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Tyla talks anticipated debut album, shining a light on music out of Africa

Tyla poses for a portrait in New York on March 22, 2024, to promote her eponymous album   -  
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Gary Gerard Hamilton/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

South Africa

Tyla grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, practicing acceptance speeches in the mirror, envisioning herself on the grandest award stages. But as she found out, a dream is one thing — reality is another.

“I was not prepared at all,” laughed Tyla, who won the inaugural African Music Performance Grammy last month, beating out established superstar nominees. “On the way to the Grammys, I was like, ‘Hey, I did not write nothing. Let me think of things in case I win.’ But I don’t know, I was just moving. I was going with the flow that day. And I feel like God was just giving me peace and letting me know that, ‘Girl, you got it! Like, relax.’ So, that was kind of the energy of the day.”

Throughout the past year, tons of good energy have been coming toward Tyla, who released her self-titled debut album last week. It’s a culmination of lifelong aspirations for the 22-year-old whose ambitions were always bigger than her continent, as massive as it is.

Powered by the Cape Town-recorded “Water,” a lighting-in-a bottle smash that took the world by storm and earned her the Grammy before her album was released, she’s quickly become one of the leading faces popularizing music originating from Africa. As Afrobeats has gained massive attention the past few years, Tyla is introducing much of the world to amapiano, which translates to “the pianos” in the Zulu language, a fusion of Kwaito house music and jazz, often driven by log drums.

“I’m finally getting to do what I love and I have more opportunities,” the “ART” artist said of her whirlwind year. “I’ve always wanted to be in this position. I’ve always wanted to just push the culture, push what we’ve been literally making for years and years and years in Africa… now it’s time to expand and to share it with the rest of the world.”

Spring may have just started in America, but Tyla's 14-track album, filled with sultry beats and vibey rhythms is primed for the summer. Featuring production from Sammy Soso, Mocha, Ari PenSmith and Believve, the team's main objective was to blend amapiano with R&B and pop, presenting a new sound.

“Creating the music wasn’t really work… She understands what she wants,” said Soso, who produced 10 of the tracks and has worked with Afrobeat all-stars Wiz Kid, Oxlade and KSI. “As a young woman growing up and being the ‘it’ girl and being her, she was just going through so many different things and realizing her worth and how she wanted to be treated… as we kept on making different records, it was like, ‘Let’s touch on this feeling. Let’s touch on that feeling’… creating songs out of real-life situations.”

While new artists’ debuts are often cushioned between the safety of a heavy dose of established features, Tyla always holds her own, despite appearances from Becky G on “On My Body” and Gunna and Skillibeng on the party-starter “Jump,” a bop she describes as “flexing on people” and not “really deep.” She turns up the amapiano heat with songs like “Safer” and “Truth or Dare,” as well as “No. 1,” a stunning collaboration with acclaimed Nigerian singer-songwriter Tems who Tyla credits with opening the door for this latest generation of African singers to crossover to America. But it's songs like “Breath Me” which prove the depth of Tyla’s talent.

“The song that mostly feels like Tyla, I would say probably ‘Breathe Me’ because it obviously incorporates all the African sounds,” she said. “I’m really singing on that song, like I’m literally giving people vocals and emotion and all of that.”

On “Priorities” which skews more pop-heavy and shares a similar theme to “No. 1,” Tyla laments, “My first mistake/Thinkin’ that I could be everything/Look how spreadin’ myself thin/Became my priority again.”

“’Priorities’ is something that I needed to tell myself… I feel like a lot of people could relate to that song, just always putting people above yourself and feeling like you need to please and (overcompensate),” said the singer who counts Michael Jackson, Rihanna and Britney Spears as influences. “The fear of disappointing people… I struggle with a lot. I’m a bit better now.”

Tyla hopes fans gravitate to other songs like they did to “Water”— the album includes a remixed version with Travis Scott – but admits she felt a bit of pressure. The song reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and trended on TikTok with her viral #WaterChallenge dance. While she doesn’t know the specifics about a potential ban on the app in the U.S., she says it’s slightly concerning.

“TikTok really does help artists and helps us reach places that we can’t really reach. Like, me being in South Africa, I was using TikTok and social media — I was using it heavy just to be seen,” said Tyla, who was discovered singing covers on the social media app and released her first single, “Getting Late,” in 2019. “TikTok has built a lot of careers, and it would be scary, I’m sure, for a lot of people to lose it.”

Presently, Tyla is living in the moment, saying she’s happy with the response to the album and hopes to begin an international tour that was postponed due to an injury. She wants to act and would like to play a Disney princess.

In the meantime, she’s laying the groundwork for music royalty, Soso says.

“There’s something about her that she has that everyone takes to… she came in and kind of took the world by storm with her energy, her kindness,'' he said, also pointing to "her love for music and how she’s just authentic with her sound from back home.”

No goal seems to out of reach for Tyla, as her dreams are coming true.

“Ever since I was small, I was that girl telling everyone, ‘Hey, I am going to become the biggest pop star’… I feel like if you want something, just say it,” she advised. “You work harder when you put it out there, and it comes to you — it really does.”

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