It’s a rarity these days, but some emerging stars can still trigger cross-cultural aha moments in music. They justify the old “you’ve either got it or you don’t” adage by offering onlookers something sonically fresh, something genuinely magnetic that confirms some people are simply destined to make bops. And Tyla is one of those artists.
Right now, Tyla’s song “Water” is taking over FYPs across the world. The single has inspired dance, remix, and relationship challenge videos galore. With nearly a million fan clips on TikTok and 24 million views on the official video in three weeks alone, Tyla has officially supplied Q4 of 2023 with its first ~viral wave~. (Pardon the water pun.)
“Water” has positioned the 21-year-old South African star in a league of popular artists solidifying Afrobeats music in the mainstream (see: Tems and Tiwa Savage). And Tyla is already making history. She became the first South African solo artist to enter the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 55 years since Hugh Masekela did it. (That was back in 1968 if math’s not your thing.)
So how does a girl who hadn’t left South Africa before signing to her label adjust to global spotlight? Cosmopolitan sat down with Tyla—fresh off her U.S. TV debut performance on The Tonight Show—for a check-in...and some tips on how not to look ridiculous while attempting the “Water” dance.
Congrats on “Water” going viral! You’re blowing up. I know you wanted to put out a smaller project before your debut album—how is the development process going? Where are you on that journey?
I have a lot of amazing songs. I’ve been recording for basically two years trying to make the project that I’m happy with. My mini one is just a little taste, you know, so people have more things to listen to other than “Water” and people can get to know my sound and who Tyla is as an artist. Then the debut album, mmm! That’s gonna be a moment. I really love how artists used to break back in the day, so I try to bring that back with the things I do. I really liked that time.
Which era are you most drawn to when you look at different times in music history?
The 2000s for sure. When Rihanna was coming up, and Aaliyah was doing her thing. Beyoncé, that era.
I can see a lot of that influence in your fashion too. What type of things are on your mood board when you’re curating a look?
I just like feeling a certain way, you know? When I put on something, it has to make me feel something. In general, the easy island type of vibe has always been mine. A very sweaty, ripped look.
Is there an essential piece that’s best to wear during the “Water” dance? What do you suggest to get the most movement going?
Girl, definitely a skirt. Not a tight one. It can be a little tight by the waist, but your bum needs to be free. That’s the trick. Like, your bum can’t be tense in the outfit.
I need to invest in more of those.
Or even if you have jean shorts and unbutton them. That’s a secret. When you unbutton it, there’s this gap that makes it. You’ll try it and you’ll see.
I will! I have to congratulate you on your U.S. TV debut on Fallon this week. What was your mindset, like, five minutes before you stepped out on that stage? Did anything surprise you about the experience?
I remember being young and acting like I was performing on Jimmy Fallon. Like, I would announce, “Tyla on Jimmy Fallon!” and perform in the mirror. It’s just crazy that it actually happened. For me, it’s God. I pray all the time throughout the day. I feel like it was really a calling for me, and God knew this is your time and this is your year and then started blessing me.
I saw a lot of your fellow South Africans celebrating the “Asambe” callout [Zulu slang for “let’s go”] you made during the performance. Was that preplanned or just something you were feeling in that moment?
So in rehearsal, it was something that we felt, but then it was like, “Yeah! Do that—say “Asambe.” I’m happy I did it because I love that it is something people from all over the world are going to hear. Something that’s so South African. I just love showing where I’m from wherever I go.
How do the people who knew you before react to this success, like your family and your inner circle of friends?
The way I grew up and the people I have around me, it’s very easy to just be humble. I don’t see myself as any different, even though all of this is happening. It feels like a blessing, you know? My friends and family and my sisters will check me if anything happens, which I like about them. But I’m chilling.
How are you guys staying close while you’re traveling and doing all of this?
I speak to them every day, because with every success that I get or every moment that happens, my first instinct is to let my family know. I don’t even think they fully understand it, which is okay, but I like letting them know. Initially, they were very worried about this whole journey in general because it’s not something that happens every day. So I love letting them know: “Hey, it’s working.”
What type of music were you listening to when you were growing up? Were they into pop culture?
My parents listen to everything. My house was always playing music every day. We’d wake up to music, we’d come home to music. Rap, R&B, pop, our type of House in South Africa—not the oontz-oontz type. Jazz, literally almost everything. So I had a wide variety, and I fell in love with it all. I think that’s why my sound is a fusion of a lot of different things—because I don’t like just one sound.
And now “Water” is the sound stuck in everyone’s heads. Are there any other songs that you personally can’t shake?
Yes! “This Time,” by Nasty C feat. Ami Faku. I love that song, I love Ice Spice. And I listen to a lot of Amapiano.
As you’ve adjusted to your fan base growing, have you gotten any advice from other stars on riding the wave of acceleration to global fame?
I actually spoke with Trevor Noah recently, which I really loved because he’s South African and we all look up to him. I won’t say exactly what he said, but speaking with him helped a lot because he’s from the same place and has a similar journey. I kind of look up to him.
I like that you’re letting that be, like, a special moment between you guys. Who are the people you take inspiration from?
I really look up to Tems, because she’s a crazy artist and writer. Her voice and the way she carries herself is so beautiful. She’s done a lot for African music and African artists.
Having figures like you and Tems is important for reshaping people’s perception of Africa. As an African, I feel like I run into so many misconceptions that frustrate me. Do you have any that you’d like to see shed from the narrative?
There are obviously the stupid ones, like we’re poor and we don’t have water. I just feel like everyone needs to just be quiet and come visit. Everyone needs to come to Africa at least once in their life. You can’t always trust what people say.
What would you consider your career high so far?
Oh my gosh, there have been so many moments, especially this year. I feel like this was my year in general. “Water” has made my life. Everything that’s happening is crazy, and it doesn’t feel real yet. Being from where I’m from, this thing doesn’t happen all the time. I’m happy that I’m able to do that not only for myself and my music but also for South Africa and African music as a whole.
I want to talk about your collaboration wish list. Does it feature any artists that people wouldn’t expect you to want to collaborate with?
I would love to collaborate with Blackpink. It would be so cute!
Ooh, do you have a favorite Blackpink song?
Years back, I kept watching the “Kill This Love” video. I loved watching their stuff. And the way K-Pop stans are, that whole world is so beautiful. I’d love to visit Asia also and just experience it.
There’s so much precision. I think that’s something people respect about you as well—it seems like you have a real respect for your craft. What is your rehearsal process like when you’re getting a performance together? Are you a perfectionist?
I’m definitely a perfectionist. When things are just “eh,” it’s like, what’s the point? But I also have people around me that I trust, so we work very well together to create something beautiful. There’s also the fact that my creative team is from South Africa. So everything I do is South African and close to home and constantly pushing the culture and who I am in general, you know? I love to rehearse. I love to get things right. But there are times when I leave it to God, and it always comes back the way it’s supposed to.
Thinking about your career specifically, if you were able to sit down with the version of yourself that exists 10 years from now, what would you hope she’d have to report back to you?
I would just want her to say that Tyla is the biggest pop star of my time. Because I want that pop star to be from Africa. That’s really something that I want in general and for myself.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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