Moving on a fine line
Brenda Fassie’s death in May this year scared a lot of people. Not least one young singer whose striking voice and outlandish behaviour has led to comparisons between her and the deceased diva. But don’t expect Lebo Mathosa to follow in the same footsteps.
Like Fassie, her role model, Mathosa grew up in the spotlight. Performing as a naive 14-year-old in Boom Shaka she and Thembi Seete courted controversy with their daring skirt lengths. Boom Shaka became one of South Africa’s best-loved groups, but both Mathosa and Seete were itching to make it on their own. “Musically, as an artist, you need to grow in the type of music you do,” says Mathosa. “It is a matter of growing up. You want different things and sometimes you have to wait ... “
So, Mathosa waited. She released her debut album Dream in mid-2000 but despite winning two South African Music Awards in 2001, the album wasn’t that well received. “It was my first album so I didn’t expect too much. It is probably going to take four to five albums to get where I want, but it is just a matter of being dedicated to what I do and pushing myself so that my music is out there.”
Album number two sees Mathosa trying out different styles. Working closely with producer DJ Christos, she pushes the perceptions people have of her as an artist. “I’m not a kwaito singer,” she says. “I’m a singer. I’m a versatile singer. I can sing Indian music, Latino music, rock music. And that is what I want people to hear.”
It is no surprise then that one of her favourite songs on the album is a ragga-infused track, which she raps to. Nor is it a surprise that she’d love to work with New Porn rocker Arno Carstens.
It is this hunger to push out of the kwaito/house typecast that drives Mathosa’s new album. The house tracks are there and she pulls them off well. But it is the tracks where she experiments a little that hint at what we can expect from her in the future.
As was the case with Fassie, there are, of course, those who tend to focus on her personal life more than her musical one. The album’s title, Drama Queen, has been seen by some as an adjective to describe her. She says this isn’t the case. And anyway, it doesn’t worry her. “What matters is that you like what I do — do you enjoy watching me perform? I want people to come back and see me perform on stage, switch on the TV to see my videos, turn up the radio when my song is playing.
“It is not about fame for me. I have my fame; I’ve been in the scene for 10 years now. Boom Shaka put me out there, introduced me to the public. Now it is all in my hands and what do I want to do about it? Do I want to play or do I want to be serious about it? I choose to work hard for this dream.”
For a while, though, there were doubts as to whether Mathosa was alive and there were whispers that she had fallen off the wagon. It took three years for her to release Drama Queen.
But, she says, she had contractual issues to deal with, which a move from Gallo to EMI sorted out. “For the past decade I have never had to deal with the behind-the-scenes things. So this was the first time. You learn as you meet different people. You learn how they operate. These things don’t just take a year to sort out. I was lucky that I got out [of my deal with Gallo] clean and was able to approach another record company.”
While she may have been out of the spotlight musically, Mathosa kept herself busy with her solo material, as well as charity work, acting and corporate gigs. “I like the fact that whether or not you’ve got something new on the shelves, people are still interested in you. They still call you up and book you for their clubs. If people like your music, if radio stations continue to play it, then it doesn’t matter whether you’ve got something new or not.”
With her new album, Mathosa writes about having fun and enjoying life, but she is also aware that music can carry a message. Like Ma Afrika, in which she challenges xenophobia and the damage it does. But she maintains, she is not out to preach. “You can actually listen to the lyrics and dance to the song, you can hear what I’m talking about but it’s not so serious you’ll be sad about it.”
When a suspected drug-induced cardiac arrest took the life of one her role models, Mathosa took a step back to reflect. “People come and go,” she says. “You can’t deny death, you can’t fear it. I’m sure God has a better place for us, if you’re a believer.” Mathosa considers herself a believer, but the non-denominational kind. She also believes it was Fassie’s time to go. “If it wasn’t her time she’d still be living. But it was her time.
“She used to complain all the time that she was tired. When you’re tired like that, I think in part, she knew.” Having been compared to MaBrrr, Mathosa is adamant not to fall into the same trap. “You choose to avoid certain things. Sometimes it is not easy, you get weak ... and people take advantage of you.
‘You find yourself pushed into things you never thought you’d be doing. Peer pressure really is hard to get out of, when you’re so deep in. I think that was the position she was in. Everything she wanted she could get ... It is like me for instance. When I walk into a club, I want to pay. If it is my night, and I’m performing, only then do I want to be treated like a star.”
The comparison to Fassie flatters Mathosa and spurs her on to “You learn from the negative and the positive aspects.” So, while she is content to be considered in the same class of performer as Fassie, she is not content to follow the same destructive path.
“It all boils down to family. If you have a good family background, and you have your family and friends’ support, you will be better able to handle it all.” And if you’re worried about her, she says, you don’t have to be: “I’m still active,” she says “And I’m happy.”