Interview: Lebo M on tackling issues of fatherhood and family
It’s fitting that Lebo M’s creative legacy and magnum opus is the soundtrack of The Lion King, which he forged with famed fellow-composer Hans Zimmer. The Lion King is a tale about the often-complex relationship between fathers and sons, and in Lebo M – Coming Home, it’s precisely those issues that Lebo and his family face head on.
Although the music Lebo M – the stage name of Lebohang Morake – has created is simply brilliant, his personal life has been anything but simple. He’s been married and divorced, and is now back with his third wife. This, coupled with his hectic Hollywood lifestyle, has meant he hasn’t always been around to raise his kids.
He blazed his own trail early on, exiled from Apartheid South Africa. Serendipity and his talent, though, saw his way to the US, where he studied music on a scholarship and then built a career in Los Angeles. It was here, after a few turns as a performer and composer, that he and Zimmer teamed up. The rest is history.
But the future – that’s a different thing. And we’ve got a front-row seat to it. In Lebo M: Coming Home, the latest Showmax Original reality series, his colourful family life comes into play.
Have no doubt, Lebo M is a king in his own right. He rules a family that’s big – nine children – and complex. And even though he’s the patriarch, he doesn’t expect unquestioning obedience.
“I don’t have a problem being challenged by my children,” he explained. “They challenge me a lot; they’re brought up that way. But I challenge them also.”
It’s not just their upbringing that spices things up. Lebo M’s family is spread between South Africa and Los Angeles, and the show starts with him creating a new home for them here in Mzansi. It’s a beautiful, relaxing and rustic space, which is just as well as the sparks are going to fly.
“Yes, there’s a lot of conflict with me and my kids that comes from my kind of work, how they were brought up and brought up in two countries,” he confesses.
It can get pretty intense, such as when Lebo M butts heads with his son, Tshepiso, who recently became a dad himself. Father and son are alienated, and while Lebo M wants to reach out, he also tries to pursue principles and rules that not all of his family agree with. So, while that makes for great drama – perfect for a reality TV show – why would Lebo M do this? He’s notorious for being extremely private, so why lay it all out for us to see?
He has his reasons. There is the matter of cutting past the perception some have of him and his family (social media followers have had field days about him). He also admits that the process of making a show was fun and creative and a welcome challenge to him. He’s already looking forward to Season 2!
Lebo M has not had perfect marriages or been the perfect father. But it’s often our mistakes that help us see more clearly, and he feels there’s room in South African society to explore family, and particularly fatherhood, more intently:
“As a South African father, and my views about African fathers in society in general, there’s not enough conversation around fatherhood. There’s a horrible stigma. And then there’s a reality that we all know about – abuse of women, especially mothers.
“I don’t necessarily say I have had a perfect father-mother relationship with the mothers of my children. But a conversation around that also, I think, is equally important given where society is, where the mindset of men is. I don’t necessarily agree a lot with South African men’s fathering attitudes or stances. And having a blended family, like mine, and having experienced being a father to other people’s children, means I have a contribution to make to society.”
In Lebo M – Coming Home, these themes resonate as he and his family navigate around each other, get to know one other, and connect with the land of their forefathers. That kind of legacy is also key to the Grammy-winning composer. For example, his hero is his grandfather – a man he never met but whose influence always loomed large in his world:
“When I first came back home from exile, that was always in the back of my mind. And when I became more relaxed and more embedded in being who I am as a South African and started spending more time and talking to my mom, talking to my family, I’ve come to a realisation. If a man I’ve never met can be such an inspiration to me and be a central figure of inspiration, I would hope the same for my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”
Here comes a lion
It’s even a little subversive, sneaking such heady themes and conversations into a reality TV show – the epitome of pop culture entertainment. But one could say that’s a hallmark of Lebo M’s career. He started slipping black South African culture into films, a snub to the oppressive Apartheid regime – perhaps not consciously, but it made its mark nonetheless. And today, the world knows Africa by his deep chanting cry that opens The Lion King. (“Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba” – Here comes a lion, father)
If creative subversion is in Lebo M’s blood, it’s in his children as well. And that is what makes Lebo M – Coming Home captivating viewing: it’s his spirit, the spirit of his wife, adult children and grandchildren – and of course the unmistakable majesty of his 95-year old mother, a Xhosa matriarch with the joie de vivre of someone half her age.
Lebo M has come home. But the fun is only getting started. And hopefully, along the way we can all talk about what family and fatherhood are really about.
Watch the first five episodes of Lebo M – Coming Home on Showmax now, with more episodes coming on 9 and 16 December.