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Acclaim Digital Cover 031: Tyla

With her debut album just a few days away, we caught up with the South African Grammy winner to hear about her humble beginnings making Youtube Mukbangs with her sister, and the indelible impression she left on the globe with 'Water'.

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Believe it or not, just four years ago, Tyla used to make mukbangs.

Under the YouTube channel Sydney and Tyla and the aptly titled video ‘Q&A Mukbang—South African Youtubers, ‘ the sister duo introduced themselves to the camera with the YouTube-synonymous greeting of “What’s up guys?” before devouring a plate of sushi, burgers, fries, and coke in wine glasses. Laugh tracks and sound effects were included.

These days, the YouTube to Popstar pipeline is analogous to a digital age where ‘fame is the game’, and there are a million different internet-oriented ways to get there. Tyla’s early YouTube videos were just one of her many attempts to break into the less-than-gatekept fortress of the fame factory, and though it wasn’t her most successful, it was a step in the right direction.

“I was trying everything to blow up,” she says, appearing on screen – a fur hood pulled over her braids, “I’m telling you guys. I was grinding for years trying every single different way for it to happen…”

She laughs, her skin glowing against the gold light that leaves the room behind her dark. She appears hydrated, healthy, and happy. The latter makes sense considering that just a week or so before this interview, she’d won her first Grammy—and not only her first, but the first of its kind, with the inauguration of the Best African Music Performance added to the awards list for 2024.

“…and it came the way it was supposed to come,” she adds.

While it may not have been her mukbang videos, ‘the way” she’s referring to is with her track ‘Water’. A catchy, internet-friendly bop blending pop and amapiano – a subgenre of house music that originated from her home country of South Africa. Not only is the song to thank for her sudden global success but also for her aforementioned award.

Though it was released in July of 2023, it wouldn’t be until early October of that same year that the song would see virality. An appearance on the Swedish talk show, BIANCA, hosted by Bianca Ingrosso, would lay the base for the thousands of tiktoks, the millions of streams and the inevitable word-of-mouth of the young pop star’s name. While the fan-fantasized chemistry between Tyla and the host added to the appeal of the viral videos (as well as their goddess-like beauty), the real moment that captivated audiences was the dance – a Bacardi-style routine (a South African dance popularized in the 2010’s) that involved pouring water on her own derrière while having her back to the audience. It spurred a viral trend on Tiktok that involved a tongue in cheek joke about an unknowing partner being caught in a separate room watching the video on repeat.

“Whose idea was it to pour water on your butt while you were dancing?” I ask.

“It was my idea,” she says self-assuredly.

“Genius,” I say.

“People say, ‘That’s so genius,’ and honestly, the way it happened was so random. Everything was just so random. But right.”

Inevitably the song made history. She became the first South African solo artist to rank in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 55 years. Before her was the infallible trumpeter, Hugh Masekela.

“It opened the floodgates,” I say.

“Oh yes,” she says “a floodgate.”

In 2019, at the very beginning of her career, Tyla released her first song, ‘Getting Late’. Like all elements of Tyla’s artistry, her South African roots dictated Amapiano as the heart of the track, but her vocals were decidedly pop thanks to her well-rounded musical upbringing.

“No one was doing that at the time,” she says. ‘There wasn’t even really anyone singing on Amapiano, so it was definitely something I played around with.”

The two years that followed were about perfecting the sound, and with the help of Birmingham producer Corey Marlon Lindsay-Keay, a genre dubbed “poppiano”, either by music heads or Tyla herself, was born.

While Tyla isn’t the only one to be thanked for the sudden explosion of African-originating music on a global stage, her influence is beckoning a new era of music into the limelight. One that says goodbye to pure Americanized genres and hello to intersecting world music sub-genres.

“It feels like what we’ve all been working towards is finally happening,” she says. “This is something we’ve been waiting for and wanting. We’ve had so many artists go overseas and work with people and push the [African] music. And all those years have led us to this moment where people are finally paying attention. I really feel like it’s only the beginning, and that excites me so much.”

In 2023, according to the official Grammy Awards page, Grammy CEO, Harvey Mason Jr., made a “mind-bending. Game-changing. Eye-opening” trip to the African continent. “Africa is the birthplace of, well, everything,” he’d said, “but definitely music.” Basically, it made total sense why artists from Africa (diverse in sound and culture) should be given their flowers. The inaugural African performance category for 2024 saw the nomination of influential African artists like Arya Starr, Asake, Burna Boy, Davido, Olamide and Musa Keys. But among the impressive roster of talent, Tyla came out on top.

“It took a moment for it to sink in,” she says, “I remember hearing it, and I wasn’t really sure. He said my name and ‘Water’. And then everyone around me started screaming. Then I was like, ‘Oh, my word. I actually won.’

“Your reaction felt so genuine,” I say.

In her green dress and wet-styled hair, and in Gen Z fashion, Tyla’s first words on stage were a resounding, “WHAT THE HECK?! WHAT? Oh my gosh, guys. This is crazy.”

“It really was,” she smiles, “I didn’t plan anything that happened. I was saying random things. But it was all feeling…I really wouldn’t have wanted my first Grammy to be any other Grammy. Like this category, being the first, making history, my name is always going to be there. It’s just unbelievable.”

It’s a real full-circle moment for an artist who went from mukbangs to mega-star. But make no mistake; pop stardom was not a road short-travelled for the 22-year-old. Her fascination with the concept came much earlier thanks to her dad, pirated tapes and lazy Sundays glued to the TV.

“I was very small,” she says, “It came from me watching the biggest artists in concert. I vividly remember Michael Jackson’s concerts, Rihanna’s concerts. Just seeing the crowd’s response and everyone singing back the artist’s songs, I always felt like it was what I wanted. I was getting signs from left, right and center from a young age that this is what I was meant to be.”

The unavoidable peaks and pits of fame that have come since don’t seem to deter the ever-confident artist. The perfectionism of the woman on-screen during our interview, both in looks and her ability to answer questions, rolls over to the one in public, on talk shows and on the radio. She seems to teeter between just personal enough but never close enough to give anything away. And that perfectionism is the only thing she seems to grapple with.

“I have to be very conscious,” she says, “I can’t just go outside looking crusty. Usually I’ll just go to the shop quickly: random outfits, cosy, no make-up, whatever. But now I have to think more about how I look going outside and what’s happening. So it’s something I have to get used to. Other than that, I’m enjoying it.”

Tyla yearns to recapture the pre-social media era’s mystique in celebrity culture, balancing her stage persona with a more reserved offstage life.

“I remember not knowing that much about artists. I would see new pictures in a magazine or breaking news about artists. Those types of moments and surprises from artists, I find very exciting,” she says. And now we have social media, and even though it’s beneficial, it took away that [surprise] from the industry. I feel like we should start bringing it back, like creating a whole different world. Things don’t have to be so real and so serious.”

It speaks to an internet-savvy mindset that has gotten Tyla to the global stages she stands on today. The Tyla on stage is more “dramatic,” she says. “When I’m alone…I’m more chill.”

Her debut album, dropping this week, will be a reappraisal of who she is and what she’s about. Simply, it will be titled: TYLA.

“I feel like people are going to hear it and be able to identify Tyla and identify Tyla’s sound, which is what I want,” she says, “I want this to be an introduction to people. There’s even some songs where I’m rapping a bit. There are different vibes completely. There’s even some exciting features. So it’ll be a shock to some.”

“Will Drake be on this album?” I ask, referring to her long-want to collaborate with the artist.

“No, not for this album. But something will be coming out,” she says slyly.

While snippets from the album have already been released at the time of writing this interview including the now multi-million streamed ‘Truth and Dare’, ‘Butterflies’, ‘On and On’ and a remixed version of ‘Water’ with Travis Scott, ‘Water’ (in its simplest form) still stands as her most successful. It’s the song that got her to where she is and the crux of her career to come. But it won’t be the song that defines her. Ultimately, Tyla’s career will last longer than the food in her Youtube-era mukbangs, and the journey will be her own.

“I want my own story. I want my own results. The South African pop-star: Tyla.”

Tyla’s debut album TYLA arrives Friday March 22 pre-save it here now and follow Tyla here for more.

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