by Francesca Uriri
For Leslie Kasumba, media personality, philanthropist, and Head of Channel O Africa, music is one of the primary ways of preserving and sharing the continent’s rich and colourful history. She speaks on the business of entertainment, why the media and music are powerful instruments, and how Africa is truly rising. Be inspired as the Leading Lady Africa of the week, shares her light with us.
You became Head of Channel O, 3 years ago; what does your role entail, and how did the opportunity come about?
Well, prior to Channel O, I actually had a unique experience where I grew up in media, so from my first year out of high school I started on radio at a station in South Africa – YFM; which is the biggest youth station here. So while I was at YFM, I started editing the magazine I did some TV work some of which was on Channel O, so my background in media was pretty extensive add to that I was also studying my BA Dramatic Arts Degree. Anyhow when the position came up for this post, I was lucky enough to be one of the people who was called in, I sat through the interview process and literally ended up with the position. On my first day I was on a plane to Lagos for a strategy session, my second week I was part of the Big Brother Selection panel. So you can say that it was a good first two weeks. I am certainly blessed to have landed the job of my dreams and I don’t take it for granted. I thought all I would be doing was music and I was so blessed to be included in so many projects that have grown me as a person and a professional. I learnt how the corporate world worked – as I am naturally a creative and an over passionate speaker and writer! So my role affords me the opportunity to put everything that I’ve learnt in life into one position; I am thankful to God for that.
As the Head of such a popular and well-known channel, how were you able to execute some of your innovative and dynamic ideas?
Well it’s kind of cool because Channel O is part of the Mnet Africa/Africa Magic Team and so I was and am blessed enough to be led by people who are like – “go ahead try it.” When it doesn’t work out I still have the support. So in terms of executing plans, it’s just about coming up with the ideas based on trends and the team, and then putting it into practice. I will be honest – I am the queen of coming up with ideas and big dreams; I really am! Lol! Although, sometimes to my detriment because then it’s like “okay you’ve promised all this, can you deliver?” And that is usually the hardest part.
The period between the idea and the completion of the plan, is the hardest part because that’s where you get tested to see if it’s something you really want to do, but it’s also the time where different projects and ideas teach you something about yourself and how you do your work. So yes, executing is about discipline and persistence, not sleeping and just praying how you saw it in your head is how it comes out in real life especially when you have a team behind you.
You are the brain behind creative initiatives like the “Africa Rising” project, why is it important for Africans to tell their own stories, using as in this case, music and other forms of creative expression?
Well I feel that Africa has always spoken in song – let me explain what I mean. Growing up as a foreign national in a foreign African country – all the friends I made have been through a common love for music, in music it’s not political it’s about expressing emotion and understanding how different people, live, speak and even party! We live in a diverse continent – Africa is beautiful. I feel that two things bind us together as Africans – our spirit and our impressive human resource. Our spirit is essentially the same, we have all experienced the same thing – even if it’s been in different languages at different times, but we have all as Africans come out smiling against all odds.
Music brings all of that together, captures the spirit of people, connects people who otherwise wouldn’t have spoken and also tells stories of our lives. It’s the best way to tell your story without giving a lecture! I feel it’s important that Africans document their stories through music because, sadly the amount of books being written that document our stories are not so many or accurate, and also sadly the reading culture isn’t what it should be. Music can fill in the gap that will help tell a story.
I feel that Africa Rising’ which is actually the soundtrack to Multichoice’s investment to Africa represents what we do as a business, and that is to develop talent and create opportunities for people to realise their dreams. As a business we are interested in the development of Africa as a whole, and the song is a soundtrack about our love for Africa and the possibilities for Africa as a whole if we all rise up.
Some have the idea that a career in the media is all about wearing makeup and fancy clothes; what would you say to that?
Oh my word! I know right? Biggest misconception ever!
I always say that if you are not sure it is what you want to do and what God has called you to do – media/creative arts will destroy you as a person; whether you succeed or not. My advice: “Be absolutely sure that you are called to be in the media, because when the times come when you feel like quitting – and they will come, something in you will keep insisting you get back up!”
If you want to be in media to be wearing fancy clothes and make up and go to cool parties and all of that, be rest assured that’s only point percentage of it. The media business is a tough and cut-throat one; only those who are called survive it. But also know that it is rewarding – just put in the prayers and do the hard work.
What is an average day like in the life of Lee Kasumba?
Hahaha! My days are not average at all! I suppose it’s because my job requires me to deal with so many people and you never know who is going to call or what’s going to happen. There are the usual meetings, coming up with ideas, travelling, checking scripts productions, the Awards, Big Brother and all that, it’s a lot. But no day is ever the same. I think it’s because I try to make my job as dynamic as I can so that I keep giving my best. But my job is a full time office job – most people don’t believe that but it’s a serious office job and it’s also a serious socializing / networking / relationship building job so I have to balance that exactly right without compromising myself, the Channel and any other aspect of the job.
In South Africa, you are popularly called the “First Lady” of Hip-Hop, that’s a major title, what brought that on?
Wow! That is so funny! It’s from when I was in University. Basically I grew up loving hip-hop – as in my dad used to buy my sisters and I hip-hop music and my mom, well she used destroy the music! Hahaha! When I ended up on radio – I would talk about hip-hop, and then want to meet and discover African hip-hop artists as a way to integrate them into South African culture. I am Ugandan, and I can categorically state that the hip-hop community was the first to allow me to feel really welcome. I then started hosting battles, mc’ing shows and going to the hood – of course my dad was blissfully unaware of all of this at this time, lol. Then hip-hop opened the door for UN projects and I realised that I could use something I understood a lot to create my reality to meet friends. So that’s how it always happened, I was the girl who loved hip-hop.
You know, there’s a lot of talk about Hip Hop; about it being a genre of music characterised by lewd lyrics, flashy jewellery, and occasionally, violence, would you agree with this?
I think it’s a gross generalisation and I know that for the most part that’s what we see, but I feel that is beyond hip-hop. I can’t speak for every hip-hop song or artist I can just say this: for me as a Ugandan growing up in a foreign country, as I travelled, I always was able to connect and grow I actually learnt a lot about the world based on the hip-hop I listened too. In a sense, I guess I’m a bit like everyone, in that I love that flashy hip-hop. However, when I am on my own and listen to music, I like certain hip-hop because it gives me a birds-eye view into someone else’s reality and world, simply because hip-hop at its best is driven by clever words.
Let’s put it this way – there are 5 elements in hip-hop – the DJ, Graffiti, MC, Breakdance and Knowledge of Self (the most important). In my mind I tie this back to how I learnt about Africa. The DJ is originated with the drum, graffiti is when you think of hieroglyphics in places like Egypt even in old slave cases where people would share messages of what was happening in their lives, the MC – is the orator the speaker who tells stories around fires. And Knowledge of self is how you tie this back into how you express yourself and represent your world.
You have a very eclectic background – in the media as an OAP, Editor of a magazine, and also in music; how does it all come together for you?
I don’t know, I think my life is an example of the fact that God has a sense of humour and some detours and opportunities are from God. I never planned to be all those things. It makes me tired just thinking about all I did, sometimes I look at my resume and I am like – who is that person again? Sincerely but God obviously had a plan, because he orchestrated my life to perfection right to where I lived. I am a firm believer of that. Everything has been tied into another. All I wanted to do was play piano, write songs and sing. Honestly. I did all that sure and so much more. God is good… If you take the leads He gives you, your life will take you before people you never imagined. I have met people I never would have imagined and done work and spoken in places and executed projects I never would have even dreamt of… I think God just brings it all together.
Let’s dip into your philanthropic work. You are the co-founder and owner of what used to be known as Harambe Africa, what would you say you were able to achieve?
Well it’s funny, Harambe Africa comes from the radio show Harambe – Harambe is Swahili for lets pull together. It took on a life of its own, because Bad Boy T, Sanza, and I, all had different experiences and were passionate about creating radio that brought Africa in one place in South Africa. Be it through political commentary or Hip-hop which was the main thing or sports, that’s what we did. I feel that at the time we started the show, it created such a culture that was bigger than what we could have imagined and by default we were behind some of the biggest movements and people would be like – I was studying for my exams, and you guys helped me through or what was that song from Nigeria or just that fact that Harambe became almost like the new foundation for SA hiphopas you see it now. We ended up being involved in many incredible projects. It wasn’t a philanthropy project that we picked at all, it just happened. And now it’s like it was part of an era and it’s a part of history that will stay there; with me being determined to keep growing and keep moving forward.
What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced in rising to the top of your career, and what is the next phase for you?
Well firstly my parents expected me to be an academic, even though I later found out that we have creative media stakeholders and innovators on both sides of the family. So the first was convincing my dad that his daughter – wanted to go into media – well it was music then. Especially as he was a single father, we lost our mom and so he wanted us to get the best education possible. My biggest challenges have been and are internal. I try not to get caught up in what happening around me; I try to just do what my heart says to do. So my biggest challenge to rising to the top was myself, my family and making sure that I made them proud and myself too. This industry can give you strange options and quick ways, but I choose to do what is right and sleep with a clear conscience.
These days, it seems almost easy to be a media personality – the fame, the travel, the exposure, the thousands of followers on social media; what was it like for people like you who had to build the bridge others ride on now?
I don’t even see it that way, I have always seen myself as a bridge. Before my first show on YFM I prayed that if God ever made me famous – lol I actually prayed that, I promised God that I would always help people and would be a network source. So from Radio to now, my career has always in essence been about building people. Someone very wise once said that your success is determined in your successors – so I don’t care about social media followers or who has more. I get excited when someone makes it, because I know somehow their success is a light for someone else. I celebrate peoples success really. That’s my heart.
I don’t know o! Lol maybe I would have followed through on something like Tennis – I took classes in that too, private lessons or playing piano somewhere haha or Ice Skating. Or I don’t know. I have no idea, I just know wherever it is that I was, it would be very colourful whatever I was doing. I am a dreamer, I really am. So I would be somewhere painting a dream. In my mind. But I certainly wouldn’t be a doctor, lawyer or anything! Lol or maybe I would be the fun one… I don’t know…
Which 3 women do you admire the most?
My mom – I love and miss her, and I feel like I see her in me a lot more. I admire that she raised a family and supported my dad and had a heart of pure love; very traditional but also so selfless.
My friend Unathi – she is a radio host, Idols judge artist and does all these things right. At one point she was the most influential person in media in South Africa. But she is still an amazing wife, and a phenomenal mother. Women often feel they have to choose one or the other Unathi – is a phenomenal woman, she has it all – and not because it was handed to her, she had the courage to fight for it all.
The third would be a combination of my sisters Yvonne and Phyllis – they are absolutely amazing and I am inspired by them. When I can’t continue they really step in. They are good wives, one is a mom the other about to be a mom and both professionals in their respective careers.
In everything, I love and admire these women.
Are you doing what you love to do, and do you think it’s important to get paid, doing what you love?
At every stage in my life, I have been doing what I love. If I don’t love something I can’t do it. I fortunately and unfortunately am not able to separate my heart from what I do. It’s never work, it’s a calling and if it’s a calling I am happy. I think that at first maybe I wasn’t concerned about the money and I don’t do work based on money first, I can get to a point where if I feel I have nothing left to add I can walk. I think getting paid is important. I want to be comfortable, but especially when you are starting and growing; be willing to make sacrifices. However, when you are more experienced in the same way – be willing to respect yourself enough to get what you are worth. You determine your value in life.
Words of advice for young women coming up in the media business?
Make sure it’s what you want to do and you have the heart to stomach it. But more than that – I feel for women in media in general young and old – support your sister because she is going through what you did. Don’t compete with one another but compete with yourself. And mostly remember the decisions and choices you make, how you carry yourself will determine how others treat you. I am not saying be masculine, at all, I think a woman’s power is in being a woman, act like a lady – fight like a girl. And mostly God first always, always always.
Follow Leslie on Twitter: @LeeKasumba
The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.
It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa; an initiative that seeks to effectively mentor and inspire women, with particular emphasis on the African continent.
Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to [email protected] and we just might feature her.