After ‘Water,’ Tyla Reveals Her Global Takeover Strategy: ‘You’re Going to See Me Everywhere’

When South African singer-songwriter Tyla turned 22 years old in late January, she was on top of the world — literally.

Her label, Epic Records, invited a few hundred music executives, artists and fans to Harriet’s Rooftop in West Hollywood, Calif., for her birthday bash. The party was a dual celebration: Tyla had also recently scored her first Grammy Award nomination, for best African music performance — one of three new categories the Recording Academy introduced this year — with her 2023 breakthrough hit, “Water.”

Waiters surprised Tyla — who had transformed a corner of the rooftop bar into her own private VIP section, complete with glam shots of herself decorating the walls — with a glittery sheet cake. Epic chairwoman/CEO Sylvia Rhone and president Ezekiel Lewis presented her with three plaques commemorating the success of “Water”: gold and platinum certifications in over 18 countries (including the United States and South Africa); surpassing 1 billion views on TikTok; and reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s U.S. Afrobeats Songs, Rhythmic Airplay and Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay charts.

Then, five nights later, Tyla got the best belated birthday present of all: her first Grammy, the inaugural win in its category, which Jimmy Jam presented to her during the awards show’s premiere ceremony. “I was in such shock,” Tyla recalls on an early March afternoon. “It’s something that a lot of people strive toward and want to win at least once in their lifetime. And I’m so blessed to have received one so early in my career.”

But for an artist reflecting on such a joyous moment, Tyla sounds a bit blue speaking to me about her Grammy win today — and understandably so. Just six hours before our chat, she had posted a letter on Instagram announcing the kind of news no young artist wants to reveal: Due to “an injury that’s tragically worsened,” she would be delaying her first headlining North American and European tour and dropping out of a handful of festivals, including Coachella. “It’s difficult because I want to go. It’s the moment that I’ve been waiting for,” she tells me. “It’s not an easy decision, but it’s the right decision.”

Four days later at her Billboard cover shoot, Tyla maintains a level of poise that suggests nothing’s wrong. She gamely plays the part of the glamorous burgeoning pop star, in a fur-print puffer jacket, bra top and mismatched gold hoops that complement the edginess of her eyebrow slit.

This is, after all, a role Tyla has prepared for her whole life. Her co-manager, Colin Gayle, clearly remembers his first meeting with her: “I was like, ‘What do you want to do?’ She said, ‘I want to be Africa’s first pop star.’ ” Gayle, who is also co-founder and CEO of Africa Creative Agency, had recently moved to South Africa when Brandon Hixon — the New York-based co-founder of FAX Records who started managing Tyla in 2018 after discovering her on Instagram — reached out to see if he would meet with Tyla and consider becoming her on-the-ground support. By 2020, Gayle had joined her management team.

AREA jacket and boots, Rui top, Cori! Burns skirt, Hugo Kreit earrings and Jacquie Aiche necklaces.

Ramona Rosales

As a new generation of young African women has broken into mainstream pop music over the past few years (including Beninese Nigerian singer Ayra Starr, whom Tyla collaborated with on “Girl Next Door,” and fellow South African DJ Uncle Waffles, whom she performed with in September in New York), Tyla has emerged with a unique blend of sounds dubbed “popiano” — a hybrid of pop, R&B and Afrobeats with the shakers, rattling log drums and soulful piano melodies of amapiano. It really popped when she released “Water,” a summer anthem with a sweltering pop/R&B hook (and a subtle sensuality recalling Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat”) that floats over bubbling log drums.

“Water” opened the floodgates to the global recognition of Tyla’s dreams. The song debuted at No. 67 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October and by January had reached a No. 7 peak. Its viral TikTok dance helped catapult the track onto radio, and Travis Scott and Marshmello eagerly hopped on its remixes. “Water” hit No. 1 on U.S. Afrobeats Songs in October, ending the record 58-week reign of Rema and Selena Gomez’s “Calm Down,” and it has now spent 24 weeks (and counting) atop the chart. Tyla’s catalog has earned 283.7 million official on-demand U.S. streams, according to Luminate — and “Water” is responsible for 236.7 million of them.

On the morning of Nov. 10, 2023, Tyla’s Epic team told her to tune in to the Grammy nominations livestream from her hotel room in New York. “I didn’t even know the label submitted some songs,” she recalls. “When I saw my name, I was like, ‘There’s no way.’ My best friend was jumping in the room with me. I still have the video, and I’m wearing this bodysuit that’s half open. It’s a hectic video, but it showcases the excitement in that moment.”

This year’s best African music performance nominees were predominantly Nigerian artists — Burna Boy (“City Boys”), Davido (“Unavailable”), Asake and Olamide (“Amapiano”) and Starr (“Rush”). Tyla and Musa Keys (who’s featured on Davido’s “Unavailable”) were the only South African acts. Considering the significant inroads Afrobeats has made in the American music market over the last decade, Tyla’s win with an amapiano song wasn’t necessarily likely.

“That category is something that was introduced in my lifetime, and I was the first person to win it. And I’m able to bring it home back to South Africa,” Tyla marvels now, adding that her father has already claimed the trophy to be displayed in his study, along with the rest of her award hardware. “The South African genre of amapiano just started bubbling, and I’m so proud that South Africa has a genre that people are enjoying and paying attention to. I’m super proud of my country and where our sound has gone.”

Tyla, Billboard Cover Shoot

Diesel dress, Dsquared2 shoes, Jenny Lauren Jewelry bracelet, Letra ring and UNOde50 bracelet and ring.

Ramona Rosales

That sound is just one element of how Tyla represents her home country in her craft, sometimes in ways that the average non-South African consumer might miss. For a late-2023 performance on The Voice, she transformed the stage into a shebeen, an “unlicensed, underground space for drinking and music” where Black South Africans could gather and “speak freely in protest” during apartheid, according to Lior Phillips, author of South African Popular Music (Genre: A 33 1/3 Series). And at the very end of the repeated prechorus of “Water,” Tyla softly exhales “haibo,” a Zulu expression of shock or disbelief. “It’s similar to ‘Yo!’ where you can use it multiple ways,” she explains. “In that [song], I kind of use it in a sassy way.”

But when she performed “Water” during her debut U.S. TV performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in late October, Tyla replaced it with another South African expression: “Asambe!”

“ ‘Asambe’ in South Africa means ‘Let’s go!’ And she screamed it on the mic. That was pivotal,” recalls her choreographer, Lee-ché Janecke. “It felt awkward at first when we were rehearsing it because we were like, ‘Are we really going to do this on national television in America? Um, yeah, we are!’ As much as it’s one word, it meant the most to South Africa.”

Growing up in the “very lively” city of Johannesburg, Tyla Laura Seethal was always the center of attention. “Even before I could remember, my mother would tell me stories about how when I was small, I would always want to sing for people,” Tyla recalls. “I would pose for people just so they [could] take pictures of me. And I danced for everyone.”

Her parents exposed her to American R&B icons like Stevie Wonder, Brian McKnight, Aaliyah and Whitney Houston; South African pop and house acts like Freshlyground, Mi Casa and Liquideep; and Nigerian Afrobeats superstars like Wizkid, Burna Boy and Davido. When Tyla was 11, she started uploading videos of herself singing covers to YouTube and Instagram, from Billie Eilish’s “Ocean Eyes” to Boyz II Men’s version of “Let It Snow,” and DM’ing them to superstars like Drake and DJ Khaled.

Tyla, Billboard Cover Shoot

Brielle catsuit, Nissa Jewelry earrings, UNOde50 necklace, Alejandra de Coss bracelet, Letra rings.

Ramona Rosales

While her countless reachouts went unanswered, her Instagram covers caught the attention of Garth von Glehn, a Zimbabwean director and photographer based between Cape Town and New York. When he first emailed her, Tyla worried it was a scam — but after a few weeks, she agreed to meet von Glehn with her parents.

Ultimately, Tyla spent every weekend of her final year of high school at his studio loft, writing and recording music, shooting music videos and conducting photo shoots with her best friend Thato Nzimande. Von Glehn’s loft was “a creative artist hub,” says Janecke, who worked on music video sets with von Glehn and was tapped by him to help train some of the in-house artists during their early development period. One of those artists was Tyla.

“She just had this thing in her eyes that she wants this!” Janecke exclaims. “And wanting it makes me feel like, ‘OK, I’m going to push more with this person.’ If you’re hungry, and that hunger never stops, that’s my girl. And she has been that girl since that point.”

Tyla’s parents, however, remained skeptical that the path of an artist was the right one for her — so, to appease them, she applied to university to study mining engineering, a field she picked only because “it was the job that was going to give me the most money.” But after “a lot of convincing and a lot of crying,” her parents allowed her a trial gap year after she graduated from high school in 2019 so she could prove that a full-time music career would pan out.

Working with Kooldrink, a producer living in von Glehn’s house, Tyla started “to experiment and find out the sound that I wanted to have.” At the time, amapiano was taking over South African dancefloors and radio stations alike. Meaning “the pianos” in Zulu, amapiano originated in the South African townships in the mid-2010s as a hybrid of deep house, jazz and kwaito music and was popularized by Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa, among others.

Tyla, Billboard Cover Shoot

Ramona Rosales

After first hearing amapiano in high school, when a classmate played her Kwiish SA’s “Iskhathi (Gong Gong),” Tyla wanted to put her own spin on the genre. “Amapiano songs were like eight minutes, 10 minutes at that time,” Tyla told Billboard in October, when she was honored as R&B/Hip-Hop Rookie of the Month. “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.” She experimented with that formula on her scintillating debut single, “Getting Late,” featuring Kooldrink. But after shooting one scene for the video at the beginning of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic broke out and production shut down. With just one year to prove herself to her parents, Tyla feared she had run out of time.

“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,” Tyla posted on Instagram days before the “Getting Late” video eventually premiered in January 2021. The outcome quashed all of her previous concerns: The clip, which has since garnered more than 9 million YouTube views, earned a music video of the year nomination at the 2022 South African Music Awards, and FAX Records’ Hixon sent it to Epic’s Rhone and Lewis.

“This could be the vehicle to take Africa to the world in a way that it has never been exported before,” Lewis recalls thinking. The “Getting Late” video started a label bidding war, but thanks to Hixon’s established business relationship with Lewis and Rhone — and with a little help from multiple “Love, Sylvia Rhone from Epic” billboards with Tyla’s face on them placed around Johannesburg — Tyla chose Epic.

“It was a very competitive signing. We wanted something authentic, sincere and personal — especially since we’re 10,000-plus miles away,” Rhone says of her tactic. “That’s what sealed the deal.”

Tyla can still picture the first time she left South Africa, in 2021. “I remember looking outside of the plane and crying,” she says, “and being like, ‘What the heck is this?!’”

She was en route to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where Epic had assembled various American, European and African songwriters and producers, including three-time Grammy winner (and former Epic president of A&R) Tricky Stewart, and put them in a writing camp just for her. “At the time, we couldn’t get the resources and the people [to South Africa] to make it happen,” Lewis explains. “So I figured out randomly by looking at the map that Dubai would be a place that would host us all. That’s a very expensive proposition, a very ambitious sort of undertaking, but she was worth it.”

Tyla, Billboard Cover Shoot

Ramona Rosales

For the next two-and-a-half years, Epic’s development of Tyla became a truly global endeavor, taking her and a rotating group of hit-makers to Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, Jamaica, the United Kingdom, the United States and beyond to write and record her self-titled debut album. The sessions helped Tyla gain more formal studio recording experience, while also establishing her “Fantastic Four” team of creative collaborators: Ari PenSmith, Mocha Bands, Believve and Sammy SoSo, who all contributed to “Water,” the “summer banger” that Tyla felt had been missing from her album. In keeping with the project’s international genesis, the song was “produced in London, then finished in LA, written and vocal demo done in ATL then recorded in Cape Town,” as SoSo wrote on Instagram.

“I was actually driving in Portland [Ore.] with my family and I started listening to [“Water”] on my phone. I literally stopped the car and pulled over,” Hixon recalls of his initial reaction. “My wife and my kids were like, ‘What’s going on?’ And I was like, ‘Yo, this sh-t is crazy!’ ”

Tyla and her team instantly knew “Water” was going to be big, and she wanted to find a way to make it even bigger. One night at around 10:30 p.m., a few days before the song dropped, Tyla called Janecke and Nzimande to brainstorm choreography ideas. She had always loved the Pretoria-based Bacardi style of dancing — which synchronizes booty shaking and intricate footwork with a song’s fast-paced rhythm — and had incorporated it into a different song from her live sets that always generated a crazy crowd reaction. Tyla asked Janecke if he could create a Bacardi-inspired dance for “Water,” and within an hour, he drafted a TikTok video of his original routine and sent it to her. “She goes, ‘Post! Post this right now!’ ” he recalls excitedly. “She was going crazy over this pocket of hands up, hands down, throw it to the side, boom. Booty on log drum! Throw it to the other side. Booty on log drum!”

When she performed the dance for the first time at the self-proclaimed world’s biggest Afrobeats festival, Afro Nation Portugal, in July, Janecke had Tyla’s backup dancers pour water bottles on her. A month later, while rehearsing for her Giants of Africa festival set in Rwanda, she suggested simply pouring the water bottle on herself — a choreography tweak that proved to be social media gold. One festival attendee posted a video of the revised “Water” routine on her Instagram Story and Tyla asked for the footage, reposting to her own account shortly before jetting back to South Africa. When she landed almost four hours later, the video had amassed more than 5 million views. (It now has over 21 million.)

Tyla’s natural dance ability — and her instincts for the kind of performance that would most resonate on the internet — continued to draw in fans as she began performing on TV, appearances that, co-manager Gayle says, “cemented her as an artist.” But keeping her audience engaged and growing required more than one hit single. The Tyla EP arrived in early December, with “Water,” its Scott remix and three new songs — intended, Lewis explains, to give fans “a taste of other layers of the artist so that it becomes bigger than a track proposition and turns into an artist proposition.”

The mini project also introduced a playful new focus track, “Truth or Dare,” which came with its own viral TikTok choreography. “Truth or Dare” and another EP track, the 1990s R&B-inspired “On and On,” became two more top 10 hits on the U.S. Afrobeats Songs chart for Tyla, peaking at Nos. 3 and 10, respectively, and “Truth or Dare” has been steadily climbing at radio, reaching No. 22 on Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay and No. 24 on Rhythmic Airplay.

The momentum of her other songs perfectly set the stage for the March 22 release of Tyla’s self-titled debut. It’s bittersweet that she can’t promote it live — yet — in the way she has proved to be so skilled, and for the moment, neither Tyla nor her label will reveal anything more about her injury. So for now, the music will have to speak for itself.

Over 14 tracks, Tyla polishes her popiano sound, finding the sweet spot between African and American music with R&B melodies, amapiano production and exquisite pop writing. “We traveled the world to make this record, and that’s why the world is reflected in this record,” Lewis says. Mexican American star Becky G joins her for the smooth, Afrobeats-meets-Latin dancefloor number “On My Body”; rapper Gunna and Jamaican dancehall artist Skillibeng help coax out her more braggadocious side on “Jump”; and Tyla brings other stars from her home continent along for the ride, blending beautifully with Nigerian singer-songwriter-producer Tems on “No. 1” and cooing over South African DJ-producer Kelvin Momo’s slow-burning amapiano production on “Intro.” “I had this voice note on my phone of the song playing and people talking in the back. I remember loving the slang that we were using and just the sound of a South African studio session,” Tyla says. “I knew I wanted that for my intro.”

And while her fans will have to wait to see her live (in her Instagram note, Tyla said she hoped to be “ready to return safely onstage this summer”), they can still see the kind of performer Tyla is in her Gap Spring 2024 Linen Moves campaign, which reimagines Jungle’s viral “Back on 74” music video. She wants to keep branching out into fashion, too, or perhaps dabble in makeup and acting. “People are going to see me everywhere,” she promises. “So if you don’t like me, I’m sorry.”

Tyla dreamed for years of becoming Africa’s first pop star — and she isn’t about to let one setback stop her. “I’m really confident in what I’ve created. Now’s a time where I can showcase a performance style where I’m not really dancing as much. Maybe I strip back a little bit more and I’m just serving vocals,” she muses. “But there’s no way to stop me. I’m always going to find a way.”

Tyla, Billboard Cover

This story will appear in the March 30, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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