to talk to David and Moses back then, don’t you think we need to hear from You now? Burn a bush nigger! Burn a bush [laughs].

K: [Laughs] Really?

L: I wanted to know that He was here because I didn’t know what was going on. I know You whispered in their ears so please whisper in mine. In the same way that Simon heard from You, I would like to hear from You. If He told me He wanted me to sweep the streets, I would do it better than anybody else who has ever swept the streets because I know that that is what I was supposed to be doing. I would cry and I would beg and I would ask and the day He answered, it was the most overwhelming, the most beautiful, the most complete understanding and that is love. I understood with such crystal clarity how to move on. I was completely excited and I was just like ‘oh my gosh, why didn’t You just say so?’ [laughs]. What happens then is that you don’t need anything external to fill you, so even in your relationship, all you want to do is give love. When I prayed for a partner, I prayed for what I experience in the spirit to present itself in the flesh.

K: So your prayer to God was to present Himself in the flesh and low & behold, your husband was presented to you?

L: That’s exactly right. That’s “Phakade” and then circles for me are eternity, there’s no end, so anything to do with circles and the circle of life, all of it is well thought out. And it all makes sense to me, I don’t care if nobody gets it, it’s okay, nizoba-strong [you will be strong] [laughs] but it’s from that understanding that I come from, that understanding of God, and when I write my music, all of us have God in us so it will connect genuinely.

K: What’s next for Lira in 2013?

L: I would like to release a mainstream album in the States, I would like to do a tour in the entire States. I have no intention of moving there but in the last three years we’ve been going there and spending a couple of months, so that’s how I want to carry on with my global career. Ideally, it would be nice to know I can do work in the States, go to Europe, Asia and then come back home. That is how I want to live my life.

K: Can I share something with you: I wanted to interview you some months ago and I think it was even before you released your Captured Tour DVD so I could talk to you about that but you were out of the country a lot …

L: Yeah, I was actually still in the States …

K: Yeah and just when you came, you then went to Europe again and I remember thinking ‘this is so excellent.’ In the same way that you see Hugh Masekela and how he represents possibility, if you’re not aware of this fully, I would just like to tell you that a lot of people saw that [globe trotting] and we are seeing those possibilities for ourselves, if we haven’t already, of being those global artists.

L: I think our generation in particular have to think that way. This is the reason I will never move that side because I feel the responsibility to bring that back home. There are certain people who I saw growing up and doing great things, and just because they were in the same township as me, it made me feel like it’s possible.

K: Yeah and so in 2013 it’s the album …

L: … Of which I wanted to release by January but I haven’t slowed down, I don’t know if I know how to …

K: Keep meditating and I’m sure you’ll get there [laughs]

L: [Laughs] I just know how to get by on a daily basis but completely shutting down is hard to do. And usually I shut down in January and I’m still going on holiday but just not all of it …

K: [Laughs] Because of Obama …

L: [Laughs] Yeah, bummer (sarcastic). And this is what I also find, that everytime I say I’m going to take a break, a huge opportunity presents itself. But the plan next year is to work with the artists and the producers that I want to work with and do that album that I have always wanted to do. For the first time I am an independent artist, my company released The Captured Tour DVD, that’s our baby in its entirety and so I am feeling very empowered. I feel like for the first time I might be able to grasp the fullness of the ideas that I have had. It’s been great but it always felt just short and I think that has always kept me going …

K: The hunger is maintained …

L: Yes it is and I don’t think it will ever be satisfied. It’s exciting, so I’m just going to give it my best shot.

K: Any other dreams you hold for yourself? You were in an Italian film …

L: I’d love to act more but I’m very picky about my roles because acting is not my livelihood so I can be picky. I would love to be in incredible roles but this also means I have to refine my art and I might take up acting classes in New York.

K: What are you grateful for in 2012?

Lira performing on her Captured Tour.

Lira performing on her Captured Tour.

L: So much. I’m actually grateful for the earlier part of the year: there was struggle and it was difficult and I’m grateful that I still have challenges that grow me. I am grateful for the challenges because they still humble me, they keep me human and then I am grateful for the blessings because they always take me by surprise [whispers] I like surprise, I do. My team has grown more solidly, everyone in my band is a business owner and so everyone is growing in their own space. We only had one guy that was in debt, and now he is completely clear of it and he can now start building. When I look at the whole picture I think we have had an exquisite year. It’s wonderful when your prayers are exceeded. Oh and if I may, I am grateful for having released my first project, The Captured Tour, under my own label Otarel Music, and it’s gone Golden and pushing Platinum.

K: Congratulations for that.

L: Thank you.

K: You have touched on various truths, but what is the one truth that you hold onto?

L: God is life and love. I feel like I am completely plugged into life because I am plugged into God, I am completely in love with life and I am in love with Him. There are times when Christians will ask me ‘Lira, are you saved?’ and then I say ‘when you look at my life, what do you think? Who do you think is doing all of this … me?’

K: You don’t swear at Him anymore right?

L: [Laughs] Oh no, now we get along. You know how relationships are.

Viwe, Kabelo, Lira & Bonolo.



Lira poses with the Inspired4Writers team: Viwe, Kabelo & Bonolo.