Tyla Tells Trevor Noah Her Plan for Pop Stardom
Tyla has drip. The sultry South African singer has been dead set on pop stardom since well before she emerged as one of the standouts of her homeland’s expanding amapiano scene. Now, with her latest single “Water” conquering TikTok and rising up the charts, the dreams she had growing up in Johannesburg are finally coming true. One person who knows the feeling is Trevor Noah.
TREVOR NOAH: Tyla, what’s going on? I feel like everyone in Joburg knows each other, and it’s so funny meeting someone you feel like you’ve known for a long time. Where are you?
TYLA: I’m in Manhattan. I had a lot of interviews and I did a photo shoot yesterday, and I’m rehearsing for Jimmy Fallon, which is crazy.
NOAH: He loves music, so that’s a perfect matchup. The country went berserk for you when you did your first talk show in Sweden.
TYLA: Yeah, Bianca. I almost didn’t do it.
NOAH: Wait, why?
TYLA: There were a lot of things happening around that time, but at the last minute I was like, “Nah, let’s do it,” and I’m so happy I did because that video is going crazy.
NOAH: Let’s talk about that. There was a time in music when no song could make it without a video. Once the music video became a thing, whether it was Michael Jackson or on MTV, it seemed like there was no turning back. Then at some point, it felt like music videos disappeared. But now with the rise of TikTok, there’s a different type of video that’s emerging, and I feel like you’ve tapped into that. For your generation, do you think music videos and these videos that organically come from the internet are equally important?
TYLA: I might be biased because I love watching music videos, so I’m sure there’s definitely a market for that. But it’s a different time now. Social media has taken over and I’ve noticed that people’s attention spans aren’t that long anymore. People like watching short videos, so with my music, I love creating small videos that I hope will trend. Because I’ve been on social media throughout my life, I’ve kind of figured out what people like seeing, so I use that to my advantage when promoting a song.
NOAH: You and your team do an amazing job. Your song “Water,” which I’m now hearing everywhere, raked in over 16 million views on YouTube the last time I checked. But the “Water” dance challenge is close to 100 million views on TikTok. Was there a moment in the studio when you sat down and listened to the track and you went, “This is it”?
TYLA: A lot of the times when I make music, I get excited because I love it, but you never really know how people will react. But when I finished “Water,” I felt in my spirit that it was going to be crazy. It sounds very dramatic, but I literally had a dream where I was watching my Spotify streams climb by the second, and this was before the song started doing well. I don’t know, maybe I have a superpower, because I saw it in a dream.
NOAH: It’s the visualization. Believe it and then it happens.
TYLA: I have to say, thank you for doing this. I really look up to you and so does everyone in South Africa. How does it feel having another South African coming up in the game?
NOAH: I absolutely love it. Especially generationally, because it’s amazing to see South Africans that do really well in different spheres. I remember when Charlize Theron won an Oscar and how proud the country was. And the other day, when Black Coffee was playing at Madison Square Garden, it was so wonderful to feel that energy beyond South Africa. Obviously, South Africans are really proud, but when I see you succeed, I wonder when the last time was that a South African had a solo song on the Billboard charts. I was looking it up and it went back 55 years to Hugh Masekela.
TYLA: Yeah, when I saw that stat, I was like, “No way.” The picture was even black and white. It looked like ancient times. [Laughs]
NOAH: It’s amazing to do this at 21. Entertainment is strange, especially music. Do you feel like you’re still young or do you feel like you’re old in the game because you’ve been making music for a while?
TYLA: I honestly always feel new in the game. I always go into things like I know nothing. I just soak everything in. Even though I’ve been working towards this goal, the fact that it’s actually happening now feels like, what the heck is happening? I’m just so excited, and I feel super proud for South Africa.
NOAH: And South Africa’s super proud of you. As a fellow Jozi resident, I don’t think people understand how far we are from the industry in Africa. When you were in Johannesburg making music, did you think you could make it into the world? Because I’ll be honest, I didn’t. I was happy to do shows in Johannesburg and Cape Town and Durban, and there wasn’t even a small part of me that ever thought about doing comedy anywhere else in the world.
TYLA: I was always a huge dreamer. I loved watching the biggest stars on TV and wanted to be there one day. I never wanted to just be a local South African artist. I always wanted to be on the biggest stages, traveling the world.
NOAH: Who was the first artist that you emulated? What artist was getting Tyla moving as a kid?
TYLA: I always attach myself to songs, not specific artists. But I do remember loving the story of Rihanna because she came from outside of America. It made me feel like my dream was achievable because, like you said, it’s not something that happens every day for us. My whole family wanted to be stars and it didn’t happen for them.
NOAH: Was anyone in your family also in music?
TYLA: Yeah. My gran will tell you every day that it came from her.
TYLA: She used to enter competitions to get money for the family. She was young, going on buses to go to shows, winning money and cigarettes, just killing it.
NOAH: Are you going to put her on a track? I’m sure your gran still has the pipes.
TYLA: You actually sparked an idea. Hey, you might see some credits on my album. [Laughs]
NOAH: So this feels like the natural culmination for your family. I always think that success is a good combination of talent, hard work, and the most elusive ingredient, luck. And there’s no denying that your come-up right now has been a combination of your talent, hard work, and the luck of what amapiano is doing in the world. As South Africans, it’s our pride and joy that this music has taken over the world. Your sound cannot be separated from amapiano, but you’ve done something different with it. Amapiano can be considered darker club music, and it’s almost like you’ve poured icing sugar on top of it. Was this always your flavor?
TYLA: It definitely happened over time. My last year of school, every single weekend I would go to my manager’s house with my best friend, Thato, and we’d make music. One day I’ll make a trap song, another day I’ll make a pop or R&B song. I was on the search to find the sound that sits with me. One weekend we ended up making “Getting Late” because I just wanted to make an amapiano song. At that time, amapiano had just started playing on the radio and it was going crazy, but there weren’t many people singing on it. So I wanted to put my own twist on it because I’ve always been influenced by pop and R&B. Since then I’ve been working on that sound, fusing pop, R&B, and African music like Afrobeats and amapiano, and I feel like I’ve reached a point where I’ve created something new.
NOAH: You have. Tyla and “Water” have created something completely new. By the way, how many people call you “Tyla Water”?
TYLA: [Laughs] People even saying in headlines, “Tyla of Water,” like I’m the Last Airbender. It’s crazy.
NOAH: It’s a compliment. It’s a fun song to watch as well. You would be as successful if you were just a dancer. Were you one of those people who was grooving throughout childhood or did you learn?
TYLA: I never took classes, I just always had rhythm and loved to dance. I wasn’t always amazing, I’m not going to lie, but once I set my mind to something, I’ll do it until I get it. The “Water” dance is actually Bacardi, the dance style in Pretoria. I asked my choreographer to teach it to me and it literally went crazy. And I love that a South African dance style is trending. The world is doing Bacardi, which is crazy.
NOAH: I remember when Rihanna did gwara gwara and when Beyoncé did isiPantsula in her video. Those were some of the first times we saw South African moves blow up on a world stage. And now with “Water,” you’ve done something similar. In 2019, you were still in high school. In 2023, the year’s not even done and critics are comparing you to Rihanna and stars like Normani and Jack Harlow are hitting you up. Do you have an idea of where you want to go from here?
TYLA: It feels like it happened very quickly. Whenever I get a new DM, I’m shocked. It doesn’t feel real yet. But I want to be the biggest pop star of my generation. That’s always been the goal, and it still is. And I really want to work with Drake. I’m going to say that in every single interview until he makes it happen.
NOAH: You’re traveling a lot, but are you doing things for yourself when you travel to such cool places? I always regretted not doing more fun things when I was in random countries. I know you’re a huge fan of roller-coasters.
TYLA: Literally everywhere I go, I ask, “Is there a theme park here?” A lot of times, I don’t have the time, but I went to Six Flags in L.A. As soon as I went on that first ride, I was like, “What the heck?” Because I’m only used to Gold Reef City.
NOAH: Yeah, you’re used to a roller-coaster with one loop. [Laughs]
TYLA: Yeah, since Gold Reef City opened, we’ve had the same five rides. No updates. So Six Flags was the best thing ever. I’m a roller-coaster connoisseur now.
NOAH: There’s a crazy Six Flags that you should try in New Jersey if you’re going to be in New York for a while. The weather might be good enough for you to do it before you leave. And Colorado has one of the wildest I’ve ever been to.
TYLA: So you also go?
NOAH: Oh, yeah. I hit roller-coasters everywhere in the world. Sweden has a really crazy one, but someone died there recently, which made it very awkward. The roller-coaster got stuck and then people were falling off of it, which—
TYLA: The same one you went to?
TYLA: Why did you still go? [Laughs]
NOAH: Here’s the thing. If something goes wrong, it makes me want to ride on the roller-coaster even more, because I feel like now it’s a real ride.
TYLA: Oh my gosh.
NOAH: Also, surely at this point, there’s got to be 100 water brands approaching you. If they’re not, they’re wasting their time.
TYLA: I honestly didn’t think about that, but hey, I’m waiting for them to reach out for my bag.
NOAH: It’s the most fitting. You have an album coming out. What can we expect to hear on it?
TYLA: The plan is for the album to come out next year, but I’m releasing a little EP this year and it’s full of bangers. I’ve never released a project before and I’m so excited for it because the music that I’ve been making feels like a new era of pop music that incorporates the African sound. I love African music so much. I’ve always wanted the world to tap in.
NOAH: Yeah. My favorite thing is having people say to me, [in an American accent] “Oh, have you heard of Tyla? Oh my god, Trevor, she’s great.” People always think they hear our music before us. It’s been amazing seeing how people claim you. If there’s one thing you could teach people about South African music and where it is now, what would it be?
TYLA: I would love for people to understand what amapiano has done for South Africans. I know people are loving the sound, which is amazing, but to South Africans, it’s not just a genre. It’s in our souls. I remember the time when it took over South Africa. It was all we were listening to. That log drum was just hitting all of us, and it’s so beautiful that social media was able to open that door for people to experience it all over the world. It’s literally changed South Africa. It’s given people so many jobs and allowed South Africans to travel the world. And people don’t know that the producers making these banging amapiano beats are 18-year-old kids in their bedrooms. It’s so beautiful to see.
NOAH: It’s been a pleasure watching you grow. I honestly think you’re a bona fide star and I hope we can all support you in the ways that you need to keep going the way you’re going.
TYLA: Thank you so much.
NOAH: Of course. You know this. Jozi stands together.
Photography Assistant: Sephira Street.
Fashion Assistant: Fern Cerezo.
Hair: Lamesha Mosley.
Makeup: Rommy Najor using Dior Forever Foundation at Forward Artists.
Nails: Jazz Style using Chanel at See Management.