Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Roaring success of 'Lion King' musician

From Errol Barnett, CNN
January 16, 2013 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
Lebo M is a South African singer, songwriter and composer best known for his work on movie and stage hit "The Lion King." Lebo M is a South African singer, songwriter and composer best known for his work on movie and stage hit "The Lion King."
'Lion King' star Lebo M
Celebrated composer Hans Zimmer
'Lion King' - The musical
'Lion King' star Lebo M
'Lion King' - The musical
'Lion King' - The musical
  • Lebo M conducted and sang on the movie The Lion King
  • His arrangements won him a Grammy and he is currently working on his first ever tour
  • The South African advises young people in the continent to embrace their identity
  • "The African in you is your ticket to Hollywood," he says

African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) -- When celebrated film composer Hans Zimmer agreed to create the soundtrack for Disney's 1994 animated film "The Lion King," he knew there was only one person he wanted to work with -- South African singer and songwriter Lebo M.

Award-winning Zimmer, whose illustrious body of work includes scores for mega-hits such as "Gladiator," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Simpsons," had already collaborated successfully with Lebo on "The Power of One," a 1992 drama set in South Africa.

"By the time he [Zimmer] had committed to what became 'The Lion King,' there were other people hired that I replaced ... because Hans was reluctant to continue without me in the project," remembers Lebo.

For Zimmer, however, there was still one big problem: finding Lebo in his hometown of Soweto.

"They looked all over," says Lebo with a smile on his face. "At that time there was no iPhone, the world was not here, you know? To find somebody in Soweto, good luck!"

After a long search, Zimmer eventually tracked Lebo and asked him to fly to Los Angeles immediately.

Read: Africa's Hollywood music man

Lebo M.: Bringing African music to life
'Lion King' musician inspired by Mandela
Lebo M.: Africans must find own voice

Lebo put his stamp on the movie; his credits include choral arranger and conductor but to most "Lion King" fans he is famous for delivering the powerful vocal sequence in the opening moments of the film.

The duo's collaboration earned them a Grammy while Zimmer was awarded an Oscar for Best Original Score. The movie also turned out to be a roaring success, winning two Academy Awards and three Golden Globes, as well as becoming the highest grossing hand-drawn film in cinema history

"We had created a formula with Hans that puts together Eurocentric orchestration with African voices and African big drums," says Lebo. "We created a very unique soundtrack -- it's still my very favorite soundtrack."

Lebo's arrangements captured the spirit of Africa, in tune with the politics of the time in his home country.

"When Simba takes over Pride Land, to me is not an animation," he explains. "The lyrical inspiration around that is visualizing Nelson Mandela becoming president at the same time when Simba takes over Pride Land," he adds. "It's a personal journey for me, this project."

Born in Johannesburg in 1964 as Lebohang Morake, Lebo grew up during the height of apartheid. Gifted with a natural musical talent, he left school at the age of nine to start performing at local night clubs. The young musician, who idolized soul legends such as Marvin Gaye and The Commodores, soon started making a name for himself, becoming the youngest singer to perform at The Pelican Club in Soweto, aged 13.

Two years later, his talent was recognized by a local U.S. ambassador who arranged for Lebo to apply to the Duke Ellington school of music in Washington, D.C. Lebo's unique musical intuition led him to Los Angeles where, after a tough spell where he lived on the street and found himself working in car washes and fast food chains, he managed to establish himself as a Hollywood-based musician.

Read: Healing a wounded nation through music

That's the hardest thing to do right now -- to tell young people in Nigeria, in Johannesburg, in Ghana that the African in you is your ticket to Hollywood.
Lebo M, South African artist

Lebo's first big break came when the 1987 South African-themed movie "Cry Freedom" was nominated for an Academy Award. Lebo was asked to assemble a choir to perform at the Oscars. Their act received a standing ovation and people in the film industry took notice.

More projects followed suit but in the early 1990s Lebo decided to go back to his apartheid-free home country and reunite with his family. He later returned to the U.S. to work with Zimmer on "The Lion King."

While making the movie the pair wrote so much music that an executive at Disney decided to put out a second album, "Rhythm of the Pride Lands." Film, theater and opera director Julie Taylor heard it and approached Lebo about collaborating on a Broadway adaptation of "The Lion King."

Following in the footsteps of the movie, the musical has gone on to become a long-running hit, amassing awards and spawning several productions across the world.

Lebo says that it is the combination of the African spirit with a global story line that has made the show such a success.

"I think the authenticity and the raw African-ness of 'The Lion King' is a bigger selling point than any other product that has ever been on Broadway or on stage, done with a world-class quality approach," says Lebo, who is determined to keep the show's feel authentically African by making sure that all international productions feature South African performing in them.

Read: Afrobeats going global

"In the last 15 years we've hired well over 250 South Africans, unknown, that come from raw townships, rural areas and suburbs that are spread around the world where 'The Lion King' is and there are probably more than eight productions of 'The Lion King' outside of New York and that for me has given me the opportunity to give back," says Lebo, who is currently working on his first-ever tour.

His advice to the young people of his continent is to embrace their African identity.

"I think the biggest challenge for us South Africans specifically, is how do we continue to define ourselves in a global community as part of the world community?" he says. "That's the hardest thing to do right now -- to tell young people in Nigeria, in Johannesburg, in Ghana, that the African in you is your ticket to Hollywood versus the hip-hop African American wannabe in you," he adds.

"You are a commercially viable product in the world and you can play and be commercially successful like anyone else but self-identity defines you."

Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1253 GMT (2053 HKT)
Through a variety of exhibitions including one signed off by the artist himself, Nigeria is presenting J.D. Okhai Ojeikere to the world one last time.
December 9, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
Mulatu Astake may be the father of a musical genre: Ethio-jazz. But when he talks about the art form, he tends to focus on its scientific merits.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
U.S. response to Ebola is key for setting global example, writes global health advocate Idris Ayodeji Bello.
December 9, 2014 -- Updated 1339 GMT (2139 HKT)
Using his deep-rooted knowlege of herbs, savvy entrepreneur Alhaji Mustapha Oti Boateng had an idea to help his fellow Ghanaians.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1222 GMT (2022 HKT)
One of the most debilitating medical conditions in sub-Saharan Africa isn't fatal. In fact, it's easily curable.
December 8, 2014 -- Updated 1500 GMT (2300 HKT)
Nigerian architect Olajumoke Adenowo reveals her tips for success, mentorship and what she'd like to do next.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Pius Adesanmi: Activist diaspora insists on her story of Africa -- and social media has enhanced its voice.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Developers, designers and big thinkers gather together on the rooftop of the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos to discuss ideas.
Pius Adesanmi: Activist diaspora insists on her story of Africa -- and social media has enhanced its voice.
December 1, 2014 -- Updated 1048 GMT (1848 HKT)
Amos Wekesa has seen a lot of changes in his country. Today, the self-made millionaire oversees Great Lakes Safaris, one of the largest tour operators in Uganda.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1010 GMT (1810 HKT)
Photographer Ernest Cole made it his life mission to capture the injustice of apartheid in South Africa.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 0936 GMT (1736 HKT)
In the largely male-dominated world of the motorsport, South African superbike racer Janine Davies is an anomaly.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1848 GMT (0248 HKT)
Athi-Patra Ruga,
For anyone that needs convincing that African art is the next big thing, they need look no further than 1:54, the London-based contemporary African art fair.
December 1, 2014 -- Updated 1435 GMT (2235 HKT)
He's one of Malawi's best abstract artists and now the 40-year-old dreamer is revealing his journey in to the world of art.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.