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As a multicultural, cosmopolitan city with residents from all over the globe, a diverse range of cultural influences contributes to Hong Kong’s music scene. From the evolution of Cantopop to the rise of trap music, this city is a microcosm of the global music industry.
One artist contributing to Hong Kong’s unique sound is singer and actor MsLolo. Originally from South Africa, MsLolo arrived here in Hong Kong 12 years ago as a performer in “The Lion King” production. Since then, she has remained a part of the community here, sharing her talents and introducing the community to unique new sounds.
TMS recently caught up with MsLolo to learn about her experiences over the past 12 years and talk about her first album release, “A Different Breed.” She shared insight into the complexities of Hong Kong’s music culture and delved into her background as an artist.
Adjusting to Hong Kong
It was during the latter part of her high school career that MsLolo first became interested in being a part of “The Lion King” stage production. One of her teachers had seen it at the West End in London and encouraged her to audition for the show. Before hearing about the live musical from her teacher, MsLolo only really knew about it from the acclaimed Disney animated film. But she was intrigued by the idea of the story performed on the stage.
“I went and auditioned,” MsLolo remembers. “The first try was not good, to be honest. But for some reason, they kept me in the files. The next time they came back, they called me again, and they auditioned me for a different role.
“When they came, it was a year later, so I had gained a little bit of weight. So they had to audition me for a different role. They auditioned me for Rafiki and Shenzi – still didn’t get in there. One was going on Broadway – still didn’t get in. Then it took, I think, a year of not auditioning.
“And then one of my friends, who we used to go on auditions with, she called me one night. She’s like, ‘You need to come to the audition tomorrow. I know you don’t want to come in more, but you need to come because it’s a different company.’
“Like, what company? She says, ‘It’s Hong Kong. It’s a festival. It’s a different production.’ So then I came a few months later, and I received a call that I got a contract to come in and do Rafiki. But in Hong Kong, she’s called ‘Storyteller.’ So I was there since 2008 up until 2016.”
After MsLolo wrapped “The Lion King” at Hong Kong Disneyland in 2016, she stayed in the city to further develop her singing career while occasionally taking on acting roles. But there was a lot of adjusting needed for MsLolo to acclimate to the city and Hong Kong’s culture.
“When I came, it literally felt like I landed on a different planet,” she remembers. In addition to the hot and humid summers, MsLolo points out a few other challenges she faced adjusting to the cultural differences between South Africa and Hong Kong.
“It’s a culture of people [in Hong Kong] that are very conservative, that are very to themselves,” she says. “So I had to adjust from a community of people meeting each other – even if they don’t know each other, they start a conversation, and they build a friendship, or they get to know each other, something like that – to a very closed-up and conservative and very private environment and culture.
“But I guess in time you adjust. And also, of course, being one of the few Black people, I didn’t realize that I would be so excited to see a Black person when I’m outside in the streets or I’m on the train. But it’s been fun more than anything.”
MsLolo on her South African roots
Although she’s been in Hong Kong for over a decade now, South Africa still holds a special place in her heart. And it is the brightness of her childhood community that she communicates in her music.
“We are very, very vibrant,” she says. “We love music, we have such a great sense of humor. We make light of every bad and hard situation. You know, we laugh. We laugh at funerals. Our funerals are not very sad. You go there, and somebody is just gonna do something very crazy and everybody’s going to laugh. It’s a very light community,” MsLolo explains.
“So, I’ve been able to kind of introduce that to the culture here. That it’s okay to be loud. It’s okay to have to laugh out loud, to enjoy, when you hear your favorite song, to get up and bust into a move. You know, it’s one person at a time, one venue at a time. But more than anything to share that vibrant culture. You know, that fun and happy humor.”
MsLolo is on a mission to share the styles of Afrobeat with people in Hong Kong. Afrobeat is a genre that combines the sounds of West African and Black American music; its origins are often attributed to Nigerian artist Fela Kuti and his band Africa 70. It is unique on the world stage in its melodies and rhythms. Typically, songs within this genre “have time structures and lengths more common to jazz or fusion than pop or rock” and feature large bands and political lyrics.
When she first came to Hong Kong, MsLolo frequented a club called Makumba, which is known for playing authentic Afrobeat music. While she was familiar with some of the music originating from West Africa, it was different from the South African music she’d heard growing up. Still, being at this club made her feel good, and she wanted to create a sound that made people jump up and down the way they did at Makumba.
“Years later, I start recording my own music, and I do private concerts,” she says. “They’re called ‘Secret Locations with MsLolo.’ So basically, people would not even know what to expect.
“Then, last year in December, I launched my album called ‘A Different Breed,’ and the launch was amazing. I had local Chinese dancers. It was very humbling and emotional at the same time. And also, I felt that sense of ‘OK, I’m on the right path. I have an audience.’
“It may not be [all of] Asia, but I have the audience here in Hong Kong. People are listening, people are enjoying. And also, my music is about life and daily life experiences. It’s not something complicated for people to grasp.”
Creating and performing in the wake of COVID
More than two years since the onset of the COVID pandemic in Hong Kong, the city is still experiencing some uncertainty in terms of restrictions. Public performances have been widely affected by citywide precautions. Her album, ‘A Different Breed,’ was created right in the midst of the pandemic.
“When COVID came, it gave me time,” MsLolo recalls. “basically to just sit down and write out the ideas that I’ve always had, and I’ve just never had time to put it down on paper. It was nice also because I’m in a multicultural city with diverse musicians from different parts of the world.
“So one piece was done by somebody from Poland, one is done by somebody from Ghana, the engineering is done by somebody from Canada. The mastering is done by somebody from South Africa … Not only just the production – the whole experience [of] how you put an album together, what goes into an album, what to listen to, the levels, how fast the song goes. I also learned a lot of things, so it wasn’t only about the production. Also, I got to learn a lot of things about the behind-the-scenes of creating. But it was it was a really, really cool experience.”
MsLolo’s ideas for the album were varied and inspired by the diversity of Africa. “Africa is a big continent [with] 54 countries and about 2500 plus languages,” she says. “So you know, I had to … not only just share the music [but] also educate them that there are different parts of Africa. In other parts of Africa, the sound is like this without moving from, you know, the basics of the Afrobeat sound.
“I’ll add the color of West Africa and, in another song, it’ll have a color of Southern African. So it’s not only just Afrobeat – it’s Afrobeat, that has sounds that are from different parts. And also, I stole a little bit of American jazz and a little bit of pop. So I would say it’s a nice mixture of everything. And that’s why I called it ‘A Different Breed.’”
On performing the album live, MsLolo says, “I have not had enough of it!”
“It was nerve-wracking when I did the first concert,” she recalls. “But I think the first concert was almost like a validation that OK, you know, you have something going on here. [The first concert] was one of my best performances because I was just pouring my heart out on that stage. I was just being myself. I was vulnerable. Because most of the shows that I’ve done before I’m more concerned about everything being correct and perfect. But this show, I was like, OK, if I’m putting out this album, people need to see that this is really who I am.’”
MsLolo laments that she hasn’t been able to perform as much as she’d like yet, but she looks forward to playing concerts in other parts of the world, too. “I need to travel the world and see thousands of people,” she gushes. “I love, love performing on stage.”
What’s next for MsLolo?
Since her first album release, MsLolo already has a few other projects up her sleeve. She shares that she’s gearing up to release a music video for the song “Fallen.” Choosing this song for a video release was easy based on her fan’s reactions whenever she performed it live.
“It was when I perform it,” she explains, “somebody is going to break down, somebody is going to come to me and say, ‘Oh my God, the song touched me.’
“Also I enjoyed the process of making this song and also listening to it. So coming up would be the launch of the music video, and the global launch of MsLolo and the album.”
Bringing Afrobeat into the musical vocabulary of Hong Kong, MsLolo’s brightness and tenacity are sure to make waves.