From Daveyton to New York, Lira’s still singing her heart out


“Artists like myself, who still preserve the language, we bring a sense of coolness to it.” – Lira (Image: Miss Lira)

• Lisa Loeb
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Sulaiman Philip

Daveyton sits in the centre, between Benoni, Springs and Boksburg. It was most famous for producing some of the country’s best footballers, being the township where kotas – a quarter loaf of bread with your choice of filling – were invented, and the home of the largest assemblage of vintage Chevrolets.

In recent years though, it has won as much acclaim for being the home of multi-award winning singer, songwriter and fashion icon Lira, who went from being broke, unemployed and living at home with her parents in 2001, to knocking Celine Dion off the top of the charts in 2009.

“I took a risk to become something new, something better. I know it’s hard but most people get stuck in their dreams because they make a decision and do nothing about it.”

Starting from the bottom …

Lira has faced challenges. From parents who felt she needed an education before they would give her music career their wholehearted support, to established artists stealing her work and, famously, trouble with her first recording company – 999 Music.

Her book, Making Herstory, allows her to be vague in interviews about those early days with 999 Music. The owner of 999, Arthur Mafokate, is interviewed about their relationship in a section of the book and for Lira that ends that chapter of her life.

As she told City Press in 2013: “Often, when you try to create change and put yourself out there, you might have stones thrown at you. I might have finally given people the one thing to bring me down in whatever way, so I’ve prayed to God to help me stay strong. Every year, I have just been running, achieving things and shifting the goal posts and I haven’t stopped to look at what happened in the last decade.”

Daveyton is the sort of town where it is easy to meander through life. Lira chose instead to follow her dream: today she is an entrepreneur, an award-winning vocal gymnast and world-conquering R&B diva. Her drive to world domination started in her teens when she began writing her own songs and performing for friends.

“You know there’s something very special about knowing who you are and knowing how you came to be.” – Lira (Image: Miss Lira)

… now we’re here

With her debut 2003 album – All My Love – in hand, she began building her career. Instead of sitting at home waiting for someone to discover her she began knocking on doors. Making the effort and taking action meant that work began to trickle in, slowly, but soon she was an in-demand performer. “Whenever I did a gig, I gave the best performance, so that those people would recommend me to others.”

Soul in Mind, Lira’s 2008 album, was proof of her growth as a songwriter. She produced a collection of songs that were sexy, soulful, full of joy, and which celebrated her femininity. With five SAMA nominations – the most ever by a South African artist – Lira announced her induction into the unofficial hall of fame of South Africa’s best female vocalists, which includes, of course, her idol, Miriam Makeba.

She grew up listening to Mama Afrika, along with Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. She soaked up their respective styles and it shows in her ability to switch from R&B to pop to jazz. Lira has shown herself to be fearless in how she interprets her own work and how she translates the work of her idols.

“I need the freedom to express myself through my music and so am not bound to a genre when working on an album. But there is a common thread through the songs and that is that they are honest – they come from my soul.”

The joy of African design

Makeba, beyond being Lira’s singing idol, is also her style icon. She has developed a personal dress style that has earned her as much applause from fashionistas as her voice has from music critics. She chooses South African designers because she believes they best understand her African character. “My style is very embracing of my African self. Nothing reflects who we are as well as our own designs. They are colourful, and vibrant. They also celebrate hand-crafted work.”

Makeba, she says, understood the joy of African design. Like her idol she loves colour and comfort, clothes that flow, that are fun yet glamorous. And, like Makeba, “I also have a weakness for bold neck pieces. She made African fashion world-famous. I also love fashion from the 20s and 30s. Classic elegance!”

Rise Again, released in April 2014, and Lira’s first American release, is a compilation of the best of her previous studio recordings. Like she did in 2008 she set herself a challenge to help her face the fear when going in a new direction. Before releasing Soul in Mind she went bungee jumping; earlier this year she jumped out of a plane, skydiving for the first time in her life. As she soulfully explains: “It is my giant leap of faith ritual; it makes me brave in other areas of my life.”

There is a lesson in her life for her young fans, she has always said: “A way will always exist for those who will keep pushing and fighting their way forward. It’s not going to be easy but we need to stop complaining and start creating some solutions for ourselves. We all need to find ways of making something of our lives. We will literally have to carve a new path where there has been none.”