The Rise Of Tyla’s Global Hit Single, “Water”

a meeting of talent and opportunity

South Africa’s Tyla Seethal has always craved to be a star. She grew up nursing the appeal of luxuriating in the spotlight, singing and dancing to her heart’s content. Buoyed by her determination and the support of her family, she participated in drama and choir activities at school, and in her last year at Edenglen High School, she became Head of Culture. In 2019, she released her debut single “Getting Late,” featuring South African record producer Kooldrink; the track electro-tinged Amapiano was the audiences’ official introduction to Tyla’s velvety vocals, and the music video, which came two years later, highlighted her energetic choreography. 

“Getting Late” caught the attention of listeners outside South Africa as record labels swopped in with deals for Tyla. She eventually chose Epic Records, owned by Sony Music Entertainment. In 2021, she, Kooldrink and DJ Lag linked up for “Overdue,” which, alongside “Getting Late,” was featured in season 2 of the Netflix-commissioned South African drama series Blood & Water. The following year, Tyla peeled back the layers of her artistry with “To Last,” wherein she stewed in the hurt of a failed relationship. Although the song boasted of the vibrant Amapiano log drums, the mood on the song is sober and filled with regrets – a total contrast to the bright, optimistic sentiments of “Getting Late” and “Overdue.”

Born and raised in Johannesburg, Tyla’s sound is primarily influenced by their South African culture: its music, its places and the people. “I’m very passionate about my country, our culture and music; I really believe in it,” she told i-D Magazine. Tyla combines the elements gleaned from artists in her country with those idols outside SA, the likes of Michael Jackson, Aaliyah, Brandy and Rihanna. Her sound is a melting pot of R&B, Soul, Afrobeats and Amapiano. In a show of growth within the SA music scene, “To Last” got a remix featuring heavyweight record producer DJ Maphorisa and talented star Young Stunna, and Tyla appeared alongside Young Stunna and Madumane on DJ Maphorisa, ShaunMusiQ and Ftears’ “Thata Ahh.”

Tyla began 2023 with “Been Thinking,” a confident exploration of seduction and femininity. “Thinkin’ out loud, watching you in that crowd/Like I’m gon’ take your clothes off/Thinkin’ right now, are you single right now?/If you’re not, you gon’ have to share ‘cause,” she sings. In the Meji Alabi-directed music video, Tyla is in her element, rocking her body in sync with the song’s uptempo Pop rhythms. She teamed up with Nigeria’s Ayra Starr on “Girl Next Door,” produced by Nigeria’s P.Priime, where she and Ayra coated the song with affection and mild warnings to a potential lover. Both agemates (21), Tyla and Ayra’s collaboration emphasised on the rising generation of female music superstars on the African continent.

Before Tyla became the star that she currently is, social media was her most trusted tool to place herself in the eyes of the world. She posted covers and original songs, which she shared with their favourite music stars around the globe. It’s only right that a social media platform would shepherd Tyla’s first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100. Released in July, Tyla “Water,” is similar in mood to “Been Thinking” for its dive into the depths of romance and sex. “Can you blow my mind?/Set off my whole body/If I give you my time/Can you snatch my soul from me?/I don’t wanna wait, come take it/Take me where I ain’t been before,” she sings. The song’s chorus is catchy and full of intense vivid imagery.

“Water” debuted at No. 67 on the Hot 100, with 6.4 million official streams (up 22%), 3.1 million radio airplay audience impressions (up 128%) and 1,000 downloads sold (up 9%) in the United States between September 29 and October 5.  The song is also a prominent feature on other charts including Hot R&B Songs (No. 6), Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs (No. 22), Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay (No. 39), Billboard Global 200 (No. 38) and Billboard U.S. Afrobeats Songs (No. 2). On this side, the song also debuted as No.34 on the TurnTable Official Top 100 for Nigeria with “Water” becoming Tyla’s first top 40 entry in Nigeria — and the artist’s highest charting single in the country. 

Three months after its initial release, “Water” has garnered these accolades due to the virality it enjoyed on TikTok after the dance challenge was created by Litchi, a South African singer and dancer who is also Tyla’s choreographer. The hashtags #TylaWater and #TylaWaterChallengevideos have accumulated over 440 million views and are used in over 500,000 videos. The dance challenge to “Water” exists on the territory of Bacardi, a South African dance genre with ties to Amapiano. “Usually, this dance style is not paired with this type of music, but I felt it would fit so well,” she said in an interview. “We ended up trying this, and it looked so good that we started performing it with water.”

The use of water as imagery isn’t new in the music space. Less than a week ago, Nigerian singer Tems released “Me & U,” her first single in two years. Its music video, which she directed, places her at the shores of the sea in a baptism of some sort. On “Ocean,” from her 2022 album ‘V,’ Nigerian singer Aṣa likens a love interest to the ocean for the completeness they bring into her life. American singer SZA’s album cover for 2022’s ‘SOS’ shows her seated on the edge of a diving board and overlooking an expanse of deep blue waters—a metaphor for her search for meaning in life’s calm and chaos.

Tyla’s rapid rise is incredible as it is an example of the good fortunes that a lot of African acts, most especially women, have in today’s world, where audiences in any place in the world are connected through the internet and streaming platforms. With an EP in the works, Tyla is setting the foundation for a prosperous year and the building blocks of what will be an exceptional career.

Featured image credits/NATIVE