There are few female musicians who have been as impactful in the South African music industry as Lebo Mathosa.
Born on July 16th 1977, Lebo began her career at the tender age of 14. Her chance meeting with fellow band member Thembi Seete at Downtown Studios in Johannesburg would inspire her to become the front-lady of one of the country’s first kwaito groups, Boom Shaka, and later define her as an icon in the industry. But it would take years before she realised her true potential and began shifting perceptions of women in music.
Lebo Mathosa began singing at the age of seven in the local church choir before her parents moved to Johannesburg from their hometown of Daveyton. While attending St. Mary’s High School, she was discovered by jazz musician and part-owner of Kalawa Jazmee, Don Laka while performing at one of the afternoon sessions held by DJ Christos and Oskido. The sessions provided school kids the opportunity to perform to an audience and test their skill against the crowd, and the young Mathosa caught the attention of the Kalawa Jazmee record label owners.
According to Seete in an interview with News24: “Christos had a gig to deejay at Setlogelo [College of Education] and he said we must come and perform. But we had only one song, Makwerekwere, and it was Junior’s. We didn’t even have a name. So we are on the way to the gig and Junior starts this whole big thing about King Shaka, Boom Shaka it was. Old meets new, an explosion.”
By age 17, Lebo Mathosa, Junior Sokhela of Cape Town hip hop crew Prophets Of The City, Theo Nhlengethwa and Thembi Seete formed one of South Africa’s leading kwaito groups, Boom Shaka. Their first single released in 1993 titled “It’s About Time” became a nationwide hit and transformed the group of singers and dancers into one of the most successful South African bands of the mid-’90s.
“Lebo came up with the hook.” Says Seete. “She always came up with the hooks. And we performed it–just the chorus–and everyone was singing along. In the Kombi on the way back, we started thinking about verses. The next day we recorded it.”
Their music became the soundtrack for the youth at the end of the Apartheid regime; it was a celebration of freedom and the beginning of a new era and with the band's broad appeal within the youth market they were able to engage the first children of the Rainbow Nation.
“We were a freedom group,” says Seete. “Without realising it we were celebrating democracy ahead of its time. It’s also how we were raised, with struggle parents and liberation politics.”
Boom Shaka boasted a fresh and unique take on style and music, and were renowned for creating their own dance moves such as "Chop di grass", which pays homage to the men who mow the grass during the construction of highways. The dance is said to have come from traditional African dance moves, drawing inspiration from the “Kwasa Kwasa” style of dance from Zaire. This new dance style defined kwaito and increased the genre’s popularity immensely, drawing attention to the band from all over the world and breaking Boom Shaka into the global market, something seldom seen within the South African music industry at the time.
Bringing a sexy element to the dance moves performed by the band, Lebo and Thembi began to stir controversy with their over-sexualised demeanor on stage, which today is seen as both a mode of female objectification and simultaneously a voice for the feminist movement. The two could be seen standing on their heads gyrating to the beat, while screaming fans watched in awe of the two dominant forces on the stage.
As much as they had found a winning recipe for entertaining crowds, their means of doing so were not always taken in the best light. While donning blue jumpsuits, their rendition of the Nation Anthem “Nkosi Sikelela”, along with their skimpy outfits and hyper-sexualised dance moves, did not go down well with the elders and made national news overnight, even upsetting the president at the time, the late Nelson Mandela.
While their attempts to get the youth to engage in the national anthem in a hip and current way fell on deaf ears, and the band would await the forgiveness of the President, Lebo was labelled a rebel child, a portrayal that would hang over the kwaito star's career for years.
By their third album release, Lebo would dominate headlines due to altercations in clubs and it emerged that she was involved in sexual relations with other females. This “bad girl” impression perpetuated by the media began to define her in the public eye, though many artists understood her true motives: owning her body and sexuality and living her definition of freedom. But by then it was time for Lebo to blaze her own trail and take her career to the next level.
In 2000 she released her first solo album Dream with a massive launch party and a performance like no other. Chris Blignaut of News 24 recalls the events saying: “...nothing prepared me for Mathosa’s launch of Dream, at The Pyramid in 2000. She did every track on the album with relentless energy, perfect choreography and frequent costume changes. You could see she had rehearsed for weeks and I haven’t seen a slicker South African show since.”
Mathosa’s incredible work ethic was evident in the amount of time she spent in the studio. DJ Christos stated to The Sowetan: "I have never met an artist as dedicated as Lebo. She would spend 18 to 20 hours in the studio singing and perfecting the same verse. She was the first one to come into the studio and the last to leave." Dream went on to reach gold status in South Africa within four weeks and earned Lebo three South African Music Awards (SAMAs) for Best Dance Album, Best Single and Best Female Vocalist in 2001.
She continued with another SAMA for Best Dance Album in 2004 for her second album Drama Queen, topping the South African music charts once again. In 2006, she was nominated for a British MOBO award for Best African Act and began touring all over the world, from Malaysia to London’s Trafalgar Square and most significantly at Nelson Mandela’s 85th Birthday party. She also toured the United States with The Vagina Monologues, which allowed her to reinforce her ideals with a positive feminist message.
According to author Zine Magube, Lebo became "a role model for many young South African women, [appearing] at first glance to simply be reinforcing stereotypes about the wanton nature of black female sexuality. Some critics have argued however that Boom Shaka's female members have used 'the skimpy clothes, the gyrating hips, and simulated sex onstage to promote a variety of apposite concerns.' Her pro-feminist stance combined with her scandalous onstage presence earned her the title of “The New Madonna of the Townships”.
Prior to her death in a car accident in October 2006, Lebo had begun setting up her own record label Mathosa Music with the hopes of discovering and supporting new talent, and hoped to soon reunite Boom Shaka. Her abrupt departure sent shock waves through the entire music industry and her impact can still be found in artists such as Babes Wodumo, Fifi Cooper and many other female South African artists to this day.
Mathosa’s legacy lives on, not only through her music, but through the Lebo Mathosa Foundation, which intends on continuing her ambitions by providing mentorship and empowering up-and-coming talent with dreams of a career in music.
10 years after that fateful day, Lebo Mathosa remains one of the most iconic and influential artists in the country, and she will forever be remembered as the lioness of South African music culture.