The sun rises over the African savannah (where precisely in Africa, we never find out). An acacia tree is silhouetted against a burnt orange sky. A single cry breaks the silence of the dawn.
“Naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaants ingonyama bagithi Baba.”
So begins The Lion King, Disney’s animated children’s movie about the lion cub who just can’t wait to be king. Released a quarter of a century ago, the film is now iconic: not only is it among the most profitable films of all time, but it has also become a touchstone in popular culture. For many people who don’t live in Africa, it is their only reference point for what the continent looks like, or what it means to be African.
The man who wrote and sings that opening line is South African musician Lebo M. He’s a big deal now, of course, but in 1994 he was — as per his own description — a 30-year-old hustler who knew he was going to be famous one day, but hadn’t quite made it yet.
Lebo M had been asked to work on the movie by Hans Zimmer, the celebrated German soundtrack composer, who wanted to make sure the score had some authentic African flair. But when inspiration struck, Lebo M was home in South Africa, far from the Los Angeles studio where the movie was being recorded, so he hastily put together a demo tape that he intended to perfect later. But no matter how hard he tried, he never improved on that very first take.
“So what most people don’t know is, that first note you hear in The Lion King that I’m singing, is actually the first and only take that was ever done. Everything else we ever did, when we tried to be musical about it, it just refused. It set the tone and the spirit and the emotion of the soundtrack,” he says.
Sung in Zulu, that opening line became an instant classic — not that anyone outside South Africa really appreciated the meaning behind the words. “You know, for more than 10 years, no one actually asked me what that meant,” Lebo chuckles, clearly amused at the idea of all these millions of people all over the world singing along to a lyric they did not understand.
For the record: “In South African languages, and particularly African South African languages, we speak in metaphor. If you translate directly, it would sound stupid. It simply means all hail the king, bow down in the presence of the king … ‘Nants ingonyama’ spelled out means ‘Here comes a lion.’ But metaphorically and in context it is acknowledging the arrival of King Mufasa, and the whole intro is built around that.”
The story of how Lebo M went from apartheid-era Soweto schoolboy to global superstar is arguably more interesting than The Lion King’s Hamlet-inspired narrative.
“Coming from Soweto at that time, there were very few options for young black kids. You obviously had school — if not interrupted by some political circumstance — and soccer and boxing. Fortunately for me, I was horrible at soccer. Maybe I lasted 20 minutes at boxing,” he said.
Instead, he joined a youth club, where he played table tennis and learned ballroom dancing, and then signed up for a street band that performed at weddings. He loved the limelight. “Once you get the attention of the girls that age, nine, 10, and 11, you forget being a dentist basically. There’s no going back. No going back.”
At the age of 13, Lebo M was asked to fill in for an absent backup singer at Club Pelican, which at the time was the centre of Soweto’s thriving jazz scene. “I was just in my little Disneyland in front of a microphone with people jumping up and down, the little cute boy with the cute voice,” he says.
He kept coming back, performing alongside some of the era’s biggest names — the likes of Mara Louw, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Spirits Rejoice — which gave him a priceless musical grounding.
But he wanted more. In 1979, when he heard that a new club was opening in Maseru, he got on a bus and never looked back. “I didn’t even know that I had crossed the country, I didn’t know there was something called ID, I didn’t know there was a passport. I found out two months later I was in this thing called exile. It was a beautiful mindfuck.”
It was in Lesotho, amid the tight-knit community of South African activists in exile, that Lebo M started to really understand what the apartheid regime was all about.
But politics wasn’t his thing: he had a different dream. In five-star hotels and fancy restaurants, he and his close friend, the late Vernon Molefe, would play the piano for tips.
He started to make money and, more importantly, he made contacts, especially with the international tourists who couldn’t get enough of his music. He persuaded one of them to buy him a ticket to New York, where he knew his dreams would come true.
He was wrong. “If you grew up in Soweto, American culture was the thing. Heaven was America, based on what you see in newspapers and magazines,” he says.
The reality was different. “We landed at New York, the old New York, not the Sandton New York. You end up in Harlem and realise shit, this fucking American thing, I should have stayed home … You’re in New York, you see more angry, hungry black people than you see where you came from.”
In New York, Lebo M hustled again, playing music in restaurants and piano bars across the city. He was supported by churches from the black community, who helped pay for him to attend music school. A few years later, he moved to Los Angeles, chasing a record deal that disappeared almost as soon as his flight landed.
The power of Hans
The next two years were the toughest of his life. “We lived in the streets of Los Angeles for almost two years. We had to start afresh. It was hell on earth, but we persevered.”
It was at about this time that Lebo M’s luck began to change. A journalist helped him find a place to stay, he started studying at Los Angeles City College and then, incredibly, he bumped into a familiar face.
“I met Johnny Clegg’s bass player, Solly [Letwaba], who I grew up with. I hadn’t seen Solly since we had street bands as a kid. I met Hilton Rosenthal, who was Johnny Clegg’s producer, and Hilton had a studio in Los Angeles, so I became the tea guy, the intern, the runner. That’s how I met Hans Zimmer,” he says.
“Hans was visiting his friend, and had this new movie that he was going to do called The Power of One, so Hilton looked at me and said: ‘You should try this kid.’ I went to Hans’s studio the next day, and ended up co-producing, co-writing and performing the soundtrack to The Power of One.”
If The Power of One announced Lebo M’s arrival, it was The Lion King that cemented his position as a global superstar. But the film is not without its critics, some of whom argue that it simply reinforces the negative stereotype that Africa is one big nature reserve. But Lebo M doesn’t see it that way.
“Actually, to the contrary … [The Lion King] is probably the first movie in history that depicts Africa in a most positive, high-quality manner. The direction, how the music was treated — there was no limit to the kind of money Disney would spend to make this a special project,” he says.
“As a result, you have an … animation that depicts Africa in a positive way, yet [is] very universal in nature. So I think that surprise element made The Lion King special. It was not a project emanating from ‘dark continent’ Africa or anything like that, or the dark politics of Africa — guns, apartheid. It just was a project that human beings could relate to in their own way.”
The live-action remake, which premiers on July 19, is going to be just as good, he promises. In a neat example of the circle of life in action, it is his voice that opens the movie again — “Naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaants ingonyama bagithi Baba” — and he will also be singing a song that he co-wrote with Beyoncé, and appearing on another track with Elton John.
“How awesome is it now, that it starts with Lebo M’s voice? I connect the thing,” he says, beaming, conscious of just how far he has come.
“That 13-, 14-year-old boy in Soweto never imagined himself being hungry again. Poverty can be inspiring, you know. I guess I was very ambitious. We were go-getters. We were Sowetans. We were not willing to limit. Once we left Soweto, there’s a world out there …”