Lebohang Morake, better known as Lebo M, is the latest recipient of a Sama Lifetime Achievement Award. The Grammy award-winning composer is known for his work on soundtracks for international films. He talks to Mia Williams about his journey from South Africa to Hollywood, his days as a ballroom dancer and his successful battle against alcohol abuse.
You were already a singer at age 15, exiled from South Africa in 1979, and then found your way to Hollywood. What are some of the highlights of your childhood and career?
I was born in Soweto and I always say I’m part of the 1976 student revolutionary generation.
I entered the youth club in the 1970s as a ballroom dancer — and I can still do a step or two. An older guy at the former Club Pelican in Orlando introduced me to one of the band managers and at 14 I was thrown into a rehearsal and never left the club. I guess at the time I was the youngest nightclub worker and singer in the country. It was a blessing, because I was exposed to the best musicians in the country at the time. That was around 1978.
A year later I left for Lesotho with some of my friends, not knowing that I’m going into exile and not even knowing that I needed an ID or passport because I never had any of those. I even had a name change from Lebogang to Lebohang when they issued my refugee passport.
My mother supported anything I did as long as I was not on the streets and busy with wrong things. I guess she preferred me being a ballroom dancer than a gangster.
The journey from Lesotho to Hollywood as a refugee, had quite a few difficult detours. My first entry into the US was in Syracuse, New York, where I ended up in a 99% white environment. I call it my “cappuccino culture shock”, because I have never been around so many whites in my life.
You won a Grammy in 1994 and was nominated for a Tony for arranging and performing music for The Lion King film series and stage productions. Are you proud of your contribution to the arts and putting South Africa on the international entertainment map?
It warms my heart to know that I managed to contribute what I did. But I have to add that I stood on the shoulders of South African greats who went to America long before me. I’m fortunate that my identity and authenticity of who I am was groomed very carefully by South African greats like the late Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu. I was very much in their lives and was taught a lot of things long before I rubbed shoulders with other greats like Quincy Jones.
When I got to Los Angeles after finishing high school, I lived on the streets with my friend for almost two years. So it was not an issue of getting to America and making it big, it was quite a struggle for the first six years.
I’m also grateful for the close South African community I found in the US and who welcomed me into their circle. So yes, I’m very conscious of the work I’ve done and my contribution to myself and the country, but I also share that credit and journey with those who came before me.
From your reality show, Coming Home, why did you decide to open up your family life in this way?
I was not really prepared to give the country and the world this window on my family life. The whole concept of Coming Home was born during lockdown. I guess hard times bring out the best in us as creatives. I never thought I would agree to a reality show let alone a television series. Contrary to popular belief, I am a very shy person.
I was approached by two young men who have been in my space and following me around with cameras. This was just before I received a lifetime achievement award from Multichoice. I guess they convinced me when they said no one in South Africa really knows me, only as the guy from The Lion King. They gave quite a good pitch and I was sold.
When the cameras started rolling there were quite a few emotional and dramatic events happening in my life. For example, my son impregnated a young lady and in the meantime I was involved in a court battle with his mother in America for the past five to six years. It was like a bomb was thrown in the middle of my house.
You recently turned 57, you’re a father of seven and have been married three times. You recently split from your wife, Angela Ngani-Casara. You also described your birthday as the saddest one. Do you have any regrets?
I embrace my journey, so it’s very hard for me to say I have regrets. I understand just about every detail of my journey — the twists and turns.
I was only married to Angela once, although we tried to reunite twice. We never remarried. I know there’s a misperception that I married multiple times, but it was only three times to three different women. I won’t call it a regret, but I wish I spent more time with my children in their young adult life. It’s painful in a way, but I’ve always been the sole provider to my children because I always wanted them to have the best of everything.
I just got so busy, especially when we started with The Lion King productions around the world. I wish I could’ve spent more time with my only biological son at a critical age during his teenage years. The biggest pain that I am dealing with is the passing of my other son 19 years ago.
I have been sober for 16 years. but due to my battle with alcohol I ended up in rehabilitation three times. In 2006 I came out of rehabilitation in Los Angeles and I saw the results of my son’s autopsy claiming that he drowned at my house in Dainfern in Johannesburg. I however maintain and will go to my grave believing that my 14-month-old son was murdered. I don’t know by whom and why, but I launched an investigation and I will not let it go until I have all the answers.
In July you received a Sama Lifetime Achievement Award. What kind of legacy would you want to leave behind?
It’s true that I’ve received various accolades, but the South African music award is really heartwarming for me. I do believe that my legacy is fully intact in my community (the creative arts) and the Sama award is sealing that for me. It’s even bigger than a Grammy, because I am being acknowledged by my peers. It shows that I am deeplyrooted in this country and makes me proud to be a South African export and artist.
I find that the greats of our community still die broke and 27 years later the infrastructure is still not built with no proper business management in place. I always ask myself whether I’ve done enough and fought hard enough, especially when I had meetings with ministers and became enemy number one. When I look back at the opportunities I created for young South African talent and those earning foreign currency and who are able to provide for their families it once again warms my heart. But much more can be done to improve conditions in the arts.
What do you do to relax and do you have a favourite genre of music?
I rarely listen to my own music. I grew up in Los Angeles and, as a Hollywood kid, I believe that a product is only complete when you die. When I watch The Lion King now I still see how we could have done it differently. I stopped going to movie theatres because I always end up criticising other people’s work. Before I stopped drinking I would stay out all night at a club or cigar lounge — it was work hard and play hard.
Now that I’m sober I enjoy spending time with my kids and annoying them when I drive them to school. I would, for example, only listen to classical music, but when I pick them up from school my car becomes a music studio with all genres of music, even hip-hop.