Few stories have captivated the past couple of months like that of Tyla, the young South African singer whose single, “Water,” emerged as a sultry blend of Afrobeats and R&B and exploded across the globe. The song first debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in October — her first appearance on the chart — and quickly took off from there. It almost immediately reached the top of the Billboard U.S. Afrobeats Songs chart — where it has spent 14 weeks at No. 1 — and climbed all the way to No. 7 on the Hot 100, where it has spent the past two weeks. It has also been sitting comfortably at No. 1 on Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay for eight weeks.
It’s a true breakout story for the artist, who also saw “Water” land a Grammy nomination in the brand-new category of best African music performance at the upcoming awards this February — not to mention a testament to the work of her management and her team at Epic Records, where she signed in 2021. The song began picking up organically, got a lift off a TikTok challenge and catapulted onto radio, picking up remixes from Travis Scott and Marshmello along the way. And the song’s success so far earns Epic Records president Ezekiel Lewis the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week.
Here, Lewis breaks down how “Water” erupted onto the global stage, the multiple genre influences that went into its final version and how the singer can build on the song’s success leading into her debut album, which is due out in the next few months. “From the beginning of the record-making process, we made it a point to find the best chemistry between creatives from different backgrounds to reflect the worldly influences you hear in the song,” Lewis says. “That is a key factor in enabling it to appeal to audiences not only in the U.S. but across the globe.”
This week, Tyla’s “Water” spent its second week at No. 7 on the Hot 100, its 14th week at No. 1 on U.S. Afrobeats Songs and was certified platinum by the RIAA. What key decision(s) did you make to help make that happen?
The story starts with the creation of the song. I feel like a big part of our job is to curate an environment that creates an opportunity for magic to happen. Consider the fact that the four key writers of the song had never worked together as a collective before Tyla. From the beginning of the record-making process, we made it a point to find the best chemistry between creatives from different backgrounds to reflect the worldly influences you hear in the song. That is a key factor in enabling it to appeal to audiences, not only in the U.S. but across the globe.
“Water” blends an Afrobeats/Amapiano drum pattern with more traditional R&B elements, combining a number of different styles. Why do you think it was able to break through in such a big way?
The song not only has elements of Afrobeats but also more specifically Amapiano which is integral to the music culture of South Africa. While the wider Afrobeats influence is obvious, the use of the log drum by Sammy Soso is key to tying in that specific South African element. Then moving on to the top line, the lyric and melody, R&B and pop dominate in terms of influence there. We really hit a sweet spot in terms of multiple influences coming together seamlessly. There’s something for everyone.
The song has also done very well at radio, with eight straight weeks at No. 1 on Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay. What was the strategy there and how has it paid off?
Once we accomplished a strong Shazam, digital and streaming story, the stage was set for radio to follow through. The audience talked back loudly and let us know it wanted to hear more and more of the record. The song’s gains at playlists across multiple genres gave us a strong sense that radio would be able to replicate that success, and that we could have a chart topper across multiple formats. Once all of the indicators pointed upward, we went for it, and thankfully we were correct in doing so.
The song was also boosted relatively early on with remixes from Travis Scott and Marshmello. How have remixes fit into your strategy, and what has been the payoff?
When thinking about remixing the song, we did not want to significantly compromise the implicit nature of the track by doing something simply to gain more audience. Authenticity is sometimes hard to articulate, but you know it once you press play and begin to listen. Travis came to the table organically, as a fan of the song, and wanted to join. We knew immediately that it would make sense creatively and would only add to the prominence of the track. Travis is a preeminent curator himself, so the vote of confidence was welcomed. His involvement gave listeners a different take on a song that they had already embraced.
Similarly, and maybe less obvious, was Marshmello, who also was a fan of the song and asked if he could do a remix. Once we heard how he re-imagined the track, we were excited to have him join us. His version has definitely given the track wings in the dance space and helped to take it further with additional streaming in that world. All of this cross-pollination has helped the track ascend the Billboard Hot 100.
So far, music from African artists has mostly broken through singles in the U.S. How do you plan to keep Tyla’s momentum going through to releasing a full album?
We will continue to build on Tyla’s momentum by keeping African culture at the center of what we do musically and creatively overall. There is a sonic consistency that listeners will hear across this first project and we expect this to go over well with the new fan base that she has developed. There is already a nearly completely sold-out tour scheduled in both Europe and the U.S. Also, her new track, “Truth Or Dare,” is showing early signs of greatness as we build daily and sits in the top five of both the U.S. and U.K. Afrobeats charts.
The song also earned a Grammy nomination in the first-ever best African music performance category. What do you see as the future of African music in the U.S. moving forward, both from a musical perspective and an industry perspective?
The sky is the limit for African music in the U.S., as I foresee continued cross-pollination to move it forward. It has proven its potential to top charts in urban, pop, and even in the dance space. It simply cannot be ignored and the Recording Academy has made an intelligent and timely decision. I could not be more excited for the future. Everyone wants a piece of the action.