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The magic behind the meteoric rise of Tyla, Grammy award winner and Queen of Popiano

The magic behind the meteoric rise of Tyla, Grammy award winner and Queen of Popiano
Tyla, winner of the Best African Music Performance award for 'Water', at the 66th annual Grammy Awards held at the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, California, on 4 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Allison Dinner)

The road to South African singer Tyla's history-breaking Grammy win

Every now and then South Africa produces a talented musician who takes the local industry by storm. Tyla Seethal, popularly known simply as Tyla, has taken it to global proportions. 

Sunday, 4 February 2024 will go down in history as the day the youngest African recipient of a Grammy was announced, and it was the Johannesburg-raised songstress. Following the success of her global smash hit Water, Tyla became only the 12th South African act to win the prestigious trophy. 

Despite the attention-grabbing ear candy that was her debut single Getting Late, with producer Kooldrink in October 2019, few could have predicted such a meteoric rise. A young singer who was previously known for her covers on TikTok, she began turning heads when the Getting Late music video dropped at the start of 2020. 

Her seraphic pop-like vocals and lyrics on a traditional amapiano beat were embellished by a well-choreographed and narratively driven visual that was uncommon in amapiano at the time. Tyla came in changing the game!

But before the glitz and glam there was the humble beginning at Eden Glen High School, which is known to produce extraordinary South Africans, including Akani Simbine – Tyla is the first torchbearer of artistic prowess. 

“She was always there shining and making sure she was one of our best singers,” recounts her then choirmaster Mrs Naka. “She has always wanted to do what she is doing. She is designed for the stage.”

Her skills were honed in a number of school productions in which she sang as lead and was appointed as the head of culture. It was at this time that Mrs Naka says she knew Tyla was different from the rest and was destined for success in the music industry. 

“She is an artist in its true form,” she affirms. “As an artist, she shows that this is her arena.”

Tyla

Tyla performs during the Times Square New Year’s Eve 2024 Celebration in New York City on 31 December 2023. (Photo: Noam Galai / Getty Images)

A sentiment shared by those closest to her, her father quipped about how she was born holding a mic in a recent video insert interview for Spotify RADAR Africa. By all accounts, Tyla was always meant to heal the world through her music. 

In the same Spotify insert, Sharleen Seethal, the songbird’s mother, reminisced that she always made her daughter sing at any opportunity. 

“Every time I felt sad, I thought I would hear Tyla (sing)”, she explains. “The others (her siblings) would try make me feel better by rapping, but I don’t know,” she adds as the whole family chuckles. She affirms that it was worth it as it raised a formidable and confident young lady. 

Tyla would take this assurance with her as she continued to develop as a budding musical prospect. She followed up the success of Getting Late with Overdue, from the soundtrack to the popular Netflix series Blood and Water.

The song and video solidified her status as a teen sensation topped off by her effortless ability to mix genres. The song also soft-launched her into the global arena on account of the international success of the miniseries. 

Blood and Water’s appeal to a younger audience suited Tyla like a glove but she was maturing quickly. The transition from teen sweetheart to young adult is where the first true challenge came for Tyla and her team.

Their response was the release of To Last in November 2022, a softly delivered mature record in which Tyla sang about her first heartbreak. This was promptly followed by the dance banger, Been Thinking, in January 2023.

To die-hard Tyla fans, who have donned the moniker the Tygers, this is when she rubber-stamped her position as a prolific visual artist, the originator of popiano. 

Popiano is the name given to the fusion of amapiano and traditional pop vocals. Though she had broken through with the fresh sound, the months that followed the release of Been Thinking propelled her to international stardom and solidified her as queen of the sub-genre. 

Before the release of her next successful single, a collaboration with Nigerian breakout artist Arya Starr called Girl Next-door, Tyla embarked on an international tour of Europe as the opening act for R&B legend Chris Brown, among other performances at popular international music festivals. 

In that time she not only introduced herself to the world but also illustrated her ability to achieve the once seemingly unattainable feat of crossing over into an international market through her music and her charm. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA singer Tyla wins African Music Performance award at the Grammys in Los Angeles

“She’s very humble and down to earth. A beautiful and ethereal human being,” says one of her dancers, December Skhosana. “She’s always been true to herself and not forcing anything. She is very present and, in the moment, always looking you in the eye when you talk to her.”

Then it all happened. On Friday, 28 July 2023, Tyla released Water. The rest is South African history. 

Initially moderately received, it was after the now famous #WaterChallenge went viral on Tik Tok that life changed for Seethal. Success flooded in. 

@tyla_

Watch my performance on youtube now!💦🐅

♬ Water – Tyla

Water went on to break into the US Billboard Hot 100 top 10 (peaking at number 7), boasts more than 300 million streams on Spotify alone at the time of writing, and now the Grammy for Best African Music Performance. 

Speaking to Rolling Stone about the smash hit after her victory, she said: “I knew it was an amazing song, but I did not know it would do all this though. It literally changed my life. I never could have expected it.”

Tyla with her high school’s Singer of the Year award. (Photo: Supplied)

Tyla is set to release her self-titled debut project in March 2024, which will be accompanied by a US tour. Her ever-growing fan base is eager to see her perform live, especially after her jaw-dropping performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

A must-watch performance of Water choreographed by longtime collaborator, South African dance, and choreography legend Lee-ché Janecke, the four-minute show sees Tyla dance and sing with her mic on, a trait synonymous with only the greats.

“I don’t know how she does it,” Skhosana effuses. “I think it comes with her professionalism and always wanting to be on point when it comes to her work.”

The world is now firmly in Tyla’s hands. With a globally anticipated debut album, a good head on her shoulders and a Grammy to boot, God knows where music will take her. But one thing is certain: She will do it with grace, flair, and with the mic on, honey! DM 

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