‘It’s sunny, with music bumping, and everyone in ripped clothing’: how Tyla set a new pop mood

by 24britishtvMarch 25, 2024, 8 p.m. 24
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Tyla may have 4.3 million followers on Instagram (called the Tygers), but she isn’t yet used to the equivalent real-world level of fame. For instance, she was recently approached by TikTok troll Harry Daniels. “There’s this guy that finds celebrities and sings to them,” she explains. “He sang Water” – her breakthrough single – “and poured water on his head.”

She laughs down the phone from Los Angeles, where she is promoting her self-titled debut album, which is out today. At 22, Tyla has already won a Grammy for Water (it netted best African music performance, a new category), and has performed it on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, while the song charted in more than 30 countries. This level of cut-through isn’t common for South African musicians, and Tyla knows that she is blazing a trail for the country’s music scene. “More people are starting to know about South Africa now,” she says. “They want to hear me say ‘Yoh!’ and they love the dancing.”

Water fused R&B, pop and amapiano – a South African genre forged from house, kwaito, Zulu rhythmic traditions and touches of jazz. The song’s midriff-undulating choreography inspired countless dance challenges on TikTok and launched Tyla into the pop stratosphere. When it hit the US charts (reaching No 7), she became the first South African solo musician on the Billboard Hot 100 in 55 years. “With amapiano, this is the first time we have a genre attached to South Africa that is now global,” she says. “It’s such a beautiful thing because it’s beneficial towards the creators but also the nation as a whole.”

Few other young pop stars have to think about carrying the musical flag for an entire country, but South Africa is having a moment. Though amapiano has taken a good 10 years to emerge on the world stage, stars including Drake have professed themselves fans – he has worked with amapiano producers such as Kabza De Small and Black Coffee. Tyla has found herself in the vanguard of a whole scene of young, thrilling experimental electronic musicians.

She was born Tyla Laura Seethal in Johannesburg in 2002, and grew up listening to Aaliyah, Rihanna and Adele – she loved to belt out Someone Like You. Determined to be a singer, Tyla started posting videos of herself warbling online. “I really wanted to go hard,” she says. “I would try to post wherever I could, every singing app, every competition app, every social media app.”

In the thick of this digital activity, Tyla managed to produce a debut single called Getting Late, which was released in 2019, when she was just out of high school. The song’s “popiano” energy – a term she has coined to describe her hybrid sound – earned her a global deal with Epic records. After scattered singles and collaborations, she teamed up with veteran US hitmaker Tricky Stewart (who has worked with the likes of Beyoncé and Britney Spears) and the pair came up with Water, which was released last July and reached No 4 in the UK.

“I just wanted to bring people into the Tyla world,” she says of the song’s creation. “It’s sunny, with music bumping, and everyone in ripped clothing.” Tyla advanced this mood, first with a remix of Water that featured rapper Travis Scott, and then with the follow-up single On and On, a warm R&B-inflected floorfiller on which she advises: “Let’s take it back in time/ Party like it’s ’95”.

Making her debut album took two years and a handful of other pop stars – it features Nigeria’s Tems, rappers Gunna and Skillibeng and singer Becky G. “I grew and learned a lot,” Tyla says, “and I feel like I’ve opened up more. All of this is very new: seeing America, seeing Europe, working with all these different people.” She sounds an uncharacteristic note of doubt. “Even if it sounds terrible, cool, at least I tried and I know now.”

Fortunately, the album is stacked with sure-fire future hits, though Tyla will have to wait a while before she takes them out on the road. She announced in early March that her forthcoming world tour dates would need to be rescheduled due to an undisclosed injury – something she won’t go into detail about, beyond saying that she’s “not ready for that type of strain on my body.” She is adamant that her performance needs to include dance – “it goes hand in hand with the music that I make, with African music. But at the same time, this injury is kind of an opportunity for me to explore and find other ways to perform.”

Despite that hurdle, Tyla seems to be enjoying her role as standard-bearer for South Africa’s new sound. “This is very much the beginning of the journey,” she says. “We are now living what we’ve been speaking about for years. I’m just excited for everything else that’s to come.”

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