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From a ‘Normal Girl in South Africa’ to a Rising ‘Popiano’ Star, Tyla is Making Major Waves with ‘Water’

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Tyla fogged up television screens across America last week when she performed the bacardi-inspired, wet-and-wild TikTok dance (surprisingly without her water bottle in tow) to her latest sultry single, “Water,” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon for her U.S. television debut.

“It’s crazy just being a normal girl in South Africa, and then living this dream that I’ve always wanted to live,” she tells Billboard. “I used to be so jealous watching all of the American celebrities on TV, like the Kardashians, Adele, Rihanna, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj. I was like, ‘One day, I’m gonna be there.’ I actually used to want to be born in America only because I thought only Americans could be famous. I did not know it could happen for us because it didn’t really happen very often for people in Africa and especially South Africa.”

Tyla (real name Tyla Laura Seethal) grew up in Johannesburg, listening to local house and kwaito artists, such as Black Coffee and Mi Casa, as well as American rap and R&B stars, like Tupac, Boyz II Men, Aaliyah and Rihanna. At age 11, she uploaded videos of herself singer covers (like of Justin Bieber‘s “Fall” and “Die in Your Arms”) to YouTube and even stole her father’s cellphone to create an Instagram account so she could post her covers and original songs on there, while also messaging them to celebrities and music industry figures. “I would do everything and anything — because I just felt like, one day, something was gonna catch on,” says Tyla, now 21.

After discovering Tyla from one of her Instagram videos, director and photographer Garth von Glehn (who eventually became her first manager) sent her an email. “I literally felt like I was going to get scammed, so I didn’t respond,” she recalls. “But then a few weeks went away, and something was telling me, ‘Just respond.’ I ended up responding, and then I met up with him with my parents. And I ended up recording for the first time.”

Tyla and her best friend/stylist, Thato Nzimande, proceeded to spend every weekend in 2019 at von Glehn’s apartment/studio, writing and recording music and conducting photo shoots. She eventually linked up with South African DJ/producer Kooldrink on her debut single “Getting Late,” which introduced her refreshing take on amapiano, the increasingly popular South African house subgenre that blends Afro and deep house, jazz and kwaito music, and is characterized by sizzling synths, rattling basslines and soulful piano melodies. “I mixed it with pop because I wanted to make a three-minute song,” she says. “Amapiano songs were like eight minutes, 10 minutes at that time. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a bit too long! Let me make an amapiano song that has the normal format of a pop song or an R&B song.”

Her unique “popiano” formula scored her a label deal with Epic Records in 2021, when she started gradually dropping singles — like the boisterous “Overdue,” featuring gqom pioneer DJ Lag and Kooldrink; the tantalizing “To Last,” which was later remixed by amapiano giant DJ Maphorisa and fellow South African singer Young Stunna; the super sleek “Been Thinking;” and the passionate “Girl Next Door” collaboration with Ayra Starr. But it wasn’t until she released “Water” — where her sensual pop/R&B melodies float over bubbling amapiano log drums — and its accompanying dance that Tyla really started experiencing the fame she had desperately desired since childhood.

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“Water” debuted at No. 67 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the week ending Oct. 14, and it has since risen to No. 21 (for the week ending Nov. 4). It has spent three weeks at No. 1 on U.S. Afrobeats Songs, marking her first No. 1 on any Billboard chart and ending the record 58-week streak of Rema and Selena Gomez’s “Calm Down,” and it’s cracked into the top 10 of the Global 200. “Water” has also been making waves at radio, landing in the top 20 of Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay and Rhythmic Airplay and debuting at No. 39 on Pop Airplay this week.

“This hasn’t happened in so long for a South African artist, born and raised in South Africa, with an African song, with an African dance style. Everything is so authentic, and the fact that all of that managed to translate overseas is crazy. It’s opening more doors for other South African artists and creatives to just have a place,” she says. “And for me personally, it’s unbelievable. I always wanted to be the biggest pop star in general. I didn’t want to be the biggest African pop star. I just want to be the biggest pop star that was born and raised in Africa. And the fact that I’m already getting a good response from the world [means] I’m one step closer to that dream.”

Billboard spoke with October’s R&B/Hip-Hop Rookie of the Month about Tyla’s signature “popiano” sound, opening for Chris Brown‘s European tour, making an unexpected cameo on The Kardashians and the inspiration behind her viral “Water” dance.

How did you first get introduced to amapiano?

The first time I heard a proper amapiano song was while I was in high school. I remember being in one of my classes and a friend was playing the song called “Gong Gong.” And it’s just a beat — there are no lyrics, no vocals on it. I remember that song till this day because it was my first time hearing something like that.

What makes the genre and the culture so special, in your opinion?

It’s ours. It’s a South African sound that has been able to travel. We haven’t had a genre that traveled this far. It’s brought a lot of pride to South Africans and a lot of jobs and opportunities for us. Amapiano has resulted in so many South Africans being able to travel the world now and make music and make a living off of it. It’s not really just a genre for us — it’s a culture and a movement. That’s why we’re always screaming, “Amapiano to the world! South Africa to the world!” It’s changed our lives.

And it’s very much an open place for us to work in. Everyone is welcoming. Our sessions in South Africa are not like the sessions overseas. All our sessions are open basically, so a session could be happening at this person’s house and then anybody is able to walk up and add a verse, anybody is able to come in and touch the beat. That’s why our songs have 20 people featured on it and the songs are so long.

What influenced you to come up with your signature “popiano” sound? 

In 2019, the year I actually got in front of a mic for the first time, I was experimenting and trying everything to see what sat with me. It got to the point where I was like, “Let me try an amapiano song.” At that time, it was still booming and people weren’t really singing on it. So I tried it and I ended up making my first song “Getting Late.” It just felt right.

And since that day, I just gravitated to that sound more, and as the years went by, and the more songs I made, the more my sound developed. People started calling it “popiano” because it is my own sound. There’s no one that’s really doing it. I just knew that I wanted it to feel like me, and this genre feels like me because I’m able to mix the genres that I was influenced by — R&B and pop, with sounds from home, amapiano and Afrobeats.

The story behind the “Getting Late” music video is inspiring: You wrote on Instagram that you had “set out wanting to make the best video South Africa has ever seen” and filmed a little before production was halted altogether when COVID-19 hit. After lockdown lifted, you resumed working on the video, which was your shot by your manager, and you were styled by your best friend for it.

It was literally like a family business. We shot one scene, COVID hit and then everything closed up. I felt like it was the end because my parents gave me that year to prove myself, because they wanted me to study. But I begged them and I was like, “No! I need to do the singing thing. Just give me one year. I’ll show you guys.” And they eventually gave me that year, and then COVID hit. And I was like, “Ugh! This is the worst time for them to give me the year to prove myself.”

But we made it work. When South Africa would open up a little bit, we would try and shoot a scene. Or we’d try to perform for free at this one place just so we can use the venue. It’s just crazy to think of how we made that video because everyone thinks that we had a huge budget, but it wasn’t that at all. My manager found a way to do it. We all found a way to make it work. And it literally changed my whole life.

At the time of its release, you wrote, “Even if it only gets 270 views on youtube and my career fails, I’ll just watch this video on repeat for the rest of my life and I’m pretty sure I’ll be happy.” Your video has nearly seven million views (so far) and was also nominated for music video of the year at last year’s South African Music Awards.  

It’s literally crazy. We went through so much to make that video — like, I couldn’t stop watching that video, ’cause I was so proud of myself and proud of my team for pushing through it. I just love the video so much that I was like, “OK, guys. We did our best. We’re just putting it out there, [and] whatever happens, happens.”

How did you eventually sign with Epic?

“Getting Late” started doing its thing, and I was just excited that people were retweeting the video. Because I didn’t really know how record labels worked, a record label didn’t even cross my mind at the time. But then my manager told me that labels are reaching out and they want to sign me. I was so confused. I was like, “Cool, what do you mean?” Then they’re telling me, “Oh, this label and this label and Epic Records.” And I was like, “What?! American people? How do they even find me?” America always seemed like it wasn’t a real place for me, so hearing all of that was crazy.

My manager started setting up the calls, and the labels would speak to me over Zoom calls (because it was still COVID) and basically pitch themselves. Epic was actually the first one — and after going through everyone, Epic just felt right, so I ended up signing with them.

I was recently watching an episode of The Kardashians, and I saw you were sitting next to Kim Kardashian in the front row of Dolce & Gabbana’s Fall/Winter 2023 runway show during Milan Fashion Week. What was going through your head that night?

The crazy thing is: I didn’t even know I was going to be on the Kardashians show, especially during “Water” time. It honestly feels like everything is just falling into place at the right time. I was on the Chris Brown tour, and the offer came where I would need to fly to Milan to do the Dolce & Gabbana show. And I didn’t have a visa for it, so we were hassling one of the European countries trying to get a visa, and they were not having it. They were like, “We are not going to give you a visa. You need to go back to South Africa and then you can get a visa.”

We flew back to South Africa for 24 hours to try and get a visa, and we ended up getting it, and we had to fly out [to Milan] the next day. That same day, I had to shower, get ready and go straight to the show, where I’m sitting next to Kim Kardashian and I’m literally wearing a Dolce & Gabbana dress. It was like I was in Princess Diaries. It was so crazy even sitting next to [Kardashian], because I was like, “This person is real.” Especially when you only see these people on TV, it’s crazy when you see them in real life. She was nice, and it was just a cool environment to be in. It was also the first-ever fashion week I attended, so it was such a good first experience.

Being a supporting act on the European leg of Chris Brown’s Under the Influence Tour was also a big look for you. First of all, how did that opportunity come about? And what were the biggest lessons you learned from either Chris or the experience overall? 

I was at Tricky Stewart‘s Grammy party and the head of the label, Sylvia Rhone, came to me and asked me, “Do [you] want to open for Chris Brown on his Europe tour?” I didn’t even know what to do. I was like, “What?” I wasn’t even sure I was hearing her correctly. But I just couldn’t stop thinking about that question the whole day. Obviously, I was like, “Yes.” It was such a huge opportunity. And then we literally had to start straightaway preparing. We flew to Europe. We had like two days of rehearsals, I’m not even joking, two days of rehearsals. Then the next day, we had to open at the O2 Arena. It was so crazy!

It taught me so much in terms of performing — especially from Chris, because he’s an amazing performer. He spoke to me a lot. He gave me a lot of tips, and I still use them to this day. I feel like it was literally the perfect bootcamp for me. It gave me a lot of confidence, and it helped me play around with my performance. It helped me get a wider audience, because I was traveling all of Europe, and videos started circling around of me, which was amazing. Opportunities just started falling into my lap. It was the best experience ever. I’ll never forget that tour.

Take me back through the making of “Water.”  

I’ve been recording music for over two years now, since I got signed to the label, making music for my album. And we got to a point where we were like, “OK, let’s start finalizing songs.” But I just felt like I needed that summer dance song, I felt like I was missing that. I said, “OK, I need it to sound like this. I need it to have African influence. It needs to sound like ‘popiano,’ Afrobeats, amapiano, R&B all in one. It needs to live in the clubs. It needs to be a banger.” And I’m not even joking, as soon as I heard “Water,” I was literally like, “It’s over. It’s over for everybody!” I just fell in love with it. I played it for everybody I could, and everyone fell in love with it. So I just knew in my soul that this was the one.

How did you come up with the viral “Water” dance? 

The dance style is actually called bacardi, it’s a dance style in South Africa that originated in Pretoria. And the dance style is usually done with bacardi-type music. Usually when we have songs, I get on a call with my choreographer from South Africa [Lee-ché Janecke] [and] my best friend Thato for hours and we’re thinking, “OK, for this song, what are we going to do?” Then I was just like, “I really feel like this song needs a dance. I really want to do something on TikTok with this song.” Not all the songs I want to make are all TikTok songs where you dance and everything, but this one felt like it needed that.

And then I was like, “Why don’t we make it bacardi?” Obviously, everyone was like, “Um, this isn’t the genre for bacardi.” [Laughs] It felt like that type of style would just go with this song. We actually had a bacardi-type dance for a different song. And we changed it and made that dance for “Water.” We tried a little bit of it in Portugal, but we didn’t pour the water. We ended up reworking it and I was like, “Guys, this is what we’re going to do. You pass me the water, and I’m just going to pour it on my back when I do the bacardi move.” It was exciting for us.

We ended up doing it on the stage for the Giants of Africa Festival, and I was so worried after that performance ’cause I was like, “I don’t know if I did it right.” And then I got videos. I actually DM’ed someone that was in the audience because they posted on their story like, “Please, can you send me the video?” She sent me the video and I edited it and I posted it on my way to a different country. We were on a plane, and I posted it just before we took off and my phone got disconnected. When I landed, it was already at like five million views. I was in so much shock because that flight wasn’t even that long. I was like, “This is crazy!”

How many water bottles would you estimate you’ve spilled down your back while doing the dance? 

[Laughs] I don’t know. Probably a whole water company. [Laughs]

I loved that you teamed up with Ayra Starr on “Girl Next Door” and you performed at Uncle Waffles’ NYC show. What’s it like to shine alongside other female artists coming out of the continent? 

I love it. I’m a girl’s girl for real. Waffles is a girl’s girl, Ayra is a girl’s girl. In general, we all have the same goal: Africa to the world. I feel like we’ve always had the great music and the culture and the vibe, but we haven’t had the audience. Social media helps so much because it’s been able to give us that access to more people. I love seeing Afrobeats artists win, amapiano artists win, everyone in Africa. It’s only up for us really.

Who would you love to collaborate with next? 

I’d honestly love to have a song with Tems. I love her voice, I love her vibe. Her new song [“Me & U”] is on repeat.

I heard you’re finishing up your debut EP. What can fans expect from it?

Definitely more bangers. It’s going to be a short and sweet one, but it’s going to be a glimpse into my sound because I do feel like it has developed over time and it’s more where I want it to be. It’s my first project ever. I’ve been releasing music and making music for years now, so it’s exciting for me to start making worlds for people to listen to and tap into. But it’s definitely a new, fresh sound for the world. And it’s a fusion between my African world and my ideal popstar/R&B world. And I’m super excited for people to listen.

Considering amapiano has become increasingly popular in the U.S. over the last couple of years, what is your hope for the sound in the future? 

I honestly feel like it’s going to be the next biggest thing in dance music. It’s going to be playing in all of the raves, all of the festivals, Ibiza, all of the [places] where they listen to [sings] oontz oontz oontz oontz oontz. I feel like ‘piano is really going to take over that whole world.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming African artists who are hoping to have their music travel across the globe? 

It’s very hard because I’m still figuring out a lot because I’ve been coming [up] and trying to find my way. But based off my experience, just make music that feels like you, that’s very authentic to you. Don’t try copying other people. Just find your sound and what you want the world to see you as and push that forward and believe in it. If you keep working towards it and go day by day as if you’ve already achieved your goal, you will get there.

A lot of people say “manifestation” and whatnot. I don’t want to put a label on it, but personally, ever since I could remember, before “manifestation” was even a word I knew, I always believed that I already achieved that goal. I already believed that it was mine. It was just a matter of time that it was going to be given to me. That really helped me because it really happened. Everything happened the way it was supposed to happen. And if you as an artist feel like that, just keep believing that it’s yours already and I’m sure it will be one day.

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