Elegant. Soulful. Radiant. Few words come close to describing the rich, silky sound of South Africa’s preeminent female vocalist of the 21st century, LIRA. Since embarking on her incomparable career nearly a decade ago, LIRA has blazed an astonishing trail of accomplishments that few artists in the history of the entire continent can lay claim to.
While she gracefully follows in the footsteps of giants such as the late Miriam Makeba and the legendary Letta Mbulu, LIRA has brazenly carved her own musical niche with her self-described Afro-soul sound – a musical mélange as refreshing as a summer breeze. Her flawless dossier boasts a multitude of South African Music Awards (SAMAs), MTV African Awards, MOJO Awards, Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year, fashion and lifestyle magazine covers, and platinum albums, all of which have left an indelible impression on Africa-at-large.
Growing up in the Daveyton township in Johannesburg’s East Rand, LIRA’s world was shaped by the harsh realities of South Africa’s formerly ubiquitous racial and socioeconomic arbiter: apartheid. “There were subtleties in our environment that bred a sense of helplessness and desperation,” she says. “Very often, the environment taught us that we couldn’t go very far. It was very limiting.” However, the sociopolitical constraints leveled at her generation did little to inhibit the urbane aspirations and dampen their resilient spirit of transcendence. “We became very integrated with not only other black cultures, but people of all backgrounds. This made us thirsty to integrate into the world. My generation was the first to break free of our mental limitations and physical boundaries and set ourselves free in a true sense. It celebrates the human spirit, which can never be caged completely. A person can put you in a cage and hurt you, but they can’t touch your spirit and your mind. It’s celebrating those freedoms.”
Fast forward to a post-collegiate LIRA who had grown unhappy with her life in the corporate world. “My spark disappeared. I was desperately miserable.” Yet after receiving her parents’ timely blessing, LIRA immediately put pen to paper composing two documents that would shape the course of her illustrious destiny: an ambitious five-year plan and a letter of resignation. Soon after, a night on the town in celebration of her birthday would reveal an unlikely musical alliance in the brother of a close friend who owned an independent record company specializing in the local music genre called kwaito. “He wanted to venture into R&B to see if he could conquer that field, and here I was looking for an opportunity.” LIRA’s undeniable talent quickly garnered her a spot on the small label’s roster. But during the first year of her tenure, she would find herself relegated as a featured artist on many of the label’s kwaito songs. “Their idea was that through my collaborations with kwaito artists they could introduce the new soul voice of their label,” she reveals. “Unfortunately, what it actually did was give the perception throughout the country that I was a kwaito artist. Their marketing ploy didn’t work.”
To say that LIRA, reared on a steady diet of American soul luminaries such as Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Nina Simone, felt out of place at the diminutive label would be a gross understatement. But rather than mope, the headstrong songstress took action. “I grew horribly unhappy in this environment, because I felt I was being sidelined. So on the second year, I demanded to get into the studio because I had a five-year plan and I was running out of time.” The result was LIRA’s 2003 debut album All My Love. Upon its release, the album began making waves on the South African music scene. The title track quickly became the most played South African song at radio, eventually earning the grand distinction of dethroning an international superstar from the top spot. “At the time, Beyonce’s ‘Dangerously In Love’ was topping the South African charts. I kicked her song off the top of the charts. This was the first time that any South African song had been played that much. So we were already making history.”
Though the small label was basking in the glow of the biggest potential runaway success of its existence, it was ultimately unprepared to fully bring that success to fruition. “There wasn’t enough planning done to follow it up. People knew and loved the music, but they didn’t make the association with me. They didn’t even know it was South African. That was my frustration.” Tearing a page from her own playbook, LIRA refused to play victim to circumstance. She relentlessly distributed promotional materials, sold her CDs at live shows, booked her own gigs, and hired her own band. “I was literally an entertainment solution.”
Sensing an urgent need for musical evolution, LIRA decided to heed her inner voice’s call to expand her musical horizons as an artist and a songwriter. “I was developing and growing. Therefore, the first album was becoming less of a reflection of who I’d become.” Unbeknownst to her label, she retreated to the studio for seven months to write and record new material for the next phase of her burgeoning career. In response to Sony Africa emphatic response to the new material, Lira parted company with her former label and inked a deal with Sony Africa – resulting in the release of her 2006 sophomore album Feel Good. “I was finally a free bird.”
The album immediately began to set South Africa ablaze. Continuing her already distinguished legacy of firsts, Feel Good earned Lira her first SAMA. In addition, the music video for the title track was the first ever by a South African artist to be aired on VH-1. It looked as if her metamorphosis from musical ingénue to national sensation had begun. Whether by kismet or die-hard work ethic, it was apparent that her five-year plan was finally starting to fall into place. By 2008, LIRA was in a more intense introspective space. But when it was time to return to the studio, she admits there was a cloud of trepidation hanging over her head. “Sometimes, you feel the pressure to replicate your success. But then I stepped back and thought to myself, ‘I’m growing! I shouldn’t fear this process! What’s the point of doing another Feel Good when it has already been done once!’ So I took the risk.”
She released her third full length Soul In Mind that same year. No sooner than the album hit stores, the critical acclaim began to crescendo like rolling thunder. Soul In Mind went on to set a SAMA record the following May for most awards won in a single year (4) by a single artist: best remix, best adult contemporary album, album of the Year, and female artist of the year. In addition, Glamour Magazine South Africa voted LIRA Woman of the Year in 2008. Following conventional logic, one would assume LIRA would have dashed back to the studio to cull new material for a subsequent album in the wake of this immense success. However, the songbird-in-flight had yet another trick up her sleeve.
In 2009, LIRA began assembling the makings of her most ambitious venture yet: a live DVD. “It was a marketing tool for me,” she says. Filmed before a live audience at the plush Carnival City Casino, the production employed 10 RED digital video cameras, a record for any single production in the world. Released that same year, LIRA Live in Concert: A Celebration would become yet another major landmark in her marvel of a career. While the soundtrack would become LIRA’s fourth platinum album certification, the DVD became the first BluRay music DVD release issued in the entire continent. After nine million South Africans tuned into the concert’s subsequent telecast, the DVD went on to secure a triple platinum certification becoming the country’s fastest and highest selling music videodisc. This alone earned LIRA the distinction of supplanting yet another international diva’s reign at the top: Celine Dion.
After being awarded a best female artist SAMA for her live album the following year, LIRA was accorded with the outstanding and unprecedented achievement of being the only female artist to have won the award two consecutive years in a row. Closing out a year of touring and readying her first batch of new material in two years, she unveiled the silky and spiritual Return To Love in January of 2011. The stunning 11-track set finds LIRA in her absolute finest hour as a songwriter and vocalist. Return To Love is a glowing testament to her immense growth, eschewing poignancy and despair for lyrics replete with hope, love, and a profound sense of interconnectedness. Staying the course of her five-year plan, further expanded her artistic palate by making her cinematic debut as the support lead in the Antonio Falduto directed drama, The Italian Consolate. The film recently premiered at the Taormina Film Festival in Italy this past summer where the songstress was only the second African vocalist to grace the Teatro Del Greco stage since Miriam Makeba.
LIRA has also added brand ambassador to her impressive resume, with appearances in major ad campaigns by MAC Cosmetics, Audi, Shield and Blackberry. But she has yet to take her eyes off one of the main objectives of her five-year plan: to conquer the world with Afro-soul. An urbane, sophisticated genre described as “a fusion of soul music, elements of jazz, funk, and African languages,” Afro-soul’s silky vibes and mellifluous arrangements are certain to help LIRA achieve her goal with ease. “I just have a desire to share my music with the world. I need to take that risk and I’m ready.” Now, after eight years of triumphant transcendence, prestigious accolades, and record-breaking milestones in her homeland, LIRA is poised to take America by storm.
In the summer of 2010, LIRA joined a line up of stellar artists that included Alicia Keys, Shakira, and John Legend, performing a rousing rendition of “Pata Pata,” a hit song originally recorded by the late Miriam Makeba at the FIFA World Cup Kick-Off Concert. Later that summer, Lira was also selected to take part in the 92nd birthday celebration of former South African president Nelson Mandela. Telecast live in 3D, her performance of the popular Labi Siffre anti-apartheid tune and Mandela favorite “(Something Inside) So Strong” with the Soweto Spiritual Singers proved to be one of the most stunning live vocal performances in her career to date.
In the midst of an exciting world tour, LIRA is preparing the release of five-track EP, which will serve as her introduction to American audiences. The LIRA EP, a breathtaking collection of tunes culled from her amazing catalog, sits comfortably in the company of grooves by the likes of Lizz Wright, Sade, and Maxwell. Slated for release on July 26th, the EP will serve as a delectable audio appetizer for LIRA’s full-length 14-track American LP Feel Good in early 2012. The EP features stunning live versions of “Feel Good” and “Rise Again,” as well as three exclusive tracks not contained on upcoming LP including “Dance Of Life,” “Crush,” and “Ngiyabonga.” The well-rounded EP is certain to whet the musical appetites of the U.S. market and distinguish LIRA as a musical force to be reckoned with. Resting in the company of a diverse and impressive roster of artists such as Coldplay, Black Eyed Peas, Raphael Saadiq, Janelle Monae, and James Blunt, Lira recently signed on with the esteemed Paradigm Agency for booking engagements.
Described as “a fervent request to one’s self to feel the joy of the day,” “Feel Good” saunters with a silky confidence that opens into a vamp brighter than the morning sun. A polyglot with five languages under her belt, LIRA gives thanks and praise on the gratitude-filled “Ngiyabonga” (which means thank you in Zulu) sung completely in one of her many native tongues. The Spanish guitar driven “Rise Again” is an ardent lyrical testament to the triumphs of the remarkably resilient human spirit in the face of obstacles and seemingly insurmountable odds. With that said, it shouldn’t be long before LIRA’s mesmerizing sonic creations begin to impact radio play lists and sales charts. “The music is beautiful, uplifting, empowering, and celebratory. I’m not necessarily stripping and singing stuff that will be here now and gone tomorrow. Good vibrations all the way.”
As part of a new cadre of African artists making waves stateside such as K’Naan, Nneka and Blitz The Ambassador, LIRA sees herself as an ambassador of the new Africa: a land where, despite a recent history filled with obstacles, a future brimming with infinite possibilities lies. “The conditions are far more difficult for us than they are for many artists in the world. We have to find unique ways of doing things. We can’t follow the road that has been traveled by everyone else.” Just as certain as the mother of invention is necessity, Lira feels that this pressure to thrive outside of convention has bred a unique brand of ingenuity that will propel her and her fellow artists to the world stage. “We’re proud of being African, but there’s also a desire to be a part of the world. Part of the way we can raise the consciousness back home is when people see us rise on the world stage. Then they’ll feel like they have the permission to rise. That’s the responsibility that our generation has burdened ourselves with. But we don’t do it for the individual, we do it for the entire group. It’s about who we can pull up in the process.”
In spite of her demanding career schedule, LIRA consistently lends her time and resources to causes that matter to her the most. She remains active with and has received numerous awards from various grassroots organizations, outreach groups, and advocacy programs such as the Student Sponsorship Programme – which presented her with the Inspiration Award in 2011. As a de facto ambassador for empowerment and self-love, Lira is a cross-generational beacon of light for the masses in her home country. “We have stories to tell and people to reach. One thing I’ve picked up around the world is that people everywhere have very similar struggles. They need to know that things are possible. We’re not so different after all.”
With a phenomenal list of accomplishments to her credit and a five-year plan very near fulfillment, LIRA remains confident that this is only the beginning. “Within South Africa, I almost feel like I’ve done everything,” she says. “I need to spread my wings and fly.” Taking into consideration her bubbly self-assuredness, unique vocal talent, and her patented Afro-soul sound, it’s hard to see how the world-at-large will be able to effectively resist the musical prowess of LIRA. “I’m thirsty for it. I’m enthusiastic about it. I almost feel like I needed to take this long to get ready, to grow as a musician and a performer. I’m much more mature now than I was back then. I’m more comfortable and grounded. I feel like I have something to offer.”