I don’t see a racial divide – Toya Delazy
Ever since she released her debut album in 2012, South Africans have hardly been able to turn on a TV or radio without hearing singer and songwriter Toya Delazy’s signature complex beats pour through the speakers.
Born in Zululand, Toya went to a Catholic boarding school at the age of six.
Her album, Due Drop is an energetic gem, sprinkled with influences from Toya’s jazz and classical background. Her voice, which often sounds like its own electronic instrument, makes the album more layered than the average pop offering and helped shoot all three single releases to the top of the charts.
In university, she studied jazz piano and started uploading tracks to MySpace before Sony Music Africa noticed her and signed a contract with her in 2011.
Local audiences eat up her sound: upbeat pop peppered with a mix of genres from jazz and electro to hip hop.
She sings a lot about love and overcoming obstacles, and she makes music videos to match the sounds’ vitality.
Each one is more creative than the last, and each is strongly executed and met with acclaim by South Africa’s music industry elite.
But Toya is not too keen on labelling her music. “I don’t try to fit my music in to a box,” she says. “I want to bring the world to my music, not format it for a specific group.”
It is a process that seems to be working. Fans flock to her shows to feed off of her energetic performances, where she is backed up by vocalists and hip-hop dancers.
She scooped up the awards for newcomer of the year and best pop album at the 2013 South African Music Awards.
But it is not just her tunes that her fans love. They have also responded to her loud, tomboyish style.
I really felt like I was holding up the flag for South Africa
Articles on how to ‘get her look’ have featured in local editions of Rolling Stone and Seventeen.
In 2012, she walked away with the title of ‘Most Stylish Performing Artist’ at the SA Style Awards.
In a local music scene that can seem devoid of strong, young women, Toya stands out.
It is not just at home, either. In 2013, she was nominated as the best international artist for Africa at the Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards in Los Angeles – a major nod to the South African musician.
“The BET Awards were incredible. I was rubbing shoulders with music’s elite, and I got to see and speak to the ones who are doing it right. I met Miguel and he said he liked my jacket,” she laughs.
“I really felt like I was holding up the flag for South Africa. And it was nice to get a foot into the States. Hopefully, one day, I’ll find someone to work with there.”
She says that she was also struck by the feeling of personal freedom she had in the States.
“In South Africa, traditions run deep. Everyone’s trying to hold onto something, and we live within those boundaries. But Americans are free. People can express themselves through various forms – like fashion or music – and the judgement is not as heavy. There’s a point when people need to live. You can’t always apply the same rules to everyone.”
Girl who had a dream
Toya is following in the footsteps of other South African stars who have made a name for themselves in the United States, like recording artists Die Antwoord and comedian Trevor Noah.
She is now working on her second album. “I’ve grown a lot since I wrote the first album in 2011. I’ve been connecting with myself, connecting with the girl who had a dream and started searching for answers,” she says.
“Now, to look around and see how far I’ve come just makes me want to take the story further. I’ve learned so much, so I have lots to talk about.”
Toya has turned to local artists for help. She recently held auditions to find mu- sicians and dancers to tour with her and form part of her ever-expanding team.
It was an opportunity that she wanted to offer to local acts, but it was also a sound business decision.
“In the beginning, you start working with a team that is already close to you, but they soon become friends. Then you realise this is a business, and by then the lines have blurred. One way to clear that up was to find new talent and build a new team,” she says.
“Luckily, I can afford to have a new band now!”
Thousands of hopefuls jumped on stage. “I was super impressed that there are so many people doing music out there. I don’t know where they’re all hiding,” she laughs.
“They come from all walks of life, which is good. I’m colourblind: the more diverse the better for me. I ended up with an amazing, dynamic team including a backing vocalist, a drummer, a pianist and dancers.
“I even worked with a choreographer who worked on the opening ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Now, each one of my team members differs in style, making for a dynamic show that’s still intimate.
“I had to employ people to take us to the next level, and I’m so glad I did it.”
Despite firmly planting herself in her musician’s shoes, Toya cannot escape her political heritage.
Her grandfather is Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. But even with a grandfather who was so active during the struggle against apartheid, Toya, at 24 years old, identifies more closely with the new generation.
“I would be classified as a ‘born free’ [children born close to and after the end of apartheid]. My mom went through it all, but I went to school with people of all races.
“The struggle didn’t really affect me in that way. I was told all the stories and they affected my family, but I only had a bit of teasing in high school because of where I was from.”
Women who strive
Toya is also aware of how hard women, in particular, have had to fight for a place in South Africa.
“Women have been the butt of the social joke for years,” she says, which is why she wants to inspire young girls to follow in her dream-catching footsteps.
“Whether you’re a coloured girl or not, a rural girl or not, you need to know what you can do. I use my platform to inspire girls to work for what they believe in.
“I don’t see a lot of that where I’m from. Girls are more likely to get a sugar daddy, and I’ve seen it destroy them. I have friends who never even made it out of university.”
Toya credits the successful women in her life – including her great-grand- mother, Princess Magogo, a renowned classical Zulu composer – with teaching her to strive for more.
“I’ve been raised by great women. My mom was a single parent. I know that women need to reclaim their power, to talk about their opinions. Right now, women feel defeated. They need to see someone who is going the extra mile, to encourage them to do the same. I hope to be that person.”
Inalocal music scene that can sometimes seem devoid of strong, young women, Toya certainly stands out.
During her trip around the country looking for new talent, Toya says she was struck by problems that South Africans still face today, most notably the lack of quality education.
“I can’t think of any- thing more important than education that needs to be fixed right now,” she says.
“It’s the root of all our problems, and people simply aren’t paying attention to it. I’m talking about looking at everything, from simple education – like brushing your teeth – to the curriculum we’re teaching in schools.”
She believes the racial divides that exist in South Africa are mostly due to a lack of knowledge and a blind dedication to outdated ideas by the older generation.
“I don’t see a racial divide. I see an education divide. If I get into a huff with someone, it’s not based on colour. It’s about not understanding each other.
“The other day I was skateboarding and a car pulled up behind me and started revving its engine. I shouted at him to stop, and he called me the k-word [kaffir]. I didn’t know how to react. I’ve never been called that before. But he was an older man.
“The people I surround myself with are not about race. It doesn’t come to mind. There are so many other things for us to concentrate on, like the kids with ADD [attention deficit disorder] in class who aren’t getting noticed.
“We need to ensure that kids are prepared. We should be waiting for a political party that’s going to pay attention to that,” she says.
Toya’s political views mirror those of many other born frees. As South Africa goes to the polls this year, her outspokenness is timely.
For generations, voting for the African National Congress seemed like a no-brainer – after all, it was instrumental in ending apartheid. But young people are unlikely to have the same nostalgic feelings about the party as their parents.
“We, the born frees, are afraid. We don’t have a loyalty to any party. We’re just looking for answers. It makes young people feel uneasy.
“I don’t see the current party getting many votes from the youth, unless they’re loyal to the past for some reason. Right now, it’s watch and wait,” she says.
She also argues that it could be time for young people to start forming their own parties.
Art with a message
She is also outspoken on social issues, like same-sex marriage.
“Love is love. Whether he’s got one leg or different colour skin, it doesn’t matter,” she says firmly. “One can’t tell people they’re not allowed to be together. It’s hard enough to find someone anyway!” But, she says: “We are growing. There are bigger things to cope with. And bigger things that I can use my fame for.”
One thing is for sure: Toya is not planning to push political agendas. But she does want to use her music to bring people together.
“When people see me, I don’t want them to see a colour or a sexuality. I want them to see a musician. I’m using my art to send a message of unity, that we are all one. I want awareness. That’s the message I’d like my music to bring.” ●