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Tyla is the new face of African pop. She's aiming to take over the whole world

Besides charting the course of her own pop stardom, Tyla's goals are to spread the pride of her country and keep the people who created amapiano at the forefront of the movement.
Jeremy Soma
Epic Records
Besides charting the course of her own pop stardom, Tyla's goals are to spread the pride of her country and keep the people who created amapiano at the forefront of the movement.

Tyla's mission is clear. She's setting out to change the geography of pop stardom.

"It's something I feel like the industry is lacking," the singer declares. "An African pop star."

Fresh off a year of social media virality with her breakout single, a fashion campaign with Gap and her first Grammy win in the inaugural presentation of the best African Music Performance category, Tyla has just released her self-titled debut album. It's a 14-track stunner that positions the 22-year-old as the African pop star she's always wanted to see and be.

For many listeners, Tyla's 2023 hit song "Water" was their first taste of the sound of her homeland that's now taking over the music world. Amapiano is a new musical movement that started in the townships of South Africa in the 2010s. Roughly translated from Zulu to mean "the pianos" or "piano people," amapiano is a mash-up of a few different genres: deep house, jazz, kwaito and log drum percussives. Together it all creates entrancing, mid-tempo music that's a cultural staple of South Africa's party scene.

"Amapiano is a lifestyle. You're not supposed to sweat," says DJ Moma, a Sudanese-American DJ. "That's why amapiano is at this cool tempo. You can bust out a dance move or two .... But you're not constantly chasing a 125 bpm tempo."

Moma first got put on to amapiano in 2016 when he hopped in a Johannesburg taxi. Moma tipped his driver 50 U.S. dollars to let him download the music playing on the car's stereo from a jump stick straight to his laptop and took the sounds back to the states to start playing them at Everyday People, a recurring day party he co-created for the Black diaspora.

As the music started to move, South African DJs and producers like Kabza De Small, Kelvin Momo and Uncle Waffles emerged as leaders.

But the richness of the music goes beyond the party. "It's so much deeper than music, you know," Tyla says. "It's not just a cool sound. It's culture. It's struggle music. It's music that brought us through a lot." The slowed tempo of amapiano — elements borne from the kwaito and house lineage in its sonic DNA — connect the music to the country's historical periods of political uprisings and change in 1990s South Africa post-apartheid.

"As far as struggle music that's related to history," DJ Moma explains, "I'm not South African, you know, but what it does have is these ... really dark, melancholic, minor chords that, when you put them together, there's this mood of melancholy that permeates the music. That's something that has been [part of] South African music throughout the years. There's a lot of minor chords. There's a sadness to it. But in a weird way, it's also uplifting because minor chords, when you put them together, they're the most beautiful."

While DJs were moving the sound of amapiano around the world in the 2010s, Tyla was perfecting her own version of it back home in Johannesburg. She started off singing covers on TikTok and dropped her first song, "Getting Late" in 2019, to show her parents she was serious about pursuing a career in music after high school. Based on the track, they agreed to give her one year to make it happen.

The timing wasn't great.

"And it was actually worse because COVID happened in that year so I was like really, out of all years, it had to happen in this year," Tyla says.

Because of pandemic lockdowns, it took a year for Tyla and her team to shoot the video for "Getting Late," with "no backing, no budget." But when they finally dropped it in early 2021, labels noticed.

Years after her first video, Tyla's taken the building blocks of Amapiano and added elements of pop made by stars she grew up idolizing like Rihanna (to whom critics and fans are now comparing her) and Justin Bieber. Her signature sound has been dubbed "pop-iano."

In 2023, her formula finally got noticed on a global scale thanks to TikTok. After dropping "Water" in July 2023 and noticing it had become a piece of trending audio on the app, Tyla and her choreographer, Litchi, created a dance challenge. Tyla's performance of the challenge in August really made a splash on the app and introduced her to a wider audience than she ever imagined. "It literally changed my life."

"The pop and R&B mainly sits in the melody choices, you know, and song structure. And then obviously the beat is where home really shows," she notes.

It's a formula that's working. On her debut, Tyla's star quality shines. Simmered acoustics on tracks like "On and On" and "Butterflies" let her vocals hypnotize. The signature sound that she developed is flexible enough to allow her to show off next to stars from the Latin, reggae and hip-hop worlds: Features on the album include South African stalwart Kelvin Momo, Latin pop star Becky G, Atlanta rapper Gunna and Jamaican dancehall finesser Skillibeng. One of the most powerful tracks is "No. 1," featuring Nigerian R&B star Tems. Tyla even pushed back the deadline to turn in the album so she could lock in the collab.

"Of our generation, she's like the example," Tyla says of Tems. "She's been killing it and she's been opening so many doors for us."

With the recent attempts to ban TikTok in the U.S. — the same platform that's opened doors for Tyla and many other artists on the continent — the South African singer does wonder about the future of other African artists being able to break through. "People are making amazing music right now and it's not getting the same recognition."

But DJ Moma isn't too worried yet. Even if the virality of a song isn't at the level of Tyla's tracks, the options for discovery are only a few low-data clicks away. "WhatsApp is probably the number one medium for sharing amapiano music that's fresh off the press."

Tyla, along with her fellow African music Grammy nominees Davido, Musa Keys, Ayra Starr, Burna Boy, Asake and Olamide represent a Pan-African musical takeover for a new generation. Besides charting the course of her own pop stardom, Tyla's goals are to spread the pride of her country and keep the people who created amapiano at the forefront of the movement.

"We've obviously had African artists that have pushed boundaries, but I feel like now is a time when people are actually paying attention to us properly and actually latching on to the music and the culture and showing interest beyond the trends," she says. "And we have African artists leading it."

Thanks to her strong debut, Tyla has proven that she is one of those leaders.

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Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.