Rap artist Lioness is staking her claim within Namibia’s music scene. She spoke with writer Masiyaleti Mbewe about her personal musical mission.

Photograph by Marchell Linus

Ask anyone, the 2018-release of Dreams by 26-year-old Windhoek born Namibian rapper Latoya Lucile Mwoombola – also known by her enigmatic stage name Lioness – was a cultural shift in the heavy-handed cis-het maleness of the Namibian rap and hip-hop scene. The song was a proclamation, a statement, an arrival. Taken from her full-length debut album Pride of Cilq it was a sonic deviation from the typical pseudo American rap that was a steady feature on the radio at the time. For one thing, it was a cool splice of English and Oshiwambo rap, a feat that Lioness chalks down to just ‘a flex’ when in actuality it is more than that. The effortless interweaving of the two languages on most of the album helps us decrypt the complexities of navigating a difficult musical landscape while simultaneously trying to establish a connection with her audience. ‘The majority of people in Namibia want to listen to music in their language and I don’t necessarily want to limit myself’ she says, ‘so it was fairly easy to switch between the two.’ 

Lioness first felt the inclination to rap from watching the greats; Foxy Brown, Lil Kim and TLC. ‘Here were all these womxn who had such different styles but still somehow merged the idea of being sexy with being tough,’ she says. 

Lioness and her sister Gina

What followed was the meteoric leap that saw her going from scribbling rhymes to her sister, model and producer Gina Jeanz’s throw away beats, to rapping alongside her industry peers on a couple of cypher mixes to critical acclaim. ‘I gained a little bit of traction from that so I was able to release the single Nomads, with Static Play’ she says. ‘I think what also helped was being consistent. I released two EPs before I did the album, and sat in on a lot of other artist’s studio sessions with the intention of simply observing and learning.’ 

The incredibly charismatic Pride of Cilq was put together in Lioness’s home within four months. Tales of unabashed harassment at the hands of male producers lace the reasoning behind the her decision to work primarily on her own, ‘I was just trying to work but I’d be at the receiving end of really disgusting comments. It felt so uncomfortable, so I just said fuck it and built my own studio in my house. There was a great sense of independence; not having to rely on anyone,’ she says. 

‘Working hard for me is like breathing. I did a 30-hour call at the hospital and then went to shoot a video straight after that. I collapsed in my kitchen from exhaustion because I hadn’t slept for nearly two days!’

The album is masterfully crafted, which makes it even more startling to find out that behind all the slick and edgy bars, Lioness is also a medical doctor[ON3]  currently doing her internship at Namibia’s state hospitals, ‘I don’t recommend it,’ she laughs. ‘Working hard for me is like breathing. I did a 30-hour call at the hospital and then went to shoot a video straight after that. I collapsed in my kitchen from exhaustion because I hadn’t slept for nearly two days!’

Her work ethic could be viewed as admirable if not for the sobering realization that in order for womxn to maintain relevance and earn respect in rap, they almost always have to work harder than their male counterparts. 

Still, one of Lioness’s greatest assets is her ability to remain vulnerable, a thing her hauntingly sad song Meme – a tribute to the rapper’s mother who she lost to ovarian cancer three years ago – encapsulates. ‘I think I get the whole workaholic thing from my mother’ she says. ‘She did her law degree, got her PhD and raised my sister and I all on her own. I’m still in shock because my mother was the healthiest person I knew.’ 

A young Lioness with her mother the late Dr Linea Nuugwedha

Her decision to therefore take a more sensual and romantic route for her upcoming 2020 release Wish You Were Here won’t come as a difficult adjustment for Lioness’s fans.

Having the ability to talk about a lot of her struggles on her last album, the theme for her new body of work is predominantly about love, which is something the rapper promises will be ‘a departure’ as well as an ‘amplification of my sound.’ 

Lioness is also trying something new on the project. ‘I hardly wrote raps the whole of last year because I was doing vocal training. I’ll be singing quite a bit on Wish You Were Here,’ she adds. There’s also quite the eclectic collection of pan-African talent on the album, with Lioness working with collaborators [ON4] including Namibia’s William Must Be Controlled and Dj Dreas, as well as Nigerian producers  Brown Klaxic and Synx and Zimbabwe’s Darlington.

As a result of being constantly on the grind, the rapper earned a spot at one of Malawi’s biggest music festivals Lake of Stars, a spot on Mr Eazi’s emPawa Final 10, an unforgettable collaboration with South-African rapper-actress Boity Thulo and legendary Kenyan rapper Nazizi on the song Switch It Up for Coke Studio Africa, as well as a spotlight feature for BBC Africa. Even with such a rapid rise over the past two years, Lioness still maintains a heart-beat steady approach to her craft. ‘I want to give people something to root for, so I put everything into my music. From my fashion to my performances, everything I do is calculated. I am a perfectionist.’

‘I think Namibia is finally at a point where they are simply ok with seeing womxn rap’

If we are to fully attempt to understand the existence of Lioness and her ability to bloom and simultaneously rip through the overwhelming patriarchal structure of rap as radical, we must first unpack how difficult it is to simply view her as justa rapper. She is more than that. In fact, her presence is hyper-symbolic of the Namibian mind frame and where it is. ‘I think Namibia is finally at a point where they are simply ok with seeing womxn rap. It’s been difficult for some of the other womxn that came before me,’ she says.  Often times the desire to divorce the concept of rap and “femaleness” is seen as progressive but there is a risk of erasure, ‘womxn bring something different to rap, I am at a position where I can speak out about what happens, I’m not going to stand for shit, I won’t allow it,’ she adds.  

Lioness brings a palpable feminism to the rap scene, a visual amalgamation of dualities; strength and vulnerability, independence from and reliance in public perception, ‘I don’t indulge in celebrity culture. If I’m not at the hospital working, I’m at the studio. Lioness is more of an ideal version of me; that’s what people see.’ When asked about the current state of rap in Namibia, she adds, ‘I need to see more Black womxn in rap; don’t hold back.’

One can hear the unspoken lyrics to her song Tala as she says this. The sentiments are mirrored; don’t let a bum n*gga stress you/ don’t let a bum n*gga tell you what you can do.

Lioness on the set of the set of her Tala video

Photo by Reginaldo Mar