The Wrap Up’s afrobeats specialist Nonny Orakwue recently caught up with nine-time SAMA award winner and BET International 2012 nominee Lira ahead of her international album debut, ‘Rise Again’. Check out what she had to say on knocking Beyoncé off the top spot, cracking the States and how the females are taking over the South African music scene...
The Wrap Up: You didn’t initially set out for a career in music, so how did you become an artist?
Lira: I had a career in finance and I initially studied accounting, but I just felt unfulfilled in that field and I really just wasn’t happy. I remember at 22-years-old I thought, ‘if I’m going to live the rest of my life like this I’m just going to wither and die.’ My association with fulfilment at the time was when I was in college performing; that’s when I felt good. So I handed in my resignation, drew up a five-year plan and was hoping to end up with a Grammy by year five. It was incredible because as soon as I served my notice at work, I literally landed a deal after two weeks. My first album came out two years later.
TWU: You famously knocked Beyoncé off the No.2 position in the South African Billboard Chart. Do you think that the South African audience is now more open to hearing different types of homegrown music?
Lira: I believe so, I really do. The music that is outselling the soul scene is the house scene, which is also male dominated. We do have incredible female DJ’s that are doing well, but in terms of female acts, in my opinion the reason why people take pride in what we do is because we dress and represent our culture but we still appeal to the globe in many ways. I just feel there’s a change, there’s a hunger to do better and to celebrate what we are and who we are. Like I said, an average album of mine will go platinum, my concerts will still sell out and it’s exciting, people own it and love it as if I’m their sister.
TWU: You grew up in an Apartheid South Africa, an experience which must have had a profound effect on you. How did it inspire your work?
Lira: It’s probably the reason why I became a musician. As a child, adults were generally very hard people and you could imagine what it was like living in an Apartheid environment. Children didn’t get the expression of love, but as soon as a piece of music came on people just softened. They would smile, they would grab you and they would dance with you. I saw the power of music and how it could unite even the hardest of people. I wanted to write music that would capture what people were feeling or help them feel better about their situation. Music was a huge part of our culture and that’s why you’d hear a lot of American soul music because a lot our own musicians were banned - it became the music of a struggle.
TWU: Which artists had a part to play in influencing your music?
Lira: Aretha Franklin. I heard a lot of Anita Baker; my first single was very much influenced by her. Definitely Sade, even to this day she is a huge influence. When I got older, I got exposed to Miriam Makeba and that was the first time I saw an African making waves in the world. She was one of our first Africans to win a Grammy. The older I got the more the likes of Mary Blige and Lauryn Hill became a huge influence.
TWU: What’s the musical climate like in South Africa right now?
Lira: It’s exciting, the girls are taking over! There are a few guys that are doing incredibly well, but with the girls it’s so visible. We sell out shows and despite the recession my sales are still going up, we’re filling shows so it’s really exciting times.
TWU: You’ve won many awards throughout your career but now you’re trying to take on America and Canada. What’s their reaction been?
Lira: Last year I did a tour in Annapolis, Washington, New York, LA and Philadelphia, and these people don’t know who I am but we were sold out in every venue. So there was a curiosity there - what was exciting was the response. They felt that there was a place and space for what I had to offer, and that’s what I was really using the tour to determine - if my music would really resonate with people out there. I don’t want to change my sound; I don’t mind exploring production approaches but I don’t want to be or sound American. I feel there are already enough people that are doing that kind of thing. I think it’s important to have something that makes you stand out.
TWU: Your track ‘Rise Again’ was chosen for the Oprah Winfrey documentary. How did that come about?
Lira: My agent in the States pitched it to them. I’ve actually met Oprah twice here in South Africa. She heard the song and she approved it, which was great. But how I met her was through her school. I was invited to give a talk to the girls and they didn’t tell me she’d be there, so I remember when I gave the talk she was sitting right in front but I only noticed her right at the end when she jumped up and clapped because she was so excited, which was actually better - I think I would have been so nervous! She’s wonderful.
TWU: What would you say has been your biggest achievement?
Lira: I’d say all I’ve done so far is laid a pretty good foundation, I feel like I’m just getting started but my highlight was performing at the World Cup. That was insane. It was amazing, I met Akon and Knaan; he was wonderful! I also met Shakira, Alicia Keys and the Black Eyed Peas - John Legend was sweet too… I’d love to work with him. Another highlight was performing three times for Nelson Mandela!
TWU: What’s next for Lira?
Lira: My mission is to see if I can turn what I do into a globally appealing brand. The States is the first point and then we’ll explore Europe. This year I’m focusing on the States, but I’ve got a tour lined up again in South Africa and I’ll be exploring opportunities to perform in different parts of the world. I feel that my strength is in my live performances and it gives me a chance to connect with my audience, so I’m constantly looking for those kind of opportunities.
Lira’s international album debut, ‘Rise Again’ and her concert DVD ‘The Captured Tour’ are both out now.
Words: Nonny Orakwue (@Verbal_Vixen)