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A star of her own making

 The Big Issue South Africa 09 March 2019

A star is a big exploding ball of gas, mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, and held together by gravity. Out in the universe it takes billions of years for a star to be born. Back here on Earth, we don’t have that much time. Lerato Molapo, better known as Lira, is a star in the making, and a savvy businesswoman to boot. (2039 Words) - By Bartlett

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Gerhard Muller/The Big Issue South Africa.

[Bartlett] Where did it all start?

[Lira] I was working in the accounts department at the Morkels Group. I'd walk out of my parent's house in Daveyton, east of Jo'burg, down the street, and neighbours would say, "You make us so proud, I wish my children were like you". That was cool for a while, living the corporate dream…But very quickly I grew so unhappy. So I thought to myself, 'When was the last time that I was actually happy?' And I sat back and felt when that was - and it was when I was in college, performing. There was something surreal about being on stage and doing my thing.

I was 23, no children, no husband, and nothing to lose. So I went for it. I wanted to get into music, so I quit my job. I drew up a five-year plan, which involved massive success and me ending up with a Grammy in year five. It was quite ambitious, but I thought that five years was reasonable.

I then met Arthur [head of kwaito label 999 Records]. He wanted a new voice and a new challenge: he wanted to create an RnB phenomenon. The deal just fell into my lap and I became a part of his kwaito stable. The problem was that it took two years to release the album, and I'd only saved up enough money to survive on my own for one year. That depressed me and by year two I was down to absolutely nothing, making no income, and still holding on to a dream. The only reason I held on was because the thought of being 45 one day and knowing that I'd come so close, and not making it, was greater in terms of the regret I'd have if I just pushed on. So in year three I knew I had to have something to show so that I would be proud of myself. I needed to get into the studio and produce this album. So I did. The album (All My Love) was out in May 2003.

But there just wasn't enough being done to make me stand out and sound different. The majority of the South African public thought, and still thinks, that I was a kwaito artist - because I was collaborating with all of the kwaito artists on the 999 label. And so when I realised that the 999 label I was signed to was too strong as a kwaito brand that's when I knew I had to go.

So off I went and reshot all my pictures and repackaged myself and sent off the music and, little by little, jobs started trickling in. I became a well-oiled entertainment solution. I was independent again, I was making a living and I had five employees. We were a working band - it was great. I was in control, I was free, I was exploring myself, I was expressing myself, I was growing and I started to change. I was owning my space a lot more and the album that I'd made was no longer a reflection of who I was. So I recorded my second album Feel Good. SONY then offered me a deal I couldn't resist.

I'm used to the hustling though, so even today I can't just sit around and let the record label do everything. What was important for me was to reintroduce myself to the market. And people still thought, 'here's that kwaito chick". So I had to remove all of the distractions. I simplified my look to something that suited me more as a person. I had grown up alot, I was starting to feel more ladylike. I wanted to be respected again. Because you can imagine: coming from that stable, people just thought I gyrated all day.

SAMAs then followed and I won the best female artist award two years in a row. A song of mine has even featured on a US sitcom…so that five-year dream is taking a long time, but I'm getting into those spaces and it's starting to happen, which is great - it's part of the hustle. The dream is still on course.

[Bartlett] Which comes first: the dream or the plan?

[Lira] You dream and then you plan. The dream gives you the end result; the plan gives you the steps to get you there. When you have defined a goal for yourself in terms of where you want to go, then your words must own it, your thoughts must entertain it, your actions must lead to that goal…If you want something in your heart but you spend your time doing something that is totally different in terms of the alignment with where you want to go, that is madness.

So it's about making life work. And I find what makes life work is having a strong sense of self. And gratitude is a big part of that. I was very bitter for a long time and as soon as I changed my attitude and started counting my blessings I started to feel better and think clearer. I developed a more positive outlook on life. I had more energy to find more solutions. And life responded.

Coming from Daveyton I've seen so many beautiful girls with great potential, but because there is so much poverty the first idiot guy that comes along with some money gets them pregnant. And then there is Aids, and the cycle just continues. That's the situation in the hood, the environment where I come from, that I had to escape. That's the reality that a lot of people live with.

[Bartlett] Do you go back there?

[Lira] I've got a few students that I'm taking through school, who I sponsor. And it's tough. My deal is that you don't get anyone pregnant, you don't get pregnant, and you complete your schooling. You don't have to pay me back, but you need a certain average. I'm not gonna mess around. I've gotta work so hard to make this money so I'm not gonna accept mediocrity on any level. The environment is so vile that they need a support system to keep them in the right frame of mind. And I'm overwhelmed, so I just try and do my bit.

The reason I'm doing as well as I am is because I had an education and I had that support, which allowed my mind to figure out different ways of doing things. The basis of my education allowed me to think outside the box. So I'm trying to give what I received to the next person, right? And I think this is sustainable change. I could give away food parcels, but it's not sustainable. Those kids that I support have a better chance of turning their futures around, pulling someone else up, or supporting their families. It seems practical.

I don't do it as charity, I do it as Lira. I go around chatting to people, just speaking, dropping a new idea, and where that goes is up to the individual. But I'm not Jesus, I'm not gonna save the world. But I just do what I can. Sustainable change comes from education. I believe that the African solution will come through education.

[Bartlett] What is your perception of South Africa?

[Lira] I'm not crazy about our leaders, but I've realised that the responsibility doesn't lie just with our government and its leaders. It's really about the individual. And I care enough about my country to just try and do my bit. In a few years I'd like to see a lot more people educated, contributing, creating that change.

The experience that I've had in this country forms the basis of my perceptions. I've lived in apartheid South Africa. We were trained to never look in white people's eyes. You don't want to get in any trouble, you don't want to cause any trouble. So your demeanour becomes very meek; you walk with your head down all the time. And so it's difficult to overcome these kinds of things. There's a lot of people that want to get up, but they don't know how.

I come from such a hectic background, where there are issues galore. For example, I've only been speaking English for 15 years. I had to do a lot of catching up. I was never global. My upbringing taught me to fear white people. So forget the world. I'm not even designed to dream that big, by virtue of my environment. So now I am overcoming my conditioning.

While there is that urge to succeed, very often we haven't had the system that supports that kind of thing. We are a generation in transition. We want to be part of the global community, but there are so many things we have to overcome: in many ways we are happy with mediocrity. We've seen the back end of apartheid and now we're suddenly free and we're not fighting against oppression. We're fighting to find a space to find who we are in this world.

The struggle isn't about being African or being black or white, that struggle isn't relevant any more…it's about who you are in the world.

[Bartlett] Tell us about your music…

[Lira] Your art means nothing until it touches others. As an artist and musician you come alive and recognise what you are you are through the experiences of others. Music is my experience, my truth. It's what I believe. With every album I've taken a risk, going on this 'change the world' vibe while the industry is going in the other direction. It's scary but I don't know how else I could possibly do this. It gives purpose, it gives meaning, it gives drive, it gives passion. I have to trust that it'll all work out.

[Bartlett] What's next?

[Lira] Everything now is about sharing my music with the world, so that is what this album [Return to Love] is about. We're launching in SA now, and in the US in March. I'm off to the States where I feel like I have something to contribute. And it took me this long to get to this place, where I feel like that. I want to achieve the status of being a globally recognised brand but people must know that I'm from this continent. Also that I impacted the music industry and the world in a positive way. And I'm going to get that Grammy.

[Bartlett] What can stop you?

[Lira] Me. Self-sabotage. Fear can be so paralysing. I just get so overwhelmed, feeling like I have the whole world on my shoulders. There are nights when we are working 20 hours a day and I'm just exhausted. So I need to keep myself in a good headspace and stay grateful. Because sometimes you can lose sight, you know? You can have lots of support, but when you go to sleep at night it's just you and your own demons.

[Bartlett] Advice to potential stars out there?

[Lira] If you have a desire and a wish and a dream, let your actions, your thoughts and your words lead directly towards it. It took me nine years to get here, so please also realise that it doesn't happen overnight. Never stop loving yourself. When you have pride and a sense of self, you never know. You never know.

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Originally published by The Big Issue South Africa  © www.streetnewsservice.org

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