This South African songstress is going global with her new album Born Free
Buried under a mountain of awards, eye-popping album sales, impeccably glamorous magazine covers and hundreds of thousands of social media followers, it might be easy to assume that Lira might be divorced from the everyday. Bound by schedule, perhaps a little fun-free? Think again. Not only does South Africa’s first lady of song drive herself everywhere, she secretly harbours a need for speed. “I drive a nippy sports car. Everyone is shocked I drive myself around. I just like driving, it gives me pleasure,” Lira confides. “When there’s time available I do like to drive out of town around in the open road - burn some rubber!”
Now over a decade into her career Lira is showing no sign of slowing down. If anything, she’s putting her (presumably elegantly heeled) foot to the pedal, and this time world domination is on the horizon. This all makes for very impressive stuff when you learn that this journey almost never began. Lira’s (born Lerato Molapo) modest beginnings were as a sensible, shy girl from Daveyton who, while harbouring a love for singing, song writing and the stage (idols: Miriam Makeba, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone) found herself enrolled for a more sensible life in accounting. “I was miserable. It was crazy. I had money, I had social standing, my community was proud of me, but if money and status don’t give happiness and fulfilment what on earth does?” What brought about her epiphany? “A good dose of madness,” she laughs. “The only things I associated with happiness was being on stage so I decide to go for it.”
Trading spreadsheets for studio time, Lira embarked on her own five-year plan to ‘make it’ in the music industry. “Of course things didn’t work out to the plan but it’s been the greatest adventure of my life.” And so far that adventure has taken in six studio albums (four of them multi-platinum), film work, endless accolades and mentor work on The Voice SA (“I’m not there to teach them how to sing, it’s how to make a success of a career”). At this junction in her life, and with her new album Born Free, personal and creative freedom remain front and centre in Lira’s vision, both for herself and for those who love her special blend of soulful, South African R&B.
“The album is going out under my own label and that’s been a huge part of it, having the independence to express my art, to do what I love without the ugly parts of the industry,” she says. “Musically with this album it’s me wanting to express how I hear the music in my head as closely as possible. It’s beautiful to listen back and think - yes, this is exactly what I was hoping for - it’s a very powerful thing to achieve. For me, it’s a first.”
"I grew up in a time of Apartheid, so it just wasn’t cool being black, nothing about what I was doing was cool. Now we’re going through so much transition. I consider this album as a soundtrack for my generation"
Throughout her career the thematic touchstone of positivity has resonated deep with her devoted fanbase. Her music will always be personal: “It’s the story I know best. I grew up in a time of Apartheid, so it just wasn’t cool being black, nothing about what I was doing was cool. Now we’re going through so much transition. I consider this album as a soundtrack for my generation. We’re almost floating around, and not firm on learning how to express ourselves. Who are we? What does this freedom mean to us? These questions are what makes us stand out in the world.”
Bobbi Brown Cosmetics has also recognised Lira’s universal appeal and recently nominated her as an ambassador for Africa. “Growing up we just didn’t have beauty brands for dark skin, they never got it right. Bobbi Brown has changed its palette to accommodate women of colour.” With the campaign (shot by Amy Scheepers) rollout leaning heavily on social media, it appears Lira’s charm is as much about her being relatable as she is aspirational.
Always cutting a stylish figure, Lira’s fashion choices are as Afrocentric as her music. “The African fashion scene is the most exciting for me. Ghana, Nigeria and Mozambique are my favourite style destinations. I love Christie Brown and Duaba Serwa from Ghana - Duaba incorporates subtle motifs of Ghanaian culture but makes it so accessible. It’s selling Africa in a way that’s palatable for the rest of the world, for lack of a better word.”
With interest in Born Free coming in from as far as France and Japan it seems like the rest of the world is waking up to Lira’s charms too. “My focus is to expand my reach on a global level. I’m opening new doors and that’s what my desire was.”
Born Free is out now on Otarel Music. Buy it on iTunes here