Lira Speaks on Drake’s Artistry, Oprah’s Advice and Bringing ‘Rise Again’ to America [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]
Lira’s accent is crisp and pronounced, a product of her South African upbringing. Her every word, movement and even her body language is precise, almost regal. And there is a heart shaved into the back of her short, curly coiffure. Her name means “love” - so very R&B even if the singer dubs her genre of music afro-soul.
Drowning in comparisons to the timbre and vocal style of American singers such as Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott and even Beyonce (Lira's single, 'All My Love,' actually knocked 'Dangerously in Love' off the South African charts in 2003), she holds her own with a repertoire of self-written tracks in a variety of African languages that revolve around love, empowerment and her specific brand of feminism.
While she grew up on everything from hip-hop to Motown, Lira's got the type of stage presence and rhythm that reminds us that she’s not from here -- for better or worse. She is famous nearly everywhere but America, and with her most recent album, 'Rise Again,' she steps into uncharted territory without a timid bone in her body. Here, the singer talks to The Boombox about her love of hip-hop, her tribute to Nelson Mandela, Oprah's advice and what she’s bringing to the game.
The Boombox: What shifts in you emotionally when you're singing in Zulu versus English?
Lira: I speak five languages conversationally, and sing in four but Zulu, I can get really poetic in Zulu. There’s such a richness in how the language is constructed. We speak of things in a very spiritual way. How it expresses itself -- sometime it feels intangible because you’re describing things in a very abstract way. There are certain expressions that don’t exist in English. And you feel them deeply. People have asked if I’ve ever considered translating my songs into English but they wouldn’t be the same.
You’re an old school hip-hop head, but how do you feel about the genre today?
I’m not so crazy about hip-hop at the moment but I do like Drake. I just feel he took a different turn with hip-hop. He is a bit more soulful. He can get emotion and that’s interesting. Some of the things he raps about are very sensitive. I find that very refreshing. I love Mobb Deep. There’s actually a song that I wrote that was inspired by them. I wrote a song called 'Sad' based off the beat from their song 'Where Your Heart At.' Also, A Tribe Called Quest. And I was a big Busta Rhymes fan. I loved me some Busta Rhymes. And old Jay Z.
When he was still hungry?
Exactly. That’s the thing, when you get to that level, you run out of things to talk about that will relate to the common person. I find, for me sometimes that’s a big struggle. I can feel my life changing at such a rapid state that I want to still stay connected. Because who am I making the music for, after all? For real people. I always want to connect on that level. It’s a challenge because you deserve to grow. That’s the human experience but to have the balance of both.
Would you like to collaborate with Drake?
I would love to. One of my most desired collaborations though is Jon Mayer and John Legend. John Legend in particular just has a soulful, old school flavor but he’s still sensitive to popular culture now without comprising any authenticity. And he’s an incredible songwriter.
Do you write all your own songs?
I’ve written every single song in all four of my albums except for two. And there was one that a friend of mine in Johannesburg wrote, his name is Roy Benjamin and a song by Labi Siffre that I recorded in honor of Nelson Mandela. It's a really powerful song called 'Something Inside So Strong.' I wrote it because I found out it was one of his favorite songs while he was incarcerated.
Watch Lira Perform 'Something Inside So Strong'
What aspect of Mandela’s life do you feel that the media does not portray to Americans?
Perhaps how simply he lived. That’s also, I feel sometimes, an African thing. We’re simple people actually. We’re just happy with some of the very basic things: we love family, good food, good company, great life. And he still had a lot of that. He preferred to be out in his hometown, Qunu, and the houses there are very basic, nothing glamorous. I feel that he may have put up a certain front because his position required it but that’s not who he was at his core.
What is the most profoundly musical city that you’ve been to in America?
I can’t even say. I heard it’s New Orleans, but I haven’t been there yet. I hear that as a musician, that’s where you want to be. I feel like I would just get lost in it and be happy. Because I grew up like that. In my neighborhood, there was one house that had all the records. And this person would blast the music so that everyone would hear. That’s how I got acquainted with Miriam Makeba. There was always a flavor in the air, music always playing. Sure, there was strife as it were but I don’t think I recognized it until I experienced something else. I then realized that this can’t be all that life has to offer. Of course, there were people beating up their wives or even children but there would also be incredible vibe and fun and a sense of community.
Watch Lira Perform 'Feel Good'
Do you have any crazy tour stories?
Oh, on my birthday one year... So, the organizer of this event is a big fan. She selfishly hired me -- instead of maybe getting a magician or a dance crew. I’m a singer-songwriter so you need to hear what I’m saying. She hired me for a deaf audience. Because she was a fan. It was completely selfish. And I didn’t know. No translator, nothing. I was really pissed off with that. When I walked in, she was so excited, she was all groupie. She was standing right there, all proud and I was thinking, you are an idiot.
What did you do?
I noticed their elaborate hand gestures. They were going, “What’s going on?” Of course, because you’re just watching somebody stand there. I was pissed off. It was so uncool. I have never worked for her since. We did the whole show. What could I do? One thing I’ve learned early in my career is not to rely on the audience to energize me. So, I finish my show and I’m just like, “I think a lot of these people are deaf,” and someone turned around and said “No, everybody is deaf.”
Have there been any media personalities who have given you great advice that’s stayed with you?
I had a performance at Oprah’s school and I didn’t know she was in the audience. The girls wear these green blazers and the color was dominant in the room so I didn’t notice her and her guests right in the front. So I’m busy giving my talk -- which was about intention -- and I sang two songs, one of which was 'Feel Good.' When that song came on, she popped up and gave me such a heart attack. It was amazing because I have so much respect for her.
Afterwards, she pulled me to the side and she spoke to me like a lady that I might know from my hometown. She was like, “I felt your spirit. This is how I got to be the Oprah that everybody sees today. I intended it to be this way. I intended to be a positive influence on the world. And I was able to do it.” For me that was enough. That was advice that I could take with me for the rest of my life. She told me, “Your intention will pinpoint your end result and your life lessons and your life lessons may make your life path winding but you will end up where you intend.”
Watch Lira Perform 'Rise Again'