By: Rashad Phillips
LIRA is a South African Songstress and an ambassador of the natural hair movement in South Africa. LIRA is widely regarded as one of South Africa’s top adult contemporary artist and has racked up nominations and awards that include South African Music Awards, MTV Africa Awards, BET Awards, Channel O Awards, MOBO Awards, and being named Glamour Magazine South Africa’s “Woman of the Year.” Recently, LIRA released Rise Again, an album that gives her American fans their first opportunity to find out what LIRA is all about. Rise Again reflects LIRA’s sophisticated genre described as “a fusion of soul music, elements of jazz, funk, and African languages.” “Feel Good,” “Believer,” “Ixesha,” and “Phakade” are songs on Rise Again that fulfills LIRA’s goal of making music that’s beautiful, uplifting, empowering, and celebratory.
People are curious about what’s going on in the African continent. They are wondering if we have lions and tigers out back. They want to know what life is like in our world. Listening to Rise Again will give your readers a glimpse into the South African experience.
During LIRA’s first American tour, I was honored with the privilege to be in her presence for an in-person interview to discuss music, natural hair, and her life. Below is the conversation between LIRA and I.
Phillips: You grew up under apartheid in South African. Was music an escape for you?
Lira: As a child, my understanding of apartheid was very limited. Back then, I didn’t even speak English. But I did see the affects of apartheid on adults and music was certainly an escape for them. For most of my formative years, we heard a lot of American music. Artists such as Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, and Luther Vandross were the soundtrack of that time and listening to those artists greatly influenced my music. During my early years, I wasn’t able to listen to Miriam Makeba because her music was banned by the South African government. So much later in my life, I was finally able to listen to her music.
Phillips: What does America need to know about LIRA?
Lira: I find that people are curious about what’s going on in the African continent. They are wondering if we have lions and tigers out back. They want to know what life is like in our world. My music is influenced by growing up and living in South Africa. During my formative years, I experienced life under apartheid. Later, I matured during the transition to democracy. During the transition, we were trying to find our place in the world as modern Africans. Now, my goal is to shape the way the world views South Africa. Through my music, I am trying to express and explore all that I am and can be without any restrictions. My music is a soundtrack of a woman who grew up under oppressive rule in South Africa and who transitioned to freedom.
On the African continent, our situation is a little challenging but we are able to still do it. Africans, African-Americans, and other people from The Motherland seem to have the same struggles. We’ve been displaced on so many levels and we are trying to find our groove, our footprint, our expression, and our uniqueness. Rise Again is the expression of all of my thoughts, feelings, and emotions in musical form. Rise Again is my story which is a part of the human story. If your readers haven’t traveled to South Africa yet, listening to Rise Again will give them some of sounds of South Africa.
Phillips: When African-Americans travel to South Africa, will we be treated like we are foreigners or treated like we are returning home?
My hair is so simple to manage. Natural hair is just the best! My hair requires minimal maintenance. I don’t travel with a hair stylist because it’s really not that much to do. I just have to keep it clean and moisturized.
Lira: Africans see every other African person as family. Everyone is your brother, your parent, or your sister. We are very welcoming and embracing. We are fascinated by other people’s cultures and history. I urge all of your readers to come to South Africa. You will feel a sense of home as you step off the plane. The energy and the spirit of South Africa will immediately connect with you when you come to visit us. You don’t have to be black to feel the energy, you just have to be a human being. Also, if you can, travel to the townships and villages in the rural areas. You will be amazed at the beauty and uniqueness of our communities.
Phillips: What three words best describe you?
Lira: Driven. Passionate. African.
Phillips: Have you ever relaxed your hair? If so, why?
Lira: Yes, when I was younger, I did relax my hair. I suppose I relaxed it for ease. After straightening my hair, I used to love flicking my hair and watching it respond. Now, I do it and my hair doesn’t respond the way it used to when my hair was relaxed. But now, I don’t have unreasonable expectations for my hair. The turning point that caused me to go natural was that day that I felt my hair and it felt like plastic.
My hair was so heavy with chemicals that my own hair was foreign to me. It just felt like it was this thing on my head and my skull was starting to look shiny. At that point, I decided that something was wrong with the way my hair looked and felt. Then I began to think about the long-term effects of putting chemicals in my hair. I didn’t want to find out what the effects were so I began to think about what it would be like if I allowed myself to be how I am naturally. Growing up being natural wasn’t easy because we had funny words like “Kaffir hair” (a term I really dislike), which we used to refer to someone who has ugly hair. So it was difficult at first because I was trained to dislike my natural hair and to think that it was not beautiful.
After taking the big step of wearing my hair natural, my husband was the first person to rub his fingers through my hair. It felt nice to have somebody else love my hair. Thinking back on that time, my husband probably loved my hair before I did. The decision to go natural helped me to realize that I needed to change how I saw myself. Also, many of the ideas that I thought about myself weren’t my own ideas. These ideas were put on me and caused me to have a negative self image. The decision to go natural was the first step in a long process of accepting who I am.
Phillips: How do you manage your hair when you are on tour?
Lira: My hair is so simple to manage. Natural hair is just the best! My hair requires minimal maintenance. I don’t travel with a hair stylist because it’s really not that much to do. I just have to keep it clean and moisturized. As long as it’s soft, I just let it be. I know my hair doesn’t like dry conditions because it breaks off. My hair doesn’t like extreme cold and I realized that last winter when I traveled to New York City and Washington, DC. It got so cold and my poor hair fell off. I’ve never ever felt that kind of cold in my life. My hair was like, “What the hell’s going on!”, and fell off like leaves in the winter.
Outside of my winter travel to the United States, I just keep my hair clean and moisturized. It’s normally really simple. What’s really amazing is how something so simple and easy could become so iconic for me. Everybody knows me for my hair (especially in South Africa). In South Africa, over the years, natural hair became less popular and it wasn’t seen as beautiful. My music was a vehicle to bring natural hair back into the mainstream in South Africa. In South Africa, when people think natural hair, they think LIRA. During my first major tour of America, I hope to introduce myself to American Naturalistas.
Phillips: By 2020, experts say that 65% of African-American women will have natural hair. Tell us about the Natural Hair Movement in South Africa.
Lira: It’s a lot slower and it’s simply because we do not have enough products to take care of our hair. We still have advertisements that say it’s not pretty to be natural. We have a long way to go because it’s hard to find a variety of natural hair products. I use products that have chemicals but I would love to go organic but it’s very hard to find organics in Africa. We still have lots of very bad chemicals being dumped all over the African continent. These are the reasons why it’s much slower in Africa. I think women want to go natural but they don’t know how to take care of their hair. During my time in America, I see more women wearing natural hair then I do in my own country.