Lebo Mathosa: Freedom’s poster girl

Johannesburg - It was on a Monday morning 10 years ago today that SA woke up to the devastating news that pop star, dancer, kwaito queen, trendsetter and ‘bad girl’ Lebo Mathosa had died. Charl Blignaut talks to people who knew and worked with her as her foundation is launched and a new greatest hits album hits the streets.

"But bad girls are always the ones who make history,” says Khanyi Mbau over the phone in her crisp-yet-throaty voice. “They are the change agents.”

I tell the actress, singer and radio host that I find it difficult to imagine a Babes Wodumo or a Khanyi Mbau if there hadn’t been a Lebo Mathosa, and before her a Brenda Fassie, and before her a Miriam Makeba.

“Each generation takes us closer to the light,” she replies. “We are the direct generation after Lebo, we were entirely influenced by her. How we think, how we dress, what music we listen to, how we expose ourselves. She was the Marilyn Monroe of her generation.”

The day the music stopped

No one I talk to can believe it’s been 10 years since the kwaito pioneer and poster girl for freedom died at the age of 29, when the young man driving them lost control of the car, flying off the N3 highway and hitting a tree. The president sent a tribute. Friends and fans were devastated. It felt, once again, like the music had stopped. Brenda Fassie had died two years earlier, now her “protégé” was
gone too.

“Yho! It still doesn’t feel real,” says Theo Nhlengethwa, Boom Shaka member.

“As I write this, it is like I am reliving the pain of the news,” says Eugene Mthethwa, kwaito star, over email.

“We grew up singing Boom Shaka’s songs, every one of them. They were for us and about us,” my 30-year-old neighbour says over a shared dinner.

“It feels like yesterday,” says Mathosa’s close friend and Boom Shaka bandmate, actress and rapper Thembi Seete during a break on the set of Rhythm City.

“Never a day passes that we don’t talk about her, that I don’t think about her. Every day on my way to work at Sasani Studios, I pass her old house in Lyndhurst. It feels like she’s still around. She is still around.”

Good girls

Seete and Mathosa were the pulsating heart of Boom Shaka, a band that was to help usher in the kwaito movement coming off the streets and out of the townships and hip-hop clubs. It would be the voice of young people and help partly liberate local music from the multinational record companies. It was 1993 and time to exhale. Their box braids piled high, their pelvic grinds in skimpy shorts, their conscious lyrics, hard, bubble-gummy, housey beats and catchy hooks ignited the scene.

“Their fashion sense was not the only admirable thing about them. The brashness as they sang It’s About Time was a signifier of the attitude they and the rest of the collective of bold, young kwaito musicians had that they had arrived and it was about damn time that everybody took these young, black kids seriously,” writes Ntombenhle Shezi in Vanguard magazine.

Seete and Mathosa met when they were 13 years old and both hanging out and testing their voices at the famous Downtown Studios.

Mathosa was staying mostly with friends and attending school, somewhat unhappily. She was a bit lost. She had conflict over her family, but was never willing to talk about it. And once, when we were working on a TV show together, Mathosa privately told me of sexual abuse she had encountered, but I swore I would never repeat the details. Seete came from a strict family. Because of their solid upbringings, both “bad girls” were disciplined, determined and respectful of their elders.

All her life Mathosa had a burning compulsion to be a star. “She never dreamt small,” says her longtime producer, Christos Katsaitis. “She wanted to be the next Mary J Blige.”

Seete recalls their first meeting. “I asked her if she could sing. She said yes. I said sing for me. She didn’t do that shy act or even clear her throat, she just went for it. Wow... We both loved hip-hop, we both loved Brenda. Later that day we went to Small Street Mall and got Pizza Huts and Milky Lanes. We were inseparable from that day. We started rehearsing together. Imitating SWV, Brenda.”

They would dance in competitions in Hillbrow, at clubs like Arena, Ponte, High Point, Razzmatazz.

“We’d have these afternoon sessions for young kids where no alcohol was sold. They would mime to songs or sing or dance,” says Katsaitis. “I met her through Oskido [Oscar Warona], who was deejaying there.”

Junior Sokhela, then with seminal Cape Town hip-hop outfit Prophets of Da City, the story goes, was looking for a vocalist. Theo, the fourth member of Boom Shaka, was in a dance group called Amagents.

“Lebo was immediately attracted to him. She loved cute people,” says Seete. “She didn’t tell us they were dating. Everyone loved Theo and was like, you have to be in the group. Six years later they were still dating.”

Shaka boom

The story of how Boom Shaka’s breakout hit It’s About Time was written says a lot about Mathosa’s woefully underacknowledged songwriting skills.

According to Seete: “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.”

In fact, Sokhela had been on an album called Boom Shaka that was produced by Katsaitis, Don Laka and Warona (who together formed Kalawa Jazmee records) and Laka had written Makwerekwere, which Sokhela was now performing.

“But we still only had one track,” says Seete. “We were talking about how Usher and everyone was naming themselves in their songs at that time and that’s how It’s About Time (to listen to Boom Shaka) was born, we just jammed it.

“Lebo came up with the hook. 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.”

Makwerekwere, a political track about xenophobia, was on that first album, It’s About Time, put together in a week or so.

“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.”

This isn’t a story about Boom Shaka, but about Mathosa. They shot to number one and stayed there for years, over the course of numerous albums. Katsaitis managed them in the beginning. They toured, charging R20 000 a gig in 1993 already. Mathosa was their most famous face. Katsaitis would try to make sure she finished school. She would be much happier at Central Johannesburg College, but it seems she never did get her matric.

Boom Shaka would get the nation talking when, in sexy blue suits, they performed a dance version of the national anthem. Even Madiba was upset. The elders felt they were disrespecting the song.

I remember interviewing Boom Shaka at the time and they were gobsmacked. They had wanted school kids to learn the lyrics of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, that was why they made it hip.

Mathosa would be forgiven, later performing at Mandela’s 85th birthday party, but she was always the face of the rebel child.

Flying solo

Katsaitis would leave Kalawa and Boom Shaka would go with him for their third album, Words of Wisdom.

Mathosa would live with Katsaitis or Mthethwa for long spells when she was feeling unhappy or having family or relationship problems. She would make headlines for getting into a fight at a club or for sleeping with women, but she was incredibly hard-working, she didn’t really use drugs, everyone will tell you so. I think the bad girl tag is all about her claiming her sexuality, owning her body, living her political truth.

She would buy her own house and go solo.

I remember, at Razzmatazz, Mathosa and Seete getting the crowd screaming as they danced on their heads, gyrating all the while. In Pretoria, I watched them sex their way through Free as the packed club screamed, boys pulled on stage for a spanking.

But nothing prepared me for Mathosa’s launch of Dream, her first solo project, 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.

“In studio she’d sing something up to 20 times until it was perfect,” says Katsaitis. “She made a major contribution to the lyrics. She’d collaborate or write her own. With her hooks she could turn songs into hits. In my career I haven’t yet met anyone who could do that as well as she did ... and from day one everything came with clothes and costume changes.”

Says Mbau: “She never went to an event wearing something she’d worn before. We wanted to dress expensively like her. That white fur, those shorts and boots. She defined celebrity for us. She could sing and dance and act and dress, she was the full package.”

Mathosa went through a slump after Dream. She was unhappy with her record company. She got out of her contract and started recording again. Her hit I Love Music got her out of her funk. “They weren’t sure what to make of it, but Lebo was ahead of her time,” says Katsaitis. “They were looking for Afro-pop, this was disco House. The thing about Lebo is she was always willing to take a risk.”

The future of Lebo Mathosa

“The last time we had a heart-to-heart was at her mum’s place in Daveyton when her dad had passed. It was his funeral and she was again the Lebo I met at Downtown Studios. She was wearing a doek and had fabric tied around her waist, respecting the occasion,” says Seete.

“She said let’s dish up food. Let’s use one plate and share. We used to share everything, make-up, food, rooms. They would book us two rooms and we’d use the one for clothes and the other one to sleep in. So we ate using one plate, with our hands. ‘Nana,’ she said, ‘we’re growing older. When are we going to have kids?’ She really wanted to get married and start a family and to bring Boom Shaka back. She told me she’d met someone, that she had a new boyfriend.”

Says Nhlengethwa: “On the Monday that she passed, we were supposed to meet and sign the contract for Boom Shaka to get back together again. There was a big reunion planned.” When the band started performing as Boom Shaka again, they hired a singer to do Mathosa’s parts. She was booed because people loved and missed Lebo so much. Nowadays they use her voice on the show tape instead.

Katsaitis says she intended an equal focus on her solo work: “She wanted to go into live performance, with a full band, jazzy. The last two albums had a bit of that, jazzed-up house. She was already rehearsing. She knew it was easiest to break into the international dance scene. Imagine. She was still only 29.”

When author Bongani Madondo heard I was writing on Mathosa, he sent me a message on Facebook. I’m taking the liberty to quote it: “In this ... our Beyoncé feminist times, our Zanele Muholi queer-me-nist times even, our Babes Wodumo’s it’s-my-time-and-I-will-have-my-cake-and-eat-it era, all of which Lebo not only prefigured, but lived and encapsulated, the idea of #LeboMathosaMatters cannot be overstated.”

>>Lebo Remembered has been released by Universal Music to honour Mathosa. It contains her greatest hits and two new remixes by DJ Christos, and is available now in stores and online

Lebo Reborn

Gugulethu Mhlungu

As part of the 10th commemoration of Lebo Mathosa’s death, and commemorating her life and work, the Lebo Mathosa Foundation has been created.

Co-founder Thulani Mbatha (pictured above) says “the conversation about the foundation started last year, between me and the music director at the University of Fort Hare, Mr Sy Ntuli. He was my music lecturer at Central Johannesburg College, the same one Lebo went to.”

Other artists that passed through the college “include Kwela Tebza, Khanyi Mbau, Kabomo as well as Bucie. My father taught at Mabuya High and that’s the same high school Lebo went to. I was at EMI Music and so was Lebo and we worked with DJ Christos ... and all these memories started coming back when I had the conversation with Mr Ntuli.”

The Mathosa family was consulted about the foundation, and it emerged they were thinking of something similar, particularly relating to her label Mathosa Music, which she had created before she passed away.

“When we went to EMI they said they were keen to do something too…” A little known fact is that Mathosa had started a record label, with plans to discover and sign young raw talent like she once was.

“So, her foundation is intended to continue her ambitions and ambition number one was her record label – once they had investigated and spoken to everyone involved in forming it. As a young African woman at the time, it was a huge deal that she had started the label, registered it and planned to make use of it…”

The second part of the foundation’s work is around mentorship, about empowering up-and-coming talent wanting a career in music. Mbatha says the alumni of the college are also looking to work together to help young artists.

“I don’t know why it took us 10 years to get to this point, but we are here…” Mbatha says, laughing softly.

“We spoke to her producer Christos Katsaitis as well and he went back to his studio and found some precious unreleased music he’d recorded with Lebo. When he was messing around in studio he found lovely clips like that, he found the raw audio for I Love Music and Bhenga and other songs…” Mbatha says there will be new remakes of some of Mathosa’s most popular songs.

There are plans for music showcases, because Mathosa was all about the music, and Mbatha says there is talk of a concert involving people who worked with her. “She was a lioness, she was a rebel, she was daring and she broke the rules … and a celebration of her life and her work needs to be the same.”

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