Bubbling: Tyla, South African Pop Star Who Dares to Stay True

The "Water" singer shares the story behind the Travis Scott remix of her hit song, what you can expect from her in the future, and why she's keen on being the African pop star the world needs.

Jeremy Soma/Complex Original

Bubbling is a monthly series highlighting emerging artists on the cusp of major breakthrough.

America is highly overrated. 

“I just remember not feeling like it was a real place before I actually got here,” South African artist Tyla says. “I imagined seeing paparazzi everywhere. Not for me,” she clarifies with a smile, “but celebrities everywhere. Paparazzi like in Hollywood. That's how I imagined America to be like, so when I came here, I was like, OK, it's a normal place, which is cool.”

The 21-year-old artist’s first time in America was at the end of 2022 when she worked on her electric single “Been Thinking,” released in January of this year. The song happened to be her first collaboration with award-winning producer and songwriter Tricky Stewart, who has worked with pop stars like Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and many more. Much has changed since then. Stewart would later join nine other writers and British producer Sammy Sosa to create the sultry single “Water.” And, a few visits later whilst in New York to record her first live US TV performance of that song, bestowed upon Jimmy Fallon, she would learn that she earned a Grammy nomination for Best African Music Performance.

“The news was unbelievable honestly,” she says from a studio chair at Complex’s NYC office a couple of weeks later. “I did not expect a whole Grammy nomination, especially so soon. So it's really just a blessing that I was able to be nominated and be one of the first in the category because it's a new category. It's amazing for South Africa especially.”

Over the last year, “world music,” which doesn’t include Latin music but amasses genres like afrobeats, k-pop, and amapiano (and is admittedly a mildly lazy categorization), became the fastest-growing genre in the industry in terms of market share. Still, despite stagnancy when it comes to growth in that department, hip-hop and R&B have remained the most consumed genres. 

"It's really just a blessing that I was able to be nominated and be one of the first in the category."

Tyla’s most inescapable song of the year, “Water,” allowed the artist to find and benefit from living as part of an all-and-none, self-concocted genre she calls popiano—quite literally the pop iteration of the beloved African house subgenre amapiano, with a more structured approach (verse, chorus, pre-chorus), that differed from the seven-minute origin songs of the genre it’s inspired by. And the best part is, she did it all her way. 

“It never used to always be the way it is now... It was vibes. Literally pure vibes,” she laughs. Popiano attracted and muddled categorization lines for American listeners and critics alike, ultimately climbing the track to the No. 1 spot of Billboard’s R&B and Hip-Hop Airplay and Afrobeats charts. From intentionally opting for a South African sound and dance to promote it with—Tyla and her choreographer Lee-ché “Litchi” Janecke made a fun spin on the nation’s classic bacardi dance style to take over TikTok—the Johannesburg-born artist is putting on for her home country every step of the way.

In the two weeks since the Grammy nomination, Tyla has released three new distinctly different tracks to tease her forthcoming debut album, set for a March 1, 2024 release date, announced a worldwide tour with stops in North America, the UK, and Europe, and gracefully showed off her skills at arcade basketball, otherwise known as Pop-A-Shot at Dave & Buster’s in Times Square. It’s the week of Thanksgiving and Tyla has returned to New York for a quick stint to promote her new music and experience her first American holiday with friends in Brooklyn. 

Between harkening back to the Sporty Spice days of her youth (a.k.a. her days playing “net-ball,” hockey, and track four years back in high school), and raiding the gift store to see what our couple of thousands of tickets had earned us (spoiler: not enough), Tyla’s manager interrupts to show her screenshots from her next, soon to be released video—a pastel purple-backdropped jawn with her and Travis Scott for their remix of “Water.” 

The singer followed up the original July-released earworm with the unexpected yet somehow perfect collaboration, featuring the Houston rapper, whose sound she says she’s always loved. A remix wasn’t a necessary page in the books for her, but she made an exception. “I didn't really think of doing a remix. I was like, ‘nah, like, let's just have “Water,” it's cool, whatever.’ But then people were reaching out and I was like, ‘oh my word, oh my word.’ And I started getting excited and then Travis reached out and I literally couldn’t… like, I could not say no; his music is crazy,” she says. “So after he reached out, we sent him that open verse and he came back and he killed it, you know, he killed it.” 

“Travis reached out and I literally couldn’t say no. We sent him that open verse and he came back [and] he killed it.”

And because life is no Paramore song, that wasn’t the only exception. But, it may be the last. Tyla also released an electronic version of “Water” with multi-platinum producer and DJ Marshmello that day, but giggles when asked about the prospect of more iterations. “Hey,” she looks at the camera, “you're greedy. I don't know. Maybe! I'm not gonna say anything. Maybe.”


Tyla shares her dream rap and R&B collabs... including Gunna, Drake, and 21 Savage. Our full #bubbling interview with #tyla is on Complex now

♬ original sound - ComplexMusic

Whether it’s that track or otherwise, she knows who and what she wants. In fact, Travis is far from the last rapper she hopes to collaborate with. Other names on her hit list include Gunna, Drake, and 21 Savage. And, naturally, R&B collaborations would be deliciously fitting additions to her catalog. Specifically, “SZA.Definitely love SZA. She's amazing. PartyNextDoor would be crazy. [And] yeah, I mean, I would like a song with Summer [Walker], like our own song cause she's the best,” she says, referring to what would be an extension of their relationship and harmony, established on their sexy version of Summer’s “Girls Need Love.” “All my favorite artists are reaching out to me,” she later says in disbelief.

A true girl’s girl, Tyla’s worked with Nigerian Afrobeats star-on-the-rise of the same age Ayra Starr on “Girl Next Door,” as well. And more recently? An affinity for reggaeton's roots in OG Jamaican and Panamanian dembow (continuously and fascinatingly molded in the Dominican Republic) has caught her eye and ear to become a sound she hopes to explore with artists like Colombia’s Karol G or Spain’s Rosalía. 

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But make no mistake, pop stardom is the goal.

“I come with the story,” Tyla says when asked what gap she feels she fills in the space. “I come from a very small place, a little city in South Africa all the way at the bottom of Africa, the tip. And literally, I was just a girl with a dream, a girl that didn't really have much examples… like this wasn't really possible at that age when I was coming up as an artist, it wasn't something that was realistic and I made it a reality,” she glows. “We need an African pop star, and hopefully I'm that one.”

Travel has become a more common and inescapable occurrence, but Tyla quite literally takes home with her wherever she goes—specifically, in the form of two bags of maize (mielie) meal. “I thought all American food would be good,” she says shaking her head, but it’s not, so making sure she has the key ingredient to make her hometown favorite (pap and gravy with boerewors) is a must.

Tyla’s now universal sonic palette can be partially accredited to her family, who raised her to be familiar with the likes of Brian McKnight, Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men, and other old R&B greats. One of five, Tyla is far from a bitter middle child; fond of her relationship with her siblings, she taps her younger brother for advice on everything from boy trouble to general life advice, when needed, and her parents are still her fiercest supporters.

“We were fair. My youngest sister was spoiled, but me? I was just there, but I always wanted the attention,” she laughs, recalling the impromptu fashion shows she subject her parents to, getting in trouble for wearing makeup at an early age. “Whenever I think of love, I just think about my family because I feel like it's the most pure form… it's a natural love that you can't make happen, you just love that person,” she explains.


Tyla explains what makes her stand out as an artist. Our full #bubbling interview with #tyla is on Complex now

♬ original sound - Complex

Things have changed rather quickly, and on the groovy yet cautionary “Truth or Dare”— her current favorite track in her growing discography—the artist confronts past connections that dare to circle the block to inhabit her orbit with leech-like affinities now that she’s found her footing in music. Instead, she’s focused on having the party go “On and On” with her voice as a constant, whilst laughing at the misconceptions about her. Namely, “that I literally came out of nowhere and I'm an industry plant.It's like, what the heck? I'm a whole plant? Imagine. No way,” she laughs. “People don't know how hard I've worked and how hard my team has worked to get here. But I mean, everyone's gonna get that [who] comes up from a social media viral moment. So it's understandable.” 

The truth is that it’s time for a pop star like Tyla, and the parallels drawn between her and Rihanna aren’t coincidental, as the Bajan star is a huge source of inspiration for the singer. “I love that [Rihanna] was able to come from somewhere outside of America and make it so big… I really looked up to that.”

Between sips of blueberry lemonade and croons of Normani and Cardi B’s “Wild Side,” Tyla shares that she’s always wanted to be a princess. While crime documentaries are her personal favorite to watch, she wants to play a Disney princess one day, and it wouldn’t hurt for it to be a musical. With a focus on theater in school, Tyla acted and directed plays, gravitating toward fairy tale roles. And although she affirms she was a fan of Netflix’s “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story,” she shakes her head when asked if a role like Charlotte’s would be fitting. “Too serious!”

“Things used to be more interesting,” Tyla lands. “Watching celebrities’ lives, it never used to be so in your face. There’s no sense of mystery [now]… I just want to bring that feeling back,” she says. “But not so serious. Like people are watching a movie, but in real life.”

Slowly and suddenly, some parts of the 21-year-old’s initial perception of American reality doesn’t seem so far-fetched for herself. As we exit the arcade, a young group of teens shyly point and giggle toward the rising star as they walk past her and exit the building before one of them tells the other “Take a picture, bitch!” They then rush back in and wait for her to finish recording a thank you video for her social media followers before approaching her. The rising pop star is keenly aware of both the power of towing the line of privacy and flowing to new heights while sharing bits of everything, everywhere, all at once. 

Where and with whom she does that is to be determined, and moving home bases isn’t entirely out of the picture as her reach and stride steadies. “I love South Africa way too much,” she initially says. “The people, my food, my whole family, my whole life is there. So, if I were to move it would be… it would be a very difficult move. But if it makes sense for work, then I might be an American girl,” she smirks.

We land on an elegant mood ring “for adults” that mimics the ones we all had as kids, and blue pops up when she puts it on her finger. The back of the packaging details its meaning: “You’re good. You’re fine. Carry on.”

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