From the streets to ‘king’ of the red carpet
THE Los Angeles Greyhound bus terminal was a noisy and sometimes dangerous place in the mid-1980s when Lebohang Morake arrived there at the age of 22.
Morake, a South African who had been performing in nightclubs in his native country since he was a child, found himself among those experiencing homelessness, jostling to find a place to sleep at night.
“I was a street beggar,” said Morake – who has since had a dramatic reversal of fortunes – and is now a Grammy-winning musician known around the world as “Lebo M”.
Last month, Disney flew him to the Hollywood premiere of The Lion King and put him up at the Ritz Carlton hotel. Paparazzi at the London debut snapped photos of the 55-year-old as he smiled, next to Elton John and Beyoncé, and shook hands with Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.
It was the latest in a stunning string of successes for Lebo M, a producer and composer who won a Grammy Award for The Lion King Circle of Life, and a singer whose iconic voice begins the opening scene in the film.
He attributes his success to the same thing he thinks makes The Lion King story so resonant: With enough heart, even those who have been cast aside can triumph.
Lebo M was born in Soweto in 1964. He didn’t have many outlets for his early and outsize musical talent in his humble beginnings.
He began singing jazz professionally, and recorded his first single in 1977, when he was 14.
Two years later, he followed a migration of young people to Lesotho to pursue a musical career. He had heard about a new nightclub opening.
Shortly after he arrived, he learned that he had been exiled, forbidden by the white South African regime to return to his family in Soweto. The reason? He didn’t have a passport or an ID, he said.
Then one night, Lebo M performed before Lesotho’s ambassador to the US, Tim Thahane, who noticed the teenager’s vocal talent. With Thahane’s help, Lebo M applied to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington and was soon accepted.
After graduating in 1983, Lebo M thought he’d found his path to success. A music producer promised him an opportunity to record a single on the West Coast of the US.
He scraped together the money for a one-way ticket. After arriving in Los Angeles, the singer got into the producer’s car, he recalled, but it turned out to be a scam. After learning that the African refugee didn’t have any money, the producer dumped him on the side of the road, he said.
On Thursdays and Fridays, he often showcased at Marla’s Memory Lane Jazz and Supper Club, the club owned by Marla Gibbs from The Jeffersons.
“That’s when I was slowly coming out of the streets,” Lebo M said.
Then, in a stroke of luck, he ran into a friend from his childhood who was a bass player for South African singer and songwriter Johnny Clegg, who was in Los Angeles on a world tour. Lebo M met Clegg’s producer, who gave him a job at his recording studio.
“I was the tea guy there, the runner,” he said. “When the studio wasn’t busy, I would do demos.”
Through the studio, in 1991, he met Hans Zimmer, who had created scores for the Oscar-winning movies Rain Man and Driving Miss Daisy, and was working on The Power of One,a film set in South Africa. He and Zimmer hit it off, and they collaborated on the film. Lebo M ended up co-producing, co-writing and performing the soundtrack for the film with Zimmer. It was his breakout project. “That started our friendship and professional working journey,” said Lebo M.
The next year, Lebo M ended his 13-year exile and returned home as Nelson Mandela was poised to become South Africa’s first black president.
In Los Angeles, Zimmer began working with Disney on an unnamed African animation project, and he wanted Lebo M. Zimmer tracked him down in Soweto and they collaborated on the soundtrack for The Lion King, which was released in 1994.
It opens with Circle of Life and Lebo M’s rousing musical cry, “Nansi ingonyama, bakithi Baba!”
“It’s just an instant emotional, spiritual connecting moment in the creative process that acknowledges the presence of a king,” he said.
His grounding comes from a belief he has carried with him since his boyhood in South Africa, and those nights he slept at the bus station in Los Angeles.
“I share inspiration that is based on a very simplistic approach,” he said. “The horror I’m facing today does not define my tomorrow.”
| The Washington Post