(AllHipHop Features) A lot of times American music fans are so consumed with artists from the homeland and neighboring countries that huge acts from overseas often go unnoticed. One such superstar entertainer is South Africa’s Lira.
Already a platinum selling performer on the African continent, Lira is basically a brand new act to listeners in the States. The Afro-Soul singer is now looking to change that dynamic with her first U.S. album release. Rise Again is a 13-track, multi-language compilation of songs that made the Johannesburg native a star back home.
With a list of accomplishments that include maintaining the largest Facebook following of any South African musician, a BET Award nomination for Best International Act in 2012, and performing for former South African president Nelson Mandela's 92nd birthday celebration, Lira’s chances of making a mark in the U.S. seem like a sure bet.
Get familiar with Lira in AllHipHop.com’s exclusive interview.
When did you know you wanted to be a singer?
I think I was about 19. I had been singing for a while, but deciding to do it for a career - I was about 21. I worked as an accountant for two years. I was in college from 17-19, and I used to write music and perform as a hobby up until then.
When I turned 21, I had been working as an accountant for a corporation, and I just felt unfilled by being in that environment. I made a conscious decision at that time to quit my job and decided to pursue music full-time. That was 11 years ago.
When you made that decision to jump into music were you ever apprehensive about taking that step?
Yeah, it was very scary. My parents said, “Well, you have an education to fall back on.” I was young, and I think when you’re young you're open to do something that could be seen as reckless. When you’re older I don’t think you’re willing to be so brave.
I had all kinds of thoughts. I was a little fearful, but somehow it was the timing that allowed me the chance to pursue something that I found fulfilling rather than being in an office all day. So I just went for it.
This is the first album you’re releasing in America. Why did you decide to revisit songs from your South African catalogue for this project?
The reason I wanted to come to the States is because I had a lot of interest on social media from my American fans. It made sense to come to the States with music my fans were familiar with and also introduce the music to a new audience.
I remember there was an American artist that came to South Africa, and she had never been here before. She came here and sang songs that no one knew, and it became a terrible concert. That made me realize sometimes fans fall in love with certain songs, and that’s what they want to hear.
So this album for me is an introduction of songs people are familiar with before I move on to new material. It’s also a great reflection of my career over the last two years. It’s almost like the American market is catching up to two years worth of work on one album.
What would you say is the difference between breaking into the industry in South Africa as compared to here in America?
Firstly, we’re one little territory. We’re the equivalent of one state in the States. There’s just so many more people [in America], so the market is saturated. And you guys basically only play you’re own music. You’d be surprised how the African continent plays a lot more American and European music than their own which is incredibly frustrating.
I think one of the most difficult things is logistics. We flew 17 hours to get here. Bringing our whole crew here, everything is incredibly costly. Luckily, I’m in a position to sustain that. We’re going to take it slowly from the ground up.
You included songs on your album that are not performed in English. What inspired that decision?
That’s who I am. That’s the one thing no one can copy. Most importantly, there’s beauty in our languages. I tried to write them in a way that - for lack of a better word - is palatable to a foreign ear. I tried to do that, but also express the uniqueness of where I come from - a little taste of who I am. For me, that’s always been very important, and people like to sing along which is incredibly refreshing.
You performed the song “(Something Inside) So Strong” a few years back for Nelson Mandela. Was that the connection for why you added that track to Rise Again?
It’s such a positive song. It celebrates human resilience. I found people always commenting on it. It’s one of the most lauded songs I have. Frankly, it was impossible to ignore. With my connection to Nelson Mandela and carrying on his legacy, I had to include that song.
When you performed for Mr. Mandela did you get the chance to speak with him?
No, he had already fallen quite ill. I did pass up a few opportunities to chat with him. I felt like some people would just use him as an object they could take a picture with. I didn’t like that. I was sure not to do that. He was old and weary at that time, so I chose to just honor the man and leave it at that.
How has your tour here in America been so far?
It’s been so incredible. We don’t do tours like the Americans do, so we allowed ourselves that experience. We’re in this cool tour bus with a DVD player, X-Box, and Wi-Fi. It’s fun.
Of course great auras from all the venues. I come from the perspective of being a huge artist back home, and I come here and play tiny, little rooms with a few people. A lot of them in the room don’t even know who I am.
There’s something incredibly humbling about that, and there’s something exciting about that. Just coming here is almost the same as it was 11 years ago. There’s something refreshing about going back to how it was in the beginning. It’s bit of trip, but I also find it incredibly fulfilling. I’m able to connect with people on an intimate level again. I really appreciate that.
I don’t think too many people get the opportunity to feel like they’re a new artist more than once.
Yeah, especially after you reach the pinnacle of your career and then go back there. I get to be human again. There’s a magic in that space. There’s a hunger I’d almost forgotten, so it’s really special.
I’ve read that you are referred to as the “Beyonce of Africa."
They say that because of the kind of shows and large-scale productions we put on. There’s no other artists that does it quite like we do, so they dubbed me the “Beyonce of Africa” as a result. But that’s like the only similarity.
Are there any particular American artists out now that you’re a fan of?
Actually, there’s quite a few. Like I said, there’s so much American music making its way to South Africa. Even the not-so-famous artists here in America will do very well on the African continent. I come here and people are sort of struggling artists, but they’re huge in South Africa. It’s crazy. [laughs]
I’m really into Frank Ocean. He’s really refreshing. I love when an artist creates something unique. I’ve always love John Legend, and I’ve always wanted to collaborate with him. I’ve always loved Lauryn Hill too. When she came out with her first album, she didn’t conform. That’s so encouraging.
I hate to follow trends. I just want to have creative freedom. Even though she hasn’t done anything in a while, I’ll always be a big fan of her. And of course, John Mayer. I love John Mayer.
You mentioned Frank Ocean. Is he really popular in South Africa?
We love him. We really love him. I wish he’d come through to South Africa. South Africans will find the off beat artists. The Top 40 artists - sure we like them, but not as much as the ones that are indie. Those guys do so well. You’d be amazed at how artists like Kenny Lattimore are so huge in South Africa - Anthony Hamilton, Dwele, Bilal. Frank Ocean is actually the hottest person right now. I don’t know if he knows that. If he came to South Africa he would literally fill up an arena.
You’ve done some acting in the past. Any interest in doing some work here in Hollywood?
That would be amazing. Acting was a totally different ball game, but I actually enjoy it. It’s another form of art that I’d love to do. It would be epic to do something in Hollywood. My sister Rethabile is a budding actress, and I see how difficult it is for artists in America. I don’t know those struggles, because I’m popular back home so roles come to me. It was would be interesting to do something as a new artist.
You have a song called “Feel Good.” What were the last three things that made you feel good?
Good food, warmth - I love sunshine, and random conversation with strangers.
Download Lira's Rise Again album on iTunes.