/ 8 February 2024

Tyla: Off the stage and into my heart

66th Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony
‘She’s our baby!’: Tyla accepts the African Music Performance award at the Grammys on 4 February. Photo: Leon Bennett/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

It was Monday morning when I fell in love with Tyla. A friend had sent a video clip from a few hours earlier of our gorgeous pop princess winning the Best African Music Performance Grammy for her song Water

It was on a WhatsApp group where we normally only talk Arsenal fan stuff, except for Matters of National Importance, such as the Boks winning the World Cup, our legal rock stars bedazzling everyone (except Israel) at the International Court of Justice in The Hague and when Ronwen Williams saved, saved, saved, and finally saved, Bafana into the Afcon semifinals.

Celebrating Tyla belonged in our little group, even though the Grammys don’t really move me. 

Last week, there was an excellent piece in The Conversation by ethno-musicologist Eric Charry about these prestigious, but US-centric awards, in which he focused on the category Tyla won, the first time in its 65 years that an African section has been introduced.

While “African artists have now been offered a seat at the table”, and the Grammys claim to recognise excellence, Charry pointed out “it also celebrates US cultural imperialism and commercial success — a track record evident in its history”.

In 1960, the year after the awards were introduced, South Africa’s Miriam Makeba got her first nomination in the newly launched Best Folk Performance category. 

In 1966, she won her only Grammy for the album she did with American singer and actor Harry Belafonte, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba

It set “a recurring theme” of African musicians getting Grammys only with a “sponsor” from the West: Paul Simon giving American cover to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Peter Gabriel being the “bwana” for Youssou N’Dour and the mostly Nigerian artists on Beyoncé’s 2019 The Lion King album.

On the Grammy website, they explain the new African category “recognises recordings that utilise unique local expressions from across the African continent”. 

Charry says it is more a case of giving “a nod to the growing popularity of African music in the US — notably Afrobeats from Nigeria”. 

The four other songs nominated in the Best African Music Performance are by Nigerian artists.

And what has always irked me about the hyper-commercial Grammys: “Authenticity for the Grammys, it appears, is shaped by what the largest numbers of people are listening to,” wrote Charry. 

But despite that, it was her Grammy performance that made me a fan who has since immersed himself in all things Tyla-related. 

Talking of fans. As we all know, Beyoncé’s are the “Bey-hive” and Taylor Swift’s are “Swifties”. Did you know that Tyla’s are the “Tygers” — send me the application form immediately if they start a Tygers Veterans’ League!

It wasn’t the actual song Water, though, it was her appearance at the Grammys award ceremony that beguiled me. Everything about it.

Let’s start with the walk-on song — and here credit where it’s due. The musical director chose the opening bars of Fela Kuti’s Water No Get Enemy for the band to play as she sashayed up the stairs onto the stage in her striking sage-green Versace dress. A brilliant song and a clever choice to go with Tyla’s song.

And then the hush, centre stage in the spotlight behind the mic for her acceptance speech.

“Oh my … what the HECK!?” Her twirly golden earrings bounce as she exclaims in the purest, US twang-free Saffa accent, with a glittering smile of disbelief.

“Oh my God guys, this is crazy, like … I never thought I’d say I won a Grammy at 22 years old!”

Then she remembered her impeccable manners — and it certainly helps to introduce yourself to 16.9 million viewers: “If you don’t know me, I’m Tyla, I’m from South Africa …”

My parental heart melted with what she did next. 

After the obligatory shoutout to God, she thanked her family and then paused. Scanning the audience while pointing into it, she said with shining eyes: “I know my mother is crying somewhere in here …”

With an “and I know I’m forgetting some things but I won a Gram-EEEE! Thank you! Thank you!” She was off the stage and into my heart. 

Just 43 seconds, her speech was almost as brief as the more-ish Tik-Tok videos that have made her an emerging superstar. 

If you, like me, are a bit late to the party, some background. 

One of five kids, Tyla Laura Seethal was born and grew up in Johannesburg. She is a coloured person, as she pointed out in an early video explaining to her international fans who she was.

Tyla matriculated at Edenglen High School in Edenvale in 2019, where the students and staff were “very excited” on Monday, marketing head Tumi Gwangwa told me. “She’s our baby!” she exclaimed.

Water went viral on Tik-Tok, with its dance move based on the popular Bacardi style that originated in Pretoria townships. The Moveee website describes it as “like twerking’s sexier cousin who just got back from a year abroad in Paris. It’s got all the grace and refinement of ballroom dance, mixed with the raw sensuality of a burlesque show.”

Time magazine even dedicated an online spread to explaining her Water dance challenge. The single, which was released in July, will be included on Tyla’s eponymous album, set for release next month.

“It’s easy to see the crossover appeal of Water, which could be mistaken for an American pop song if not for the sweltering amapiano instrumental underneath,” according to a Grammy press release when the song was nominated. 

“Singing entirely in English, Tyla’s vocal delivery brims with confidence and desire, especially over the chorus — ‘Make me sweat, make me hotter, make me lose my breath, make me water’ — while the song’s sweltering video turns up the heat further.”

This “sweltering” video had been watched 119 million times on YouTube as of Tuesday and it is still climbing. A witty fan commented that Water “has crack in it. It’s so addictive. I can’t stop. Won’t stop.”

Tyla’s song has also made an impact on hit parades across the world. Water has rushed up the Billboard chart, the first South African song to achieve that since Hugh Masekela’s Grazing in the Grass back in 1968. 

What the heck (to quote my hero) — Water has even reached number one in New Zealand. 

This proudly African song has crossed borders as if they don’t exist, like water. It fills dance floors of young and not-so-young people across the globe, joyfully showing their best Bacardi moves.

That is heart-warming, especially at a time of apartheid and erasure; it even gives one hope for the future. The kids will be alright.