How a freedom fighter became a Lion King star

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(CNN)Disney's The Lion King may be one of the most famous musicals in the world. The stars of the show, however, don't always get the same level of name recognition.

Lindiwe Dlamini is one of the longest serving members of cast, joining the show when it first premiered on Broadway.
"I don't think anybody thought that it would be this big," she says.
    Dlamini's own rise has been equally unexpected.
    Lion King performer shares her 'circle of life'
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    The daughter of a pastor, the Durban-born actress began singing as in church and school competitions from the age of nine. Growing up when the country was still under apartheid, she saw the affect the government's policies had on the nation's artists.
    "At the time, you had so many people in exile who were artists -- Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela," she recalls.
    "These people were singing to let the world know what was happening in South Africa, so the government didn't want anybody to leave. If you left the country, you were exiled, you couldn't come back."
    In 1988, Dlamini joined the ranks of political activists when she performed in Sarafina, a musical based on the Soweto student uprising in 1976, and which was later adapted into a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg.
    Initial rehearsals of Sarafina were done without a script, because the cast were being watched by police.
    "The director would tell you the lines and you would memorize it immediately", she explains. "So I never saw a script. I never saw a score of music until I got to Lion King."
    The show ultimately moved to Broadway, and Dlamini with it.
    "We didn't even know at the time we were freedom fighters," she reflects.
    "We were going to go overseas, to see the big stars. We didn't realize the message we were going to give was so powerful."

    @itsjelaniremy and @chantel_riley are ready to head onstage. Can you feel the Love!? Happy Valentine's Day weekend! #thelionking

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    Though leaving home was difficult for Dlamini, she soon found a new home on the set of The Lion King, where she met her husband, Bongi Duma.
    Many of the cast hail from South Africa, where singing is not only a national pastime, but was a political imperative.
    Duma explains that music offered him and his fellow cast members a way out of the apartheid system,: "It became a way of life. When we do Lion King, it comes natural because we come from a singing nation," he adds.
    It also doesn't look like the fervor for the show will die down anytime soon.
    "It still may be going strong in another 20 years, our grandchildren might see it," says Dlamini, laughing.
    "We always joke that I will [still] be here with my walking stick, singing Circle of Life because I've been here the longest, but I'll take it."