Saturday, February 3, 2024 8:52 am
By Nehru Odeh
She is virtually everywhere. Her fans can’t have enough of her. Almost everyone, regardless of age, creed or race, sings and mimes to her global hit “Water” and imitates her Bacardi-inspired dance moves popularised by that music not just on TikTok but on the streets – which, according to her, is a fusion of Amapiano, Afrobeats, R&B and Pop.
“With ‘Water,’ I just wanted a summer song that everybody could vibe to and have fun too,” she says. “The meaning of the song is frisky: It’s me letting a guy know, ‘Show me what you got to offer. I’m done with all the talk.’ Men will just talk and talk and talk,” Tyla once said, explaining what the hit song is all about.
Still, despite the frisky connotation of the song, everyone vibes to it. Everywhere you go on planet Earth, one cannot help but listen attentively to the lyrics and be seduced by them or dance to the beat of that global hit, which is the first South African solo song to be on the chart of Billboard Hot 100 after 55 years, when legendary Hugh Masekela achieved that feat with “Grazing in the Grass” in 1968. And indeed as Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti sang, “Water no get enemy.”
This is indeed the astonishing story of 22-year-old South African-born and Johannesburg-bred university drop-out Tyla Laura Seethal, simply known as Tyla, who is not just taking the world by storm with her irresistible salacious global hit, “Water” but is set to win a Grammy this year in the Best African Music Performance category.
Yet the simplicity of her stage name belies her popularity and the greatness of her art. The signature of that beat, the seductiveness of the lyrics, the sheer audacity and sleek sexiness of the dance steps – the wringing of waists, bums and hips, with eyes locked on the camera – popularised by that runaway hit belie the seriousness of her art.
Set to win a Grammy this year? Certainly. Though one may think that is a tall order, given the fact that her song is competing with the those of heavyweights such as Burna Boy’s “City Boys”, Davido’s “Unavailable”, Asake’s and Olamide’s”Amapiano” and Ayra Starr’s “Rush.”
Being in the same category with such superstars is bound to make anyone have jitters and send cold shivers down one’s spine. But the fact remains that Tyla cannot be ignored. Her single, “Water” is not just a global hit but also a song that can hold its own anywhere, anytime.
Aside from the fact that it has taken over the streets globally, three days after the visual debuted on YouTube on 7 October 2023, it surpassed more than three million views. Less than a year after the video was released it has garnered more than 130 million views.
After spawning a frenzy on social media and a viral dance challenge on TikTok, it also entered the top ten in sixteen countries including the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Former US President Barrack Obama also named Tyla’s Water as one of his favourite songs of 2023.
Yet the singer, songwriter and dancer is much in demand everywhere, the song is on everyone’s lips and she is the beautiful bride every artiste wants to identify with.
After inking a deal with Epic record label, she joined Chris Brown as the opening act for his Under the Influence Tour. She performed the song live on The Bianca Show in Sweden and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in the United States.
And just as she said to the American host, Seacrest, after she had performed in front of hundreds of thousands of people at New York’s Times Square, and with more than one billion people watching from around the world on New Year Eve last year, she is taking it in 2024. And that means Grammy is not far away.
“This year changed my whole life,” she told him. “So 2023; I’m going to remember this year forever – and I feel like it was a warm-up for next year because I’m taking it in 2024.”
Taking it in 2024? Still, the questions begging for answers are: Who is Tyla? Who is this young artiste who identifies herself as coloured – an assertion that sparked a backlash in the United States? Where is this confidence, this audacity coming from? What is the secret to her success?
Tyla who is mixed race – since she is of Zulu, Asian, Mauritian and Irish descent – was born a singer. She knew right from the outset that she wanted to be not just a musician but a global star. And she was determined to achieve it.
She proved her insatiable hunger to sing and perform right from a young age. At 10 she belted songs for her primary school. There was a day she sang “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window’ for her primary school and her grandmum was screaming in the crowd. And at 12 she wrote her first lyrics in a diary her mother had given her.
“I was born a singer. I’ve always gravitated towards it. I would tell everybody that I was going to be a pop star. Ever since I was] really small, I listened to all genres of music, danced and made up shows for my family or wrote songs for my mom and dad’s birthdays.
“I wrote my first lyrics in a diary my mom gave me when I was 12 years old and would sing them over YouTube beats. Then I started recording and posting videos of original songs and covers, like Beyoncé and Boyz II Men, on TikTok and Instagram.”
As though that was not enough, she betrayed so much passion, determination and enthusiasm even at that early age. She started reaching out to people across the country, sending them her original music as well as covers.
“I started DMing tons of people across the industry my original music and covers. I’ve always been very ambitious. If I want something, I make sure I get it. I just thought they would reply, and I’d be flown out and blow up like Justin Bieber.
“Most went unread, but I was persistent. I already had a strong social media presence, so I asked my followers to give me a topic or genre to write about. I’d do it and post the video, and soon one of those caught my manager’s attention and I was discovered.
“He sent me a beat and told me to write a song from scratch. I stayed up the whole night trying to make it perfect. The following day, we met with my parents, and I recorded on a mic for the first time in a small booth at his house.
“I was very nervous, and it was weird hearing my voice back. But I signed with him, and every weekend for the rest of the year, my best friend and I would go to his studio, record music and do photo shoots.
Asked when she knew her hard work was paying off, she said: “I posted a teaser of ‘Getting Late’ on Twitter, and my page started going viral, especially among South Africans. My Instagram was blowing up. Everyone was retweeting and reposting like “Wow! Is this from here?”
“It was a shock because I don’t think anyone in South Africa had put that much effort into their music video before. Immediately, labels started hounding me and I was constantly on Zoom calls thinking ‘What the hell? I don’t even know how this works?!’ In the end, I signed to Epic because of their passion, and that’s when everything else started.
Still, the intriguing thing about Tyla’s rise to global fame is that she is a drop-oot from the university where she was studying mining engineering. According to her, when she told her parents she wanted to be a musician, they objected to it. So she decided to study a course she felt would make her rich.
“For a quick second, I considered engineering. I thought if my parents were forcing me to go to school, I was going to study something that would make me rich! But after a lot of begging and crying, I told them I wanted to be a singer, and they finally agreed to let me take a gap year.
“Sadly, that year happened to be 2020, the year of Covid. I thought, ‘What a waste! That was supposed to be my year to break!’ I was so down,” she reminisced.
Tyla’s biggest musical influences include Michael Jackson, Aaliyah, Rihanna, Britney Spears, Drake, Cassie and Wizkid. She has stated that her dream is to become the first global pop star from Africa.
“I looked up to ’90s singers like Aaliyah, also Rihanna and Cassie. They were artists whose concerts I watched constantly and imagined myself being one day,” Tyla told Rolling Stone in September.
Asked again where her confidence on stage came from, Tyla said: “I pray beforehand because it calms me and helps me to feel grounded. But the minute I step on the stage, I feel electric and I don’t want to ever get off. I always feel like I’m playing a character, and it’s so fun. I feel like I’m this rock-star Barbie doll.
Now that she has been nominated for a Grammy, the whole world waits with bated breath to see if she is taking this year as she had promised herself. Still, in an interview with Variety, she admitted that she didn’t expect to be nominated for a Grammy.
“My label asked me to watch the livestream announce and I was so nervous … And then I saw my name pop up, and I died. I couldn’t stop screaming. I called my family and my best friend who travels with me. She came to my room and we just screamed and screamed.”
Yet Tyla, who considers herself a simple girl from South Africa hopes to be the greatest pop star of her generation, a veritable heir of the likes of Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga. And she proved that at Tyla’s Milan Fashion Week after-party concert last February, where she appeared in the black leather dress worn by Lady Gaga in the Paparazzi music video.
“When I was younger, I always wanted to see a pop star from South Africa amongst Rihanna, Britney Spears, Michael Jacksons,” she says. “I always wanted to see someone from where I was from there. I want to be the biggest pop star for the people back home.
“I always felt that this was going to happen for me, but there was always some level of doubt because I never had that person that opened that door,” she adds. “I’m trying to be that girl that opens that door.”
“I really would love people to be able to say the biggest artist right now is from Africa. You know like born and raised, what the heck? We haven’t had that,” Tyla told i-D.
And now that she is on the verge of winning a Grammy, she’s well on her way to not just becoming the greatest pop star of her generation but also that girl that opens the door.
That girl that opens the door? Sure. That has always been her dream. That is what she has always visualized, to be on the global stage and counted among music greats. That is what she has always wished and worked hard for.
“I’m a big dreamer, so, I always think big …I’ve always been very ambitious. If I want something, I make sure I get it,” Tyla once said, and she is about to get a Grammy.