Tyla Isn’t Interested in Being “The Next Rihanna,” Actually With a shiny new Grammy, a hear-it-everywhere-you-go hit in “Water,” and a sense of confidence she could basically bottle and sell, our latest cover star has been drawing comparisons to Ms. Fenty since her debut. But while she’s flattered, she has a sound—and story—all her own.

 If you are one of the few humans left on the planet who has somehow escaped the gravitational pull of the song that has quickly become as ubiquitous as the element it’s named after (spoiler: water), your days are numbered.

a person sitting on a chair tyla

Soon after Tyla’s now-hit was uploaded to the internet last July, its uniquely hot vibe catapulted her monthly Spotify streams to 29 million and infiltrated every single one of my playlists. The accompanying choreography spawned a whole pop culture moment of its own on TikTok. Even as a 37-year-old mom, I found myself playing it on repeat while popping that thang everywhere from the beach to the Winelands during my COVID-19 honeymoon in sunny South Africa earlier this year.

I soon became fascinated with this new global pop (or “popiano,” if we’re being technical—more on that later) star from South Africa. And it wasn’t just because of the shiny new self-titled debut album and freshly won Grammy. It was also because she’s sparked nuanced conversations around the world about racial identity simply by being who she is, a proud member of the Coloured community of South Africa (more on that later too). Something that’s even more powerful than a chart-topping track.

LaQuan Smith bodysuit and hot shorts. Femme LA heels. Jacquie Aiche earrings and ring (right). Retrouvaí ring (left).

We might live in an era when trending songs disappear faster than we can put a face or name to a sound, but Tyla is poised for the kind of stardom and staying power we rarely see from breakout talent these days. As the former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue and a current Project Runway judge and red-carpet commentator, I’ve seen every star track imaginable. The flash in the pan, the social-media-grown sensation, the Disney-to-troubled-rebel pipeline, the rising talent thanks to the support of an even bigger star. And my takeaway on Tyla—after hanging out with her in the kitchen of her West Hollywood pad, getting to know her over platefuls of homemade South African cuisine—is that her success story doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories. Just like Tyla herself doesn’t fit into any category I’ve known.

She’s not the self-deprecating newbie or the doe-eyed foreigner who’s “just happy to be here.” While she is very much new to America—and over the moon about it—Tyla gives anything but “new here.” She walks into every room like she belongs, because the truth is, she always knew she did.

cosmo tyla
GCDS tank top, shorts, and socks. Piferi platforms. Broken English earrings. Ippolita bangles. Patcharavipa ring (left). Jacquie Aiche ring (right). Renato Cipullo chain, leather cord, and T pendant.

That confidence is cooler when you realize it’s not because she’s wearing her “pop star” costume all the time. In fact, she welcomes me into her house wearing a long gray Rangers hoodie and nothing else. I’m assuming underwear. But no pants. Just a pair of mismatched socks.

She brings that wonderfully unpolished energy as we speak about her journey to get here—and why this moment is so distinctly hers.

Tell me the story behind “Water.” Did you always know it would be huge?

I recorded it in a bedroom. I never thought, This song is going to blow up. And then I started performing it and seeing everyone singing every word. And I knew it was something bigger than what we thought. People from everywhere are listening to it and dancing to it, no matter their age. There are babies, there are old people. I just love that it’s an African sound that is so universal.

It really sticks with you. How did your family react to the sexiness of the song and the dance that followed?

My mom was the person who saved me because my father was like, “What are you singing about?”1

1. As a quick refresher, the lyrics to the chorus: “Make me sweat, make me hotter / make me lose my breath, make me water.” Not exactly dad material!

A conversation I never want to have with my father ever in life.

I was like, “Nah, it’s nothing bad, Dad. It’s just carefree fun.” He’s like, “Oh, okay.” And my mother was the person being like, “Relax, relax. Relax.”

I imagine he gets the hype now. It is literally a Grammy-winning song. How has your life changed since it came out?

So many things have changed. I still live in South Africa, but I was able to move my parents, my family. Now they’re in a safer area. My family came to Dubai with me. I was able to bring them to Europe. I’m able to show my parents the world at this age, you know? Years back, I was crying on my parents’ bed, saying, “Can I sing, please? Can I just do this? I don’t want to go to university.” Now they are watching me win and they are seeing plaques and posters. The first time my parents got to be in America, they saw their daughter win a Grammy.

cosmopolitan tyla
Marine Serre tank top and skirt. Benedetta Bruzziches heels. Broken English earrings. Ippolita bangles. Patcharavipa ring (left). Jacquie Aiche ring (right).

The best kind of flex! It’s so refreshing to hear a new sound that stops you. I remember when I first saw you on TikTok, I stopped scrolling. I said, “Okay, who is this little baddie?” There was something about you—an effervescence, something on the inside. And it also just feels like you’re having so much fun.

I don’t think people really realize how much fun we are having right now, even before “Water.” I genuinely love this. I love creating music visuals and promo.

2. Tyla uses the term “we” liberally: to mean her individually, her community at large, or the people literally sitting at the table with her while we were having our conversation. In this case, she’s referring to her beloved core team, composed of her longtime friends and collaborators who joined us for dinner, Lee-ché Janecke (her choreographer) and Thato Nzimande (her creative director, who she’s been besties with since high school).

“Years back, I was crying on my parents’ bed, saying, ‘Can I sing, please?’ Now they’re watching me win a Grammy.”

How do you manage to still have fun now that it comes with a lot more pressure and higher stakes?

I have a really good team and I have really good people around me that are from home, so I’m always reminded where I’m from. And my family. I’m very much grounded. I feel like the way we grew up, we are playful and do not take things too seriously. But also, God gives me peace always. No matter what happens, I know that eventually it’s going to be the way God wants it to be.

Okay, she had to take me to church today. Amen. I feel that.

I’m just telling you what it is. Because people see the music industry as evil and think you only can make it if you don’t believe in God. You only can make it if you…

…are in the Illuminati? So, um, can you confirm you’re not?3

Do people already think I’m in the Illuminati? Oh, now. I know some people think that’s the only way, but it really isn’t. God is the center of everything that we are doing, and clearly, it’s working.

3. The TikTok search “Tyla is Illuminati” has millions of views, so yes, I had to ask.

“Working” is an understatement. But you’ve faced a pretty big obstacle already in postponing your upcoming tour due to a back injury.4 Girl, I have a good back and I can’t do half of the stuff you do. I can’t imagine being at this point in your career and having to cancel because of serious pain. How are you coping?

Yeah, unfortunately, I had to postpone the tour. Obviously, I wanted to do all the shows, but it didn’t really make sense considering the injury and the recommendations from the doctor. I’ll be back on it very soon, and I will be giving my Tygers the best show ever. I just need to slow down a bit more and just be easy on myself. I’m still recovering. At least I have medicine that helps ease the pain. It sucks, but I know God’s going to bring me out of it.

4. Two weeks before her debut album dropped in March, Tyla announced in a lengthy Instagram post that her highly anticipated world tour would be postponed due to “an injury that has tragically worsened.” But she’s still on the Lollapalooza lineup for early August, so feel free to run to Ticketmaster while wishing her a speedy recovery.

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Versace shirt. Misho earrings. Harwell Godfrey necklace and ring.

And there’s so much to look forward to on the other side.

With the platform, I have now and how far this music reaches, the art we create together is reaching further. We’re able to do bigger things. Things that we have wanted to do and planned to do but didn’t have the funds or the resources to do. Now we can.

Growing up, were you the entertainer at family get-togethers?

Every single time, I was there performing. My mom would just be like, “Everybody gather, Tyla’s going to sing.”

What were you giving them?

I’d give them Justin Bieber. I’d give them Beyoncé. Adele. I loved singing Adele’s songs. Adele was especially the girl for me. Even in school, the old compositions, I loved Adele’s songs. And Whitney.

Roberto Cavalli dress. Rene Caovilla heels. Jacquie Aiche earrings and rings.

Okay, wow—you weren’t playing around. Adele! Whitney!

I was shy, but I loved doing it. I grew up wanting the attention. Every single competition, every single talent show at school, I was signing up to perform. I’ve always had this feeling. Even when I was small, I was telling people, “I’m going to be a singer when I’m older. I’m going to be a pop star.” My parents obviously thought I’d grow out of it. But it’s just a feeling that I had, that inner peace. I really feel like this was my calling. Even though it’s been hard and we’ve been working, it also flowed in a way that felt like, This is your time.

“It’s been hours and hours of watching YouTube, thinking, ‘How are we going to bring back pop stars?’”

Your grandmother is a singer too, right? How did she influence your career and how did you experience your gift?

I love my gran so much. She would always tell us stories about being a singer and how she would have to basically sing to support her family. She’d take long bus rides to competitions and win. All those stories always inspired me and made me work harder to get to where I want to be years from now.

My gran always pushed me. Always. I would sing a song and she’d make me sing it over and over again, like, “Sing it again. Practice. Do this.” So I’m so happy that she’s also able to experience this now. Because these dreams aren’t only my dreams; they are so many South Africans’ dreams. My gran always speaks about it: “I can’t believe, Tyla. I’m so proud of you. You made something that never felt real.”

cosmo tyla

I never had an example of how to be an African pop star. So I was literally shooting in the dark. And I know people think it came out of nowhere and we are just industry plants. But it’s been years of work, years of developing, of falling, of messing up, of dreaming, sitting up for hours and hours watching YouTube videos, thinking, How are we going to bring back pop stars?5 When I was younger, I would always speak about pop culture what we would like to see from artists, and what’s missing.

5. It’s clear that Tyla has studied the recent history of her art form—you can see it in her style. Her signature sexy look (high slits, crop tops with abs heavily featured) feels very reminiscent of late ’90s and early aughts stars.

preview for Tyla Gave us WATER, Next She Promises FIRE | The Breakdown | Cosmopolitan

What was missing? What were those conversations like?

An African pop star. Like, how has that not happened yet? People have an idea of Africa and it is very stereotypical. They see it as animals everywhere or think we’re hungry, we’re thirsty. It’s just so boring! We want to change that narrative. We want people to see Africa for really what it is. We have our fashion, our stylists, our creators, our artists, our producers. We have so much and we just need the eyes. I’m happy that people are paying attention—it’s amazing. But we need more people to see Africa for what it is and not just what you guys have learned in textbooks and on National Geographic.

That part. How would you describe the Africa that you grew up in?

Very lively, and spiritual. Music is everything to us. Music is in everything that we do. It’s in the way we move, the way we speak, the way we react to things, even the sounds we make. I just love that people are really seeing South Africa because amapiano6 is peaking. And it’s being done by a South African. I remember Rihanna doing the Gwara Gwara dance during her 2018 Grammys performance7 and we were going crazy at home, because we were like, “They know about the Gwara Gwara?!”

But now that it’s a South African being the face of it, it hits a different spot. We got used to South Africans coming to America and adapting to America, sounding American or trying to be American. Now, we are just unapologetically South African. It’s just such an amazing time.

6. A genre that sounds like deep house and jazz had a baby. Think: synths and heavy bass lines. Tyla has coined her own take on it: popiano.

7. A dance made popular by South African performer DJ Bongz and made even more popular by RiRi. If you’re interested, there are YouTube tutorials for the uninitiated.

Avavav tank top. Isabel Marant shorts. Paul Andrew heels. Broken English earrings. Jacquie Aiche finger bracelet. Renato Cipullo ring.

Have you felt any pressure to conform to a more American sound or style in any way?

People know how much I love my culture and where I’m from. So it’s never been something where I would even want to because the source is in South Africa. I also feel like we are changing the way people see pop right now because “Water” is an African song. Afrobeats has a log drum sound and it’s in the Billboard Hot 100 with all pop songs. It’s amazing.

That’s really inspiring to a lot of people. It’s evidence that you don’t have to conform or change to be successful.

You don’t.

Moschino jacket, bra, and skirt. Amina Muaddi platform sandals. Harwell Godfrey earrings and rings.

But it’s not always easy to navigate fame in a different context than the one you grew up in. Like last year when you posted a video on TikTok with the text “I am a Coloured South African” and it created a whole discussion—some would say controversy—online. In the States, the term “Colored” harkens back to the Jim Crow era, evoking viscerally painful reactions from the Black American community and dredging up very real tensions around the lasting impact of colorism in our country. But in South Africa, the term “Coloured” is commonly used to describe the vast multiracial community established legally during apartheid but that has existed since long before that—an ancestral mix of Black African, Indian, Asian, and white with their own language and customs. You ignited a nuanced dialogue about a group that the rest of the world has largely overlooked. What does it feel like to be able to carry that flag for your people?

I’m happy there’s a conversation happening and that people are learning that Africa is more than just Black and white. Obviously, it gets messy and no one likes that, but I’m just happy people know we exist and have our own culture.

When people are like, “You’re denying your Blackness,” it’s not that at all. I never said I am not Black. It’s just that I grew up as a South African knowing myself as Coloured. And now that I’m exposed to more things, it has made me do other things too. I’m also mixed-race. I’m also Black. I know people like finding a definition for things, but it’s “and,” not “or.” As young people, we have a platform where we can speak about things like this, things that are new and controversial and scary. It’s a perfect time for this conversation to happen.

Why do you think now is the perfect time?

Because of African music and where we are right now. People are opening up to us. They love our music. They’re loving our dance moves. But now it’s about more than that. You need to understand where it comes from and why we are that way.

Well said. I feel like you are representing a taste of the diversity of Africa.

I represent people that didn’t know they could make it in America. I thought you had to be American to be famous. That’s why I loved Rihanna, because I was like, “Okay, she came from somewhere else and she did it.”

This brings me to the idea of legacy and creating your own lane. You do get compared to Rihanna a lot. And even though you admire her, I imagine that can add pressure for someone who’s trying to figure out who they are. How do you feel about that at this point in your career?

It’s flattering because Rihanna is Rihanna. It’s a compliment. But at the same time, I’m my own artist. I’m Tyla. And I know as people get to know me and my music, they will see me as just Tyla. So I’m fine with it now. People want to tie me to something familiar to them, cool. But at the end of the day, we’re doing something no one’s done before, and it can’t really be compared to anyone.

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