Sometimes, one song is all you need; and in 2023, South Africa’s Tyla found hers

Sometimes, one song is all you need; and in 2023, South Africa’s Tyla found hers

‘People are not ready for debut album’

By BBC News

South African singer Tyla is a picture of cool confidence on Water, a hypnotically seductive summer anthem that’s become her breakout hit.

“As soon as I finished it, I was like, ‘Ay, this song, it’s too much’,” says the 21-year-old.

“I found myself re-playing it, over and over and over again. Usually artists, when they hear their own song too many times, they get tired of it. But I never got tired of Water.”

Her instincts were right. Water hit the top five in dozens of countries, and ended 2023 as the most-streamed Afrobeats song on Spotify.

In the US, Tyla became the first South African solo artist to enter the Billboard charts in 55 years; and ended the year with a Grammy nomination for best African music performance.

The success has also earned her fourth place on the BBC’s Sound Of 2024 list – which predicts the artists who’ll dominate the next 12 months in music.

“I’m over the moon,” she smiles on a Zoom call from Los Angeles.

“With things like this and the Grammys, I’m super grateful and blessed and happy that I’m able to be amongst all the other artists. All the greats!”

So, one song is all you need. But if Tyla has her way, Water is just the first drop of an oncoming flood.

“My goal has always been the same and it’s to be one of the world’s biggest pop stars,” she says.

“I’m a huge dreamer, very passionate, and somehow I always believed that this was going to come to me.”

Born and bred in Johannesburg, and of Indian, Zulu, Mauritian and Irish descent, Tyla Laura Seethal knew she wanted to be a singer from the moment she performed (How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window in her school assembly.

“I was so small but I loved it,” she recalls. “When I sang, my gran was screaming there in the crowd!”

Soon, she was spending her spare time auditioning for musicals, making up songs and uploading Justin Bieber covers to YouTube.

She wasn’t allowed to use social media but, when her father’s back was turned, she’d sneak off with his phone to post music on a secret Instagram account, and message it to Drake and DJ Khaled.

They never responded, but one of the videos caught the attention of a photographer called Garth von Glehn, who emailed the teenager offering to manage her.

Tyla thought it was a scam and ignored it for weeks… but she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Eventually, she arranged a meeting (with her parents in tow) and von Glehn set up Tyla’s first recording session.

“I ended up going to the studio every weekend in my last year of school. By the end of the year, I told my parents that I wanted to do this full time.

“Then there was another story I had to deal with.”

‘A lot of crying’

Tyla’s parents were not happy. They wanted her to stay in education. She reluctantly enrolled to study mining engineering and, at one point, considered joining her father in “a boring nine-to-five job, working with money”.

Their reasoning was solid – no South African artist had ever achieved success as a global pop artist – but Tyla had a counter-argument.

“I really looked up to Rihanna, because she came from outside America and just dominated the industry,” she says. And if a girl from Barbados could do it, why not her?

After “a lot of convincing and a lot of crying”, her parents gave her a year to break into the industry. If she didn’t succeed, she had to go back to school.

“And I’m still on my gap year now!”

Tyla released her debut single, Getting Late, in 2019, casually creating a new genre in the process.

Called Popiano, it’s essentially a more streamlined, hook-heavy variant of Amapiano – the popular South African sound that blends house music with reggae, jazz and trunk-rattling kwaito bass lines.

“Amapiano really felt like me, being a South African girl,” she explains. “But I also love pop and R&B so I wanted to mix that influence with sounds from home. It came together very naturally.”

Showcasing her soulful, intimate delivery over a shimmering shaker-and-snare groove, Getting Late put Tyla on an upward trajectory in South Africa – but the song lacked a music video, and Tyla lacked the resources to shoot one.

Undeterred, she begged, borrowed and called in favours to make it happen. Her manager became the director, her best friend was the stylist, but the goal was still “to make the best video South Africa has ever seen”.

“All independent, no money from other people – and when we dropped it, like we just saw the numbers fly. It changed my life.”

She’s not exaggerating.

Getting Late triggered an international record label billing war. Legendary music executive Sylvia Rhone – who has worked with Missy Elliot, AC/DC, Erykah Badu and Travis Scott – even put up a billboard in Johannesburg to show her commitment.

“A whole billboard with my face, saying, ‘Love, Sylvia Rhone from Epic’,” she recalls, still slightly awestruck.

But what really swung the deal was Rhone’s promise of creative freedom, “which was very important to me, because I didn’t want to have to change my sound in order to break internationally”.

Suddenly, Tyla was leaving South Africa for the first time, touring with Chris Brown and dropping a series of sultry, pneumatic dance anthems.

Her music lives in the tantalising moments where attraction and temptation collide.

On the boisterous Overdue, she’s harbouring a secret crush. The agitated beats of Been Thinking capture the anxious moment where she confesses her feelings.

“I read a lot of teen romance when I was younger, and I love those type of stories,” she explains. “It’s all very fun and young.”

Water is where the passion boils over, as she guides a man back to her bedroom and instructs: “Make me sweat, make me hotter / Make me lose my breath, make me water.”

The lyrics were inspired by Aaliyah’s Rock The Boat – another bedroom anthem with an aquatic double-entendre – but the sound is all hers, with rattling log drums and South African slang phrases like Hayibo.

It became a phenomenon on TikTok, where million of fans copied Tyla’s steamy Bacardi-style dance moves, which she accentuates by pouring a bottle of water down her back.

That trend spawned a craze of its own – where women would sit next to their boyfriends and play the song’s opening bars. If they leaned in to catch a glimpse of Tyla’s video, they faced all manner of shame and scorn.

The singer takes no responsibility for any subsequent break-ups.

“I’m not a part of all of this!” she laughs.

The song has taken her around the world, onto the stages and TV shows she dreamt of as a child. She made her live debut at Milan fashion week, and sat next to Kim Kardashian at Dolce and Gabbana’s Fall/Winter show.

Ciara, Normani, Jack Harlow and BTS member Kim Tae-hyung (aka V) have all been in touch – but her mind was truly blown when Janet Jackson started performing Water as a mash-up with What Have You Done For Me Lately on her US tour.

“I was like, ‘What the heck!’ And then she DM’d me and she was like, ‘Congratulations, stay blessed’,” Tyla says.

“I was just star-struck. I couldn’t believe Janet Jackson took the time to even say anything, you know? It’s crazy.”

Tyla’s bid for world domination is going to plan, then. And she’s ready to follow up Water with her self-titled debut album in March.

“I feel like people are going to be so surprised, like, ‘Where did this girl come from?’,” she says,

“So I’m very excited because when I listen back to the album, I’m like, the people are not ready!”

Her fanbase is only going to grow in 2024 – but Tyla’s biggest supporter, dating all the way back to school assembly, is still her grandmother Ivy.

“She loves it! She watches all my performances,” laughs the singer.

“And every time I come home she’s like, ‘How many dollars did you make me?'”