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Exiled from South Africa as a teenager, Lebo M made his way to the US with nothing but his talent. Eventually he escaped poverty and built a career, creating one of cinema’s most iconic and enduring musical moments. “You get driven and get motivated by the fact that where you come from opportunity was zero, and you have an indirect responsibility to be somebody.” By Elizabeth Flux.

Composer Lebo M and that famous movie chant

Lebohang Morake performs in California.
Credit: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for Coachella

Five minutes into our interview Lebo M breaks into song, a famous line, one I first heard 25 years ago, sitting in a crowded cinema with my parents. The sun rose over an animated African savannah, and the animals, all from different links of the food chain, slowly made their way to Pride Rock.

The South African composer, performer and producer, born Lebohang Morake, tells me how he came up with the familiar, powerful Zulu line that opens The Lion King. He was brought onto the project by fellow composer Hans Zimmer, with whom he had collaborated on a few films. At that point, “I didn’t even know the full story,” says Morake. There were “just a quick couple of notes from Hans” before he found himself landing in New York, en route to create a demo to see if he would get hired for the film.

“The first thing I did was to create the chant, Ingonyama nengw’ enamabala,” Morake says, singing the last little bit. “Then, as I was about to leave, I saw an image of what later I came to know as Mufasa going up Pride Rock. I just went back and thought, ‘I want to do something’, and I went, Nants ingonyama – and boom!” He pauses. “It was just that moment in creativity that sometimes things just come together.”

There is a strange thrill in hearing these fragments out of context, something akin to seeing a band perform their work live in concert or discovering an acoustic version of a favourite song. The loving familiarity Lebo M has with his lyrics is obvious – the joy and pride he still feels for his creation.

“I said to somebody about three or four weeks ago the funniest thing is that the first 10, 15 years or more after the original movie, no one actually asked me what it meant,” he says, with a laugh.

One translation that has been doing the rounds for a few years went viral earlier this month on Twitter, suggesting the iconic line means: “Here comes a lion, father. Oh yes, it’s a lion.” It has, somewhat predictably, been mostly met with laughter and memes.

But this is incorrect , says Morake – a more accurate version would replace “lion” with “king”. Even then, though, it would remain overly literal, failing to capture his intent.

The closest you can get is: “All hail the king; bow down in the presence of the royal family.” But something is still lost on the way to English.

“When you translate from one language to another, sometimes, when you’re literal, it doesn’t actually get to the context,” Morake tells me. “Now, musically and lyrically when you translate that from Zulu to English it simply sounds like you’re saying, ‘Here comes the king’ or ‘There is the king’, you know?” he says, and pauses. “The reality is, as a metaphor, it’s all of the above.”

Lebohang Morake is, for the most part, a complete stranger to me and it seems an oversight that, until this year, I didn’t even know the name of the man whose voice was such a large part of my childhood. Since it was first released in 1994, The Lion King has never really disappeared from the public consciousness. The film was followed by the musical stage production – running since 1997, it is the top-grossing Broadway musical of all time – and then, in 2019, came the photorealistic remake starring Donald Glover as the voice of Simba, Beyoncé as Nala and James Earl Jones reprising the role of Mufasa.

“I’ve not left the space,” says Morake, who has been heavily involved in making the music for all three iterations, as well as spinoffs. “I’ve been privileged to have lived with this journey for 25 years.”

He admits he felt some trepidation going in to the 2019 reboot. “It becomes very scary because I’ve been living with this project for 25 years,” he says. “How do you then go to the next level?

“I couldn’t conceive of another presentation of The Lion King, creatively speaking, until of course when I met [director and producer] Jon Favreau.” Morake says he appreciated the respect Favreau had for the original script, “really stressing authenticity and being true to the story while creating this spectacular visual interpretation”.

It seems Morake’s connection to The Lion King isn’t limited to the music he’s made, or the way it has shaped his professional life. He connects with the story itself on a deep level, seeing parallels with his own life, including being exiled from his home country at the age of 16.

“It was never a project about animation and cartoons,” he tells me. “I could relate strongly to the journey of Simba, who grows up in exile, goes through trials and tribulations – the only difference between me and Simba’s life is he had a fun life in exile with Timon and Pumbaa.”

Morake started working in the music industry extremely young – by nine years old he was performing in nightclubs in Johannesburg. I ask how he knew this was the career he wanted to pursue from such an early age and he takes a moment to think.

“I was born in Soweto in South Africa at the time of political instability commonly known as apartheid,” he says. “My youth in Soweto had very limited options for a young black kid. And two of those I was really horrible at: I lasted – what? – maybe an hour or two in soccer, and the next option was boxing. I think I may have lasted 25 seconds in boxing.

“While there was turmoil in the country, school was not a stable thing for us and I entered the nightlife being the youngest background singer in nightclubs at the time.”

It was in pursuit of a musical career that Morake made a small decision that would drastically shift the direction of his life.

“When I first left South Africa in 1979, I was 16 years old. I went to a neighbouring country called Lesotho, chasing a new nightclub that was opened, only to learn I’m now in exile. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a passport and an ID,” he says, matter-of-factly. Through what he describes as “special arrangements and hustling”, and with the assistance of Lesotho’s ambassador to the United States, an exiled teenage Morake made his way to America.

There, he finished high school at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC, and for the next decade led a tumultuous existence as he pursued his music.

“From high school, it is basically between New York, Syracuse, Washington, DC, doing the musician’s hustle playing nightclubs and stuff like that,” he explains. “I lived in the streets in Los Angeles probably from 1985.” He drops this into the conversation casually, his tone unchanged. He went to LA for his music, on “a promise to be recorded which never went anywhere”. When that promise fell through, though, there was nothing left but his talent.

Morake says he was propelled forward by “the audacity to want to survive in my early life and never letting any obstacles [get in my way] – and there’s been a billion obstacles from my childhood, to going into exile and entering Los Angeles”. He pauses. “You get driven and get motivated by the fact that where you come from opportunity was zero,” he says, “and you have an indirect responsibility to be somebody.”

Morake tells me that after spending a few years on and off the streets “around 1988 I started getting small opportunities and basically my career starts moving from around 1991”.

His language underplays his struggle, and his achievements. Reading up on him before we speak, I learn that one of these “small opportunities” to which he refers was co-ordinating the choir for a performance during the 1988 Academy Awards ceremony. I try to prompt him to speak more about it, and he concedes it was a turning point – one that helped bring him into the mainstream in the US. “Thankfully, for us, that was one of the big highlights of the Oscars,” he says, “and I became this kid that everybody calls.”

Morake was hired to work on 1992’s The Power of One, a loose filmic adaptation of Bryce Courtenay’s coming-of-age novel set in apartheid-era South Africa. It was during this project that Morake met Hans Zimmer and began the working relationship that would soon lead him to The Lion King.

 

When a piece of art becomes so deeply ingrained in pop culture, we each form our own connections, viewing it through our own lens of experience. For most, The Lion King is tied up in the nostalgia of first seeing it – as a child, as a parent. For me, it’s the memory of watching it with my family, of subsequent viewings at sleepover birthday parties, of discovering that it is an adaptation of Hamlet – and due to my viewing order, to me, making Hamlet seem like an adaptation of The Lion King. Of finally seeing the stage musical in my 20s and being taken aback by just how visceral my response was. As a production it stands on its quality alone – but the real force underlying it is the way it connects to the feelings forged by the original film. It taps into a pure childhood joy, which can become all too rare in time.

For Morake, the film is intrinsically tied to the great political transition South Africa was experiencing during its production. Apartheid was coming to an end. Terrorist acts and assassinations put the country on the brink of a civil war. The US lifted long-held economic sanctions. The first election that allowed everyone to vote, regardless of their race, was held. And Nelson Mandela was elected president, becoming the country’s first black head of state. “So, my emotional and creative self was motivated by both real-life events happening and the script I was living with,” says Morake.

Morake speaks the names of characters with such familiarity it’s as though he is talking about old friends, loved ones. He often blurs the lines between fiction and reality, art and politics, the symbolism of the characters evolving and growing each time he loops back to these ideas. For him, his story and the film that made his career are interwoven. “It became a very personal project from day one,” he says.

“[There’s] your Mufasa character that becomes a Mandela character,” he says, laying out the parallels, “your Simba character that is my character. The character of Scar for me represented the entire system of apartheid that I grew up under.”

But it is his take on the meerkat and warthog characters, who take in the exiled Simba, that is perhaps the most unexpected. “The Timon and Pumbaa characters represent for me the joy while in poverty, the love in poverty that I grew up seeing, the smiles that were there,” he says.

Later this year, Hans Zimmer will be touring Australia, and Lebo M will be joining him. Morake couldn’t be more excited.

The Lion King has never been a static thing for him – as a job, it has provided continuing challenges and opportunities. “It’s just a great journey of growth for me,” he says. As a story, it has allowed Morake to probe his past, to process the experiences that have shaped him. With the stage show going strong, and the tour on the horizon, he doesn’t seem ready to end this chapter anytime soon. “It still gives me goosebumps,” Morake says. “I look forward to another 25 years of living with this journey.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 7, 2019 as "Full circle". Subscribe here.

Elizabeth Flux
is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.