When I first met multi-platinum selling, multi-award-winning singer, Lira, about 10 years ago, she was a struggling artist dying to be taken seriously. She had just quit a promising job as an accountant to take the risk of a music career. It was a massive leap of faith and things really looked bleak for a while, thanks to a failed debut album and the fact that she was tied to an unwanted recording contract with a music label.
What a difference 10 years makes. This may sound really corny but, back then, there was something about Lira that made me a believer. There was something in the way she outlined the picture of her fantasy career as she saw it in her head, and that made me really want her to succeed. After all, she had quit a career that most of us were raised to believe was it.
“I was employed full time, I read the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and it was at that moment that I decided I wanted to do something bigger with my life and music was the tool that would help me achieve that,” says Lira.
As I meet Lira in 2012, it is a weird moment, like we have come full circle. Not only has she won 10 South African Music Awards (SAMAs) and been nominated twice for an MTV Africa Award, Lira has become one of the best-selling African artists to date, who has been on front covers around the world.
It was the disastrous first album that made all the difference. Lira went into a deep introspection, changed from RnB to Afro-pop and started singing about aspirations and dreams instead.
“In retrospect, the failure of that first album was necessary in me becoming who I am today. The pain and discoveries I made resulted in Feel Good, Soul in Mind and Return to Love—the albums that are most personal to me,” she continues.
The albums that Lira mentions achieved an incredible level of success across the continent. Feel Good, which is Lira’s second offering, was a best-selling album in Kenya in 2004. She has since performed in almost every corner of the continent; countries like: Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia, Ghana and Benin.
When Lira tells me during the interview that her next move is to conquer the giant music industry in the United States, I am reminded once again that it is probably wiser to be a believer where she’s concerned. There are many more believers: 325,000 Facebook fans and 50,000 followers on Twitter, to be precise.
“I am currently packaging an album—a kind of ‘best of’—that will be distributed in the States. Then I will launch a full-on performance tour. America is a huge market. It is a very influential market and I feel that cracking it will make it easier to infiltrate smaller markets. Oprah Winfrey chose one of my songs to feature in a documentary produced for her television network—OWN, and from the smaller tours that I’ve done in the States already, I believe that America is ready to see and hear an urban African,” she continues.
This will be a bigger leap of faith than leaving accountancy. The United States has proved a graveyard for African artists. Many have been called, few have been listened to.
To improve her chances, Lira has taken on one of these slick management companies in California.
“My American manager has been amazing. In the space of two months, I have been featured on magazine covers in the United Kingdom and Dublin, and have featured in editorials inside over a 100 publications. I really like that my management is globally-minded because my plan right now is to have a global career,” she adds.
As Lira goes into the intimate details of her plans, she reveals what could be her most powerful weapon. She is clearly someone who thinks a lot about the struggles that lie ahead; someone who, as they say in the boardrooms these days, has blue sky thinking and also sees the big picture—if you will pardon the dalliance with mixed metaphors.
“The idea was never to be a South African artist—but a global one. I looked at my childhood, my education and everything else, and I designed an image that showcases me as a ‘modern African’. I am a product of now; I am not trying to be traditional as I have always been exposed to urban culture. I was raised to be proudly-African, but at the same time to be an African who could be ambitious and not limit myself to one space. I was raised to know that I can transcend borders and know that growing up in this continent didn’t mean that I would have nothing to offer the rest of the world,” she says.
“I have always [learnt] from the mistakes of people that came before me. After having seen how others have fallen, I told myself that I had to learn and retain as much control as possible. The beautiful thing with that is that it became my own vision, and I could direct it any which way I saw fit. It comes with a lot of pain, but record companies have a thousand artists on their rosters, and are notorious for treating artists as just another catalogue number. Right now I am the commander of the financial structure that I and my whole team survive on. It is not the other way round where my managers pay me a certain percentage of the earnings that come in from my brand—I pay them as sub-contractors. This includes my band, the design team, the management company and the booking agency. I use Sony Music solely as a distribution agent for the music product,” says Lira.
“My philosophy in life is that you can do and be anything that you can imagine, so the more examples you get to see, the more motivated you get. If I can do it; principally, anybody can as well. The fact that my career broke in the manner that it did may be unique to me, but essentially, this proves that it is possible to self-actualize and live your dreams,” she says.
Right now, if anyone is living their dream, it is Lira.
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