Eish. Because of this thing ya Lebo my phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” said producer Oscar “Oskido” Mdlongwa. He — like so many other musicians, journalists, stylists, producers and choreographers who knew singer and performer Lebo Mathosa — kept receiving shocking calls on Monday: “Have you heard about Lebo? She died in a car crash this morning!”
Then came the horrid news on TV, fans pouring out their hearts on radio call-ins, masses of roadside newspaper posters and headlines detailing the last moments and death of the 29-year-old kwaito diva. There were scenes of family, friends and fans showing devastated disbelief at her death after being flung from the car she was travelling in early on Monday morning.
It simply didn’t seem real. The South African music scene without its queen? Hard to believe, indeed. After all, it seemed like Lebo had always been in our lives. As she reminded us when she picked up her South African Music Award (Sama) for best dance album last year, she was music royalty. As the teenage lead singer of kwaito’s first super group, Boom Shaka (with Thembi, Theo and Junior), she helped create and shape the genre back in the early 1990s, when the nation’s dream of freedom was coming true. “I’ve been around since the early 1990s. I was one of the first to celebrate when Nelson Mandela was released. Remember that!’ she shouted from the podium.
How could it all be over? There will be no more classic hits such as It’s About Time, Thobela, Don’t Be Ashamed, Gcwala, Free or Bambanani, which she created with her legendary crew; or newer solo efforts such as Tsodiyo, I Love Music, Au De De or Shana’s Teka, Trompies’s Magasman and her latest singles Brand New Day and Happiness.
Everybody knows that though her producers were hot and though she had co-writers and people on stage with her, neither her group nor any of those hits would have been possible with any other voice or persona. She was, quite simply, a superstar.
But it wasn’t all glamour and good times. One needs resilience in the music industry and Lebo certainly had piles of it, along with dedication and a strong work ethic. How else does someone survive in a fly-by-night music industry for so many years?
She went through a dry patch between the release of her solo debut in 2000 and Drama Queen in 2004, says DJ Christos (Katsaitis). “She got stuck in a dispute when her label wouldn’t let her leave, so she couldn’t move forward and didn’t record for three years. It was hard for her to sustain herself and live; it made her realise who her friends were.”
According to Christos, in that period she assessed what she wanted to do, and Drama Queen was a sort of “Lebo relaunch”. Iko Mash, who did the make-up for the cover of the album, believes it was the year she took control of not only her music, but her brand and business interests. “It was the beginning of what Lebo Mathosa is about: vocally in control of her persona and everything. She knew exactly who she wanted to work with and what music she wanted to make. She’d grown up.”
Drama Queen, driven by the tracks I Love Music and Au De De, was an award-winning hit. As she also said that starry Sama night: “I’ve always been controversial and I’ll remain so.” From the Boom Shaka days — when she seduced (and appalled) the nation with sexy grinds in skimpy outfits — to the present, Lebo was lapped up by the media.
Then there was the rumour mongering that such a luminous star attracts. One magazine speculated about her sexuality; a newspaper insisted her career was over because she had lost her voice; and there was an email image, showing her supposedly mistakenly flashing her pubic hair at a photographer while performing at Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues event, that was circulated. Through it all Lebo seemed to have an attitude that said: “Just keep on writing, it keeps me famous.”
So impressive was she that when MTV Base launched in Africa last year, it was Lebo who was selected to perform all over the continent. When she travelled with MTV Base to the MTV Europe Awards last year, it was Lebo who walked down the red carpet with MTV creator Bill Roedy.
Says Mash: “It was the worst time for her to pass away, she was about to develop into a butterfly.”
This year she was nominated in the best African artist category at London’s Music of Black Origin Awards. Christos says: “She was stepping higher, reaching for different dreams, wanting to cross borders.” Manager Roddy Quinn agrees: “I think Lebo’s main focus was always South Africa, but we had lots of interest from the rest of Africa, and more and more from the United Kingdom and America — that was going to be part of the plan for next year. We couldn’t release the new album now, because she was just so busy with performances.”
Up until last week she was working with Christos, her father figure, who, along with producer Don Laka and Oskido, was kwaito creator and founder of Boom Shaka in 1991. He was also the man behind the last two Boom Shaka albums and her last two solo efforts.
“Monday was the saddest day of my life,” says 22-year-old songstress Zamajobe Sithole. “I had been in contact with her over the past month; we did a photo shoot for the Spier Arts Festival happening in December and a shoot for Glamour magazine. It’s also a great loss because she was such a genuine and loving person. When I started out she would meet me at shows and encourage me, give me advice. When Boom Shaka came out I had just started high school and I was just fascinated by her.”
The Mathosa household in Daveyton, which lost Lebo’s father only weeks ago, was again wracked with grief. The place has been packed with shell-shocked, sobbing, famous faces. Zamajobe was there to console Lebo’s mother about the loss of her fourth and last-born child.
Zamajobe reflects on the days ahead: “After Thursday’s memorial service at Sandton Convention Centre, I will be at the funeral at Benoni City hall at 8am on Saturday. I wonder if it will be big enough? I don’t think there’s any hall big enough.”
The nation is in mourning. Even President Thabo Mbeki has expressed his sorrow at the loss, describing her as “one of the pathfinders of post-apartheid cultural expression” and citing her as an example of how young people should contribute to the country’s development.
But Lebo’s legacy will never die. Her songs remain and so does her place in the history of local music. Like she said in an interview with SAfm’s Kutloano Skosana when asked if Boom Shaka would ever reform: “When we walk down the street people still remember Boom Shaka. The name will remain part of kwaito history.”
Lebo Mathosa quoted
“People come and go. 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.”
“There will never be a day when I will upstage the great Brenda Fassie. She was and still is my idol. She inspired me to do what I do, how I do it. It is an honour to be compared to her. But upstage her? No.”
“I have been portrayed badly at times. Most is not true. I try to be a role model for younger people and do my best to give that good impression to younger artists and fans.
“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.”
“I experience the lowest point when I don’t perform at my peak. The highest point of my career, of course, is when I am really doing my thing. Be it acting, dancing or singing. Entertaining is what I do and love. This is when I feel the love from the people, children and my family.”
“As Boom Shaka we changed our national anthem and we put a dance beat on it. No one is allowed to do that, but we were able to pull that off. It shows you how much power Boom Shaka had behind the music scene itself.”
“We were the only two girls in kwaito at that time. But we kept Boom Shaka in the public eye because of our controversial dancing, because of the way we dressed, the sexy way of dancing. It was not easy for people to accept that. I think the elders found it very dangerous.”
Compiled by Monako Dibetle