Glamorous music video shoots; Grammy hangs with SZA and H.E.R.; sitting next to Kim Kardashian on the front row at Dolce & Gabbana’s Fashion Week show: it’s safe to say that Tyla’s been busy recently. This flurry of activity has followed the January release of the Johannesburg native’s hypnotic hit ‘Been Thinking’, which was co-produced by Grammy-winning hit-maker Tricky Stewart (who has previously worked with Beyoncé and Rihanna). The track seamlessly blends R&B with elements of Amapiano — the South African-born genre that fuses African melodies, jazz, piano melodies and deep house music — bringing the latter sound, and its creator, further into the global spotlight.
“I would tell everybody that I was going to be a pop star. My parents hoped I would grow out of it, but I never did,” Tyla tells NME about her longstanding music ambitions when we meet in New York. “No matter who asked me what I wanted to be, I’d always say singer. My answer never changed.”
Tyla’s first brush with songwriting came when her mother gifted her a diary, in which she penned her first lyrics that she later paired with YouTube beats. Honing her soulful vocal register by recording covers of tracks by Aaliyah, Beyoncé and Brian McKnight, it was only when she finally decided to share her own music online that her “hobby” transformed into a full-time pursuit. “I was posting my videos on Instagram and TikTok and sending them to literally everybody’s DMs… it was kind of embarrassing,” she says now with a laugh. “I was sending them to Drake, DJ Khaled, to everyone, just in case.”
Those messages to the stars may have been left on read, but Tyla’s persistent social media strategy ultimately paid off when she received a message from her future manager. This interaction eventually led to her pulsating October 2019 debut single ‘Getting Late’, a collaboration with Johannesburg producer Kooldrink that introduced the world to Tyla’s distinctive mix of delicate pop melodies and percussive slow-tempo Amapiano. The outcome was hugely impressive, with the track racking up over four million Spotify streams and pushing Amapiano to new audiences.
“I’m very determined,” Tyla adds of her desire for further international success. “If I want something, I make sure I get it. There’s a point where things become hard and you wonder if it’s going to work. But I always knew that things were going to work out eventually.”
NME: What was the moment when you felt your music career was finally starting to take off?
“The breakthrough was definitely when we released the video for ‘Getting Late’. It was the first Amapiano-type song we recorded and we knew it was the one we wanted to release, [but] then COVID started so it was the worst timing ever. We decided to shoot a video even though we were independent: we had nothing to work with, my manager pitched in his personal money and the video took a year to finish. It was a long process. There were times when I was like, ‘Let’s just drop the footage we have’, but my manager kept me patient because he saw the vision. We ended up making an amazing video. When we dropped it, I remember everyone retweeting it and my Instagram blowing up, then [record] labels started calling and I was like, ‘What the hell?’. I didn’t even know that that’s how it works. I signed to Epic, and that’s when everything else started.”
How does it feel to be part of a movement that’s bringing Amapiano, and South African pop music, to the rest of the world?
“I love it — it’s what I wanted. I’m super-proud of myself. I know this is the time when I’m just starting, but I know that it’s also the time when I have to really work because I want to make my home proud. It’s a lot to put on your shoulders, but that’s what I want. I really want eyes on all African artists in general, because we need more attention.”
What are some of the key things about the culture, music and creativity of South Africa that people who aren’t from there wouldn’t know?
“I just feel like everything is so new and everyone is different, but we have a vibe that comes with us. Like Amapiano, it’s a whole genre we created back home in South Africa and it has dance moves: it’s a whole movement. We’ve been partying with it by ourselves, but now other people are enjoying it and I’m loving that. I love that people are seeing a different side of Africa. People are seeing it for what it is, and the artistry and creativity that we have.”
You’ve previously described your music as “popiano”. What are some of the pop influences you fuse together with Amapiano to create that sound?
“I grew up listening to everything and loving all genres. I love singing, but I wanted to make it more me. In South Africa, I get down to Amapiano music and Afrobeats music, it’s what I enjoy most. When I first started making Amapiano music, originally there was no song structure: the songs were like five minutes and just vibes. But I really wanted to have a structure — a verse, chorus, pre-chorus — like pop music, so I shortened the songs, kept the log drum and just gave it structure.”
Do you think that your pop spin on Amapiano is helping it spread to more people across the globe?
“Definitely. I think about language as well: a lot of Amapiano singers sing in Zulu, which is the best, but when people don’t understand it, it’s more difficult for people to take it in. I really wanted to sing in Zulu a bit, but also in English so people can relate to the lyrics.”
You’ve had a strong vision for your career since you were young. How are you continuing to stay true to yourself today?
“I always know what I want and I trust [myself]. I also love collaborating and sharing other people’s ideas because everybody has something different. You never know, because initially with ‘Been Thinking’ it was a bit further into pop than I was used to, but I warmed up to it and recorded everything and it was great. That’s happened a lot where I’ve been worried or questioning certain things, but once I’ve done it I’ve ended up liking it, so I’m open to learning.”
What are you most looking forward to sharing with your fans next?
“I’m done with my debut album, which is crazy. We’re planning on releasing it this year and I’m really excited about it. I feel like I really found my sound and that feels really good. I feel like there’s a song on the album for everybody: sad songs, happy songs, fast songs. But it’s also very cohesive and you can hear the African influence in every song, and that’s something that’s very important to me.”