Flashy, flamboyant, and fiercely independent, Lebo Mathosa's star burned brightly for a tragically short time. She launched her singing career as a teen in Boom Shaka in the mid-1990s and quickly established herself as the group's focal point. In 1999 she initiated a solo career, placing a series of albums on the charts and ascending to the top of the South African music scene. Mathosa also caught the public's eye as a model, and was known for her ostentatious, sexy style of dressing. Her brief reign as South Africa's Pop Princess ended tragically, however, when her car overturned in Johannesburg on October 23, 2006, killing her. "We believe," Pallo Jordan was quoted in Cape Argus, "that Lebo Mathosa's life was a significant example of a living African spirit seizing the opportunity to take a rightful place in the world."
Born on July 17, 1977, Mathosa was the eldest child of Magdeline and Gerrit Mathosa. She grew up in Daveyton near Johannesburg, and was drawn to music at an early age. At seven, she began singing gospel in a local choir, dreaming of singing lead. "I don't think I can really pinpoint what drew me to music," Mathosa told Art Matters. "I was born with it in my veins." Mathosa's potential was recognized by South Africa's leading pop star, Brenda Fassie. Fassie, serving as the young singer's mentor, invited Mathosa to live with her. "There will never be a day when I will upstage the great Brenda Fassie," Mathosa told Art Matters. "She was and still is my idol. She inspired me to do what I do, how I do it."
In 1994 Mathosa met Junior Sokhela, an aspiring rapper, and together with Theo Nhlengethwa and Thembi Seete formed Boom Shaka. The band performed kwaito, a distinct, kitchen-sink style that mixed rap, house, and other elements into an energetic, danceable blend. Boom Shaka released Its About Time in 1996, and gained a reputation for professional shows filled with choreographed dancing. But Boom Shaka also offended some viewers with the group's daring onstage behavior. "The group courted controversy with their short skirts, pierced noses, Doc Marten boots, knee-length braids and sexually provocative dances," wrote South Africa's Sunday Tribune. In 1998 the band offended some in the older generation when it added dance beats to its version of the South African National anthem, "Nkosi Sikelela." Despite the controversy, Boom Shaka reached a large audience and seemed to speak for a new generation of South Africans.
After several releases, Mathosa departed from the group and established her solo career by releasing Dream in 2000, an album that expanded Boom Shaka's sound. Dream won Best Dance Album, Best Dance Single, and Best Female Vocalist Awards at the South African Music Awards, and achieved gold status. "I am a diverse musician," she told Art Matters, "and cannot really label my music anything in particular. … I try to include genres that make people happy and give them inspiration."
Four years would pass before Mathosa released her second album, and rumors circulated that she was dead. "I had to step back for a while, 'cause when you release one album after the other people may stop craving," she told Tonight. "It is just a strategy." She returned in 2004, issuing Drama Queen. "The new release saw Mathosa mixing styles," wrote Shola Adenekan in the London Guardian, "and some saw its title as an appropriate comment on a lifestyle of tantrums, fast cars, bisexuality and alcohol." As with Dream, Drama Queen won Best Dance Album. Mathosa also built her fan base with frequent live performances, and became noted for her outrageous, high octane stage antics. She appeared as far abroad as Malaysia and Trafalgar Square in London, and performed at Nelson Mandela's 85th birthday celebration. "What matters," she told Great Art Daily, "is that you like what I do—do you enjoy watching me perform? I want people to come back and see me perform on stage, switch on the TV to see my videos, turn up the radio when my song is playing."
In 2004 Mathosa mourned the death of her mentor, Fassie, who died from drug-induced cardiac arrest. "You can't deny death, you can't fear it," she told Great Art Daily. "I'm sure God has a better place for us, if you're a believer."
In addition to her work in music, Mathosa expanded her career into acting and modeling. She was approached by a producer in 1999-2000, and appeared in popular television shows such as Generations, Backstage, and Muvhango, and the movie Soldiers of the Rock. Mathosa also toured the United States in a South African version of The Vagina Monologues. She was voted one of Africa's sexiest women by FHM Magazine, and in 2001 received Style's Best Dressed Woman of the Year Award. In 2006 Mathosa released her third solo album, Lioness.
Multi-talented and with an ever-growing fan base, Mathosa's artistic and popular potential seemed unlimited. But at the apex of her musical career, tragedy struck. On the night of October 23, 2006, Mathosa and a companion were traveling near Johannesburg when her Land Cruiser overturned several times sometime after midnight. Paramedics arrived on the scene and attempted to revive Mathosa before pronouncing her dead at 1:05 a.m. Speaking of her last big concert, her ex-manager told South Africa's Star: "Her voice was powerful as she went through her hits. … She was larger than life. Watching her, I realized she was at the top of her career. And in that instant she was untouchable—one of the greatest performers of our time."
Mathosa's life and music left a deep impression on South African culture while also introducing South African culture to the world. She made waves in the music industry, battling to control her publishing rights and setting a high-profile example of artistic freedom for other performers. At the time of her death, Mathosa had also planned to start her own record label. While she often courted controversy with her flamboyant lifestyle, she maintained that her private life was much different. "I adore chilling at home with my family, my mom," she told Art Matters. "Lebo Mathosa is different from the stage performer and actress. She loves to relax."
South Africans, however, would remember the extroverted vitality and vibrant presence of the public Mathosa. "With her peroxide-blonde hair," wrote Adenekan, "Mathosa epitomized the affluent, confident and media-savvy part of the generation that came of a post-apartheid age and inherited the nation's young democracy."
Drama Queen, 2004.
For the Record …
Born July 17, 1977, in South Africa; died October 23, 2006, in Johannesburg, South Africa; son of Magdeline and Gerrit Mathosa.
Member of Boom Shaka, 1994-99; launched solo career and released Dream, 2000; issued Drama Queen, 2004, and Lioness, 2006.
Awards: South African Music Awards, Best Dance Album, Best Dance Single, Best Female Vocalist, 2000; South African Music Awards, Best Dance Album, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—EMI, 810 Seventh Ave., 36th Fl., New York, NY 10019, website: http://www.emigroup.com.
Cape Argus, October 25, 2006.
Guardian (London, England), October 28, 2006.
Star (South Africa), October 24, 2006.
Sunday Tribune (South Africa), October 29, 2006.
"Interview With Lebo Mathosa," Great Art Daily,http://kaganof.com/ (February 9, 2007).
"Lebo Mathosa," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (February 9, 2007).
"New Music, But Still the Same Lebo," Tonight,http://www.tonight.co.za/ (February 9, 2007).
"South African Artist Sets Her Eyes on East Africa," Art Matters,http://www.artmatters.com/ (February 9, 2007).