At age 16 Lerato ”Lira” Molapo enjoyed harmonising and mimicking Anita Baker and Mary J Blige with no real conscious thoughts of someday making it big in the music industry.
Later Lira and a best friend teamed up with two male friends and entered a talent competition under the name Ecstasy. The move proved to be a masterstroke as the group won several prizes, including best performance, best composition and best vocals.
”It was the first time I had ever won anything and it was a huge affirmation for me that I really do have something,” says Lira, speaking from her Randburg office. She’s hanging out in comfortable blue jeans over which she’s opted for a long, black, body-hugging dress that, on its own, could pass for smart-casual. She’s wearing long, triangular-shaped earrings and a necklace. She epitomises African elegance. Indeed, if Lira wasn’t into music, she could have been a hit on the catwalk.
She has good reason to look relaxed. Her second album, Feel Good, is scheduled to be released in the United States after the title song was included in the soundtrack of the hit sitcom Girlfriends.
This new turn of events could catapult the sultry 29-year-old songstress to mega-stardom. Up to now she’s been on a slow but steady rise. The album has been released in Italy and Thailand.
This weekend Lira releases her latest disk, titled Soul in Mind. The new album picks up where the last one left off and features an eclectic sound comprising elements of Afro-pop, R&B and jazz. The lovely Sesotho tune, Wa Mpaleha, is already proving a favourite with radio stations such as Metro FM, which gives it plenty of airplay.
Soul in Mind includes the upbeat title track that reflects the unhinged and positive spirit of her early work. The hit song, Hamba, captures the sentiment of a fed-up woman, showing the singer in something of an activist light.
A year after their ”affirming” win, she says her fellow musicians in Ecstasy went their separate ways. Being only 16 at the time, she was encouraged to take a gap year before embarking on higher education.
She credits her mother, Buyi, with giving her direction. Buyi Radebe-Lichaba is married to football legend and Supersport United team manager Webster Lichaba. Lira affectionately refers to Webster, who raised her in the absence of her biological father, as her ”dad, Neo”.
She says that although her parents gave her no encouragement to follow a career in music, she ”just loved it” and pursued her dream.
The gap year allowed Lira to explore her love of music by collaborating with many musicians from an English folk band to singing hooks on hip-hop tracks.
After that she enrolled at the Vaal University of Technology for a national diploma in her strongest school subject, accounting.
It was during her stint at Vaal that she met popular DJ Nutty Nice, who owned a nearby studio. He offered her unlimited studio time in return for doing bookkeeping for the holding company.
This became Lira’s first exposure to a studio environment and she grabbed the opportunity by writing and producing her own songs. She started doing the performance circuit at tertiary institutions and appeared at beauty pageants and student parties in Gauteng.
”It was incredible,” she says. ”It was empowering just to see crowds, strangers — just scores of people reacting to you. It’s addictive — it’s absolutely addictive.” Lira is a self-declared adrenaline junkie.
The high, Lira soon found out, did not endure and she had to prepare for life in the corporate world. For her internship she took off to the head office of Morkels for some serious number crunching.
The freedom of earning her own money, says Lira, was exhilarating. The corporate life was alluring, but for her it was a robot-like existence. Accounting lacked ”glamour” and she started to ask questions. This led to a period of depression. She began daydreaming about past gigs and suffered feelings of guilt about the sacrifices her mother had made for her education.
”I grew more and more unhappy and depressed. I remember one day my mother came home. I had been down for a long time and she said: ‘I am so sick of seeing you like this. You have my blessing – go do what you want,”’ says Lira.
The elated Lira tendered her resignation and served her notice period. A fortnight later, on her birthday, she serendipitously auditioned for self-proclaimed king of kwaito Arthur Mafokate, who was looking for new R&B acts for his 999 stable.
The audition led to an excruciating two years at 999, where Lira felt she was just an afterthought to artists such as Ishmael of Jozi fame and former Bongo Maffin member Speedy. Although it was tough, the artist believes it was meant to be that way.
She left 999 for Sony BMG after partnering with producer Robin Kohl under a negotiated settlement with Mafokate. The move led her to switch to Afro-pop and she came out with an album that last year bagged a South African Music Award.
Her multiple appearances on the covers of magazines, on the box and at high-profile events confirm her role as the feel-good queen of the party circuit. Now what she needs is for Soul in Mind to be a big hit at home this summer.