South Africa’s Tyla triumphs at the Grammys as Amapiano topples Afrobeats: Bobby Ghosh

In the vast tapestry of African music, Amapiano emerges triumphant on the global stage, breaking free from the overshadowing grasp of Afrobeats. While Afrobeats dominates the Grammy spotlight, the coveted “Best African Music Performance” award recently crowned Tyla, a 22-year-old South African sensation, for her Amapiano hit, “Water.” As Amapiano gains international acclaim, Tyla’s success signals a potential shift in global musical appreciation for the diverse and rich sounds of Africa, beyond the familiar realms of Afrobeats.

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By Bobby Ghosh

Africans often complain, rightly, that the size of their continent is greatly underestimated by most of the rest of the world. You wouldn’t know this from the Mercator projection that most of us think of as the map of the world, but Africa is larger than the combined landmass of China, the US, India, Eastern Europe, most of Western Europe and a few other countries. 

The international perception of the continent’s popular music is likewise distorted: To much of the global audience, it’s all about Afrobeats. The genre was created in the 1970s from the synthesis of funk, jazz, blues and traditional Nigerian music by the great Fela Kuti. In recent years, Spotify has introduced it to new legions of fans all over the world by showcasing artists like Burna Boy and Davido.

But, as any African music lover can  tell you, the continent has a great deal more to offer than just Afrobeats. From Moroccan Gnawa and Congolese Soukous to Senegalese and Gambian Mbalax and Zimbabwean Chimurenga, African popular music draws from scores, even hundreds of forms and styles. 

None of these were represented in the contest for the first-ever Grammy for “Best African Music Performance,” which was awarded in Los Angeles on Sunday. Since the Grammys reflect commercial success more than artistic merit, it was inevitable that the category would be dominated by Afrobeats stars.  

But it wasn’t Burna Boy or Davido who took the new gong home. It went, instead, to Tyla, the South African singer and songwriter who scored a massive worldwide hit late last year with Water. The singer was, understandably, giddy with delight. “I never thought I’d say, ‘I won a Grammy’ at 22 years old,” she said in her acceptance speech.  

Tyla’s success is an affirmation of the variety of African pop. Although she is often misrepresented in the US as an Afrobeats artist, hers is a South African dance music form known as Amapiano. New Musical Express describes it as a fusion “of African melodies, jazz, piano melodies and deep house music.” 

Amapiano, which means “the pianos” in the Zulu language, is thought to have emerged from the South African underground music scene in the early 2010s. A decade later, it was challenging the dominance of Afrobeats on the continent. It even found a strong following in Nigeria, the birthplace of Afrobeats. A pair of Nigerian artists, Asake and Olamide, were also nominated for the “Best African Music Performance” Grammy for a song entitled “Amapiano.”

But it is Tyla who has emerged as the face of the genre for non-African audiences.  Months after it was first released,  Water —  thanks to its popularity on TikTok — was listed on Billboard’s US Afrobeats Songs chart, the only chart for popular African music, where it is still No. 1. But it quickly broke out of the category to become a bona fide mainstream hit: It  peaked at No. 7 in the Billboard Hot 100 in mid-January, and may well get another boost in the chart from Tyla’s Grammy award.

The award will undoubtedly bring more attention to Amapiano. In an interview with NME last year, Tyla spoke of her delight at the fact that the form was finding audiences beyond South Africa. “We’ve been partying with it by ourselves, but now other people are enjoying it, and I’m loving that,” she said. “I love that people are seeing a different side of Africa. People are seeing it for what it is, and the artistry and creativity that we have.”

With any luck, Tyla’s success will draw global attention (and Western impresarios) to other African forms, too. The good news is that, like the continent itself, there’s a great deal to choose from.

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