Lebo Mathosa

Kwaito star and actress
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The Independent Online

Lebo Mathosa, singer, songwriter and actress: born Daveyton, South Africa 1977; died Germiston, South Africa 23 October 2006.

Typically sporting a long blonde wig and dancing raunchily, the singer Lebo Mathosa was renowned for her charismatic stage presence and natty dress sense. Aside from being nominated "one of Africa's sexiest women" by the men's magazine FHM, she was also a pioneer in the field of copyright for South African artists, having secured ownership of all the publishing rights and shares for her songs.

Mathosa first emerged in 1994, while still in her teens, with Boom Shaka, which became one of the most high-profile acts performing kwaito, a hugely popular South African style that combines elements of hip hop, house and various local ingredients. Her subsequent solo career saw her broadening her stylistic range and topping the South African pop charts. At the time of her death, she was planning to start her own label.

Unusually on the South African music scene, Mathosa gained control of all her publishing rights not long into her career. In 1997, she engaged the copyright lawyer Graeme Gilfillan to secure first Boom Shaka's rights and later her own as a solo artist. Gilfillan remembers how her singing increasingly dominated the group, and her incredible drive, which meant that Boom Shaka had little wind in their sails without her, and eventually folded. "She was a perfectionist," he says,

obsessed in terms of what she did. She didn't do anything halfway. She prepared her dancers and her set for hours and hours - incredible dedication to her craft.

Although Mathosa guarded her private life, it was an open secret that she once had a long-standing affair with one of her female dancers, which helped make her something of a gay icon. Her current partner was the man driving the car in which she died; he survived the crash.

Born in 1977, Mathosa grew up in the East Rand town of Daveyton, near Johannesburg, where she enjoyed gospel music, singing in a local choir from the age of seven. She was inspired to pursue a show-business career by the likes of the pop diva Brenda Fassie and various kwaito groups. In fact, when Mathosa was only 14, Fassie arranged for her to come and live with her. Thus, the established star became a mentor and role model, announcing that her protégée was "going to be the next Brenda Fassie". Fassie herself died in 2004.

In 1994, Mathola met the rapper Junior Sokhela. Along with two other budding rappers, Thembi Seete and Theo Nhlengethwa, they founded Boom Shaka. By 1996, the group had released its début album, It's About Time, and become renowned for slick stage shows which raised the bar for kwaito acts. They made three more albums with Mathosa, achieving notoriety in 1998 with a controversial version of "Nkosi Sikelela", the South African national anthem. This was featured on the UK's first kwaito compilation, Kwaito: South African hip hop (2000).

By the end of the 1990s it was obvious that a solo career for Mathosa was inevitable. In 2000 she released her début solo album, Dream, and the following year she picked up three Samas (South African Music Awards). Around the same time, she also launched an acting career, appearing in the local soap operas Muvhango, Generations and Backstage and the film Soldiers of the Rock (2003). During 2004 she took part in local performances of The Vagina Monologues.

Her first trip to the UK was in 2001, performing with Boom Shaka at the Celebrate South Africa concert in Trafalgar Square and a club in Tottenham for the Zimbabwe independence day celebrations.

Her next album, Drama Queen, topped the South African pop charts in 2004 after a fallow period that prompted rumours of personal problems, although Mathosa blamed the career hiatus on contractual wrangles with her former record company, Gallo.

She appeared at the 2005 launch of the Africa-wide MTV Base channel, capitalising on a fan-base she had already established in countries such as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Kenya. Her most recent album, Lioness, was released the same year and last month she travelled to the UK again after being nominated for Best African Act at the British Mobo awards, although she lost out to Ghana's Batman Samini.

Jon Lusk

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