African diva aims for ‘Marilyn moment’ at Obama inauguration
South Africa’s Lira will be one among many performers at Barack Obama’s inaugural celebrations Monday, but she is determined to be remembered for a performance to rival Marilyn Monroe’s wooing of John F. Kennedy.
The multi-platinum artist hopes to give Obama and other guests at the Ambassadors’ Inaugural Ball in Washington something as memorable, but perhaps not as racy, as Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr President” 1962 enticement to JFK.
“We all remember how she sang Happy Birthday to the president,” said the 33-year-old, whose real name is Lerato Molapo.
“I am going to concentrate on seeing how I can make it special, not only for me,” she said.
Lira has chosen to play Obama a song that she has previously performed for a president: “Something inside so strong,” by Labi Siffre.
“I played that song for president Mandela in 2010; it was his favourite song when he was still incarcerated.”
The song features lyrics laced with meaning for a free South African who grew up in an apartheid township performing for the United States’ first black president.
It opens: “The higher you build your barriers / the taller I become / The farther you take my rights away / The faster I will run.”
According to Lira, “it was a song about the struggle of the native Africans during apartheid. I saw it as a great present for the president and I am singing it for Obama in the same spirit.”
At her Johannesburg studio during recent rehearsals for the ball and for her performance at the Africa Cup of Nations — which begins Saturday — Lira admitted she has been a little nervous.
“I am feeling very confident now, I was overwhelmed and a little bit nervous, but I think we have prepared a beautiful show,” she said.
She has packed several elegant jackets for the North American winter and the dress, by South African designer David Tlale, that she will wear in one of the most important moments of her career.
But her thoughts about the trip to Washington have little to do with the razzle-dazzle of show business.
She recounts the emotion of watching Obama’s first inauguration in Kenya, where the president’s father was born.
“The whole country stood still and was celebrating Obama. It was beautiful,” she said.
“Obama represents possibility, what is possible for an African child out there.
“We Africans always needed help, but time is turning. We want to be equal, we want to be excellent in what we do, we want to play in the global field.”
Lira will perform along with South African band Mi Casa, Cape Verdian Anane Vega and popular Ethiopian DJ Biz Markie at the Washington Convention Center.
An important highlight on the Washington social calendar, inaugural balls are one way a newly appointed president rewards staffers — and more importantly donors and supporters — after a gruelling election campaign.