The Meaning Behind “Water” by Tyla and the Social Media Dance Craze that Made It a Hit

Tyla’s “Water” is the first single from her self-titled debut album, and like many Gen Z stars the South African singer found a global audience on TikTok.

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She’s since become the highest-charting African female solo artist after “Water” reached the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10. And in February, Tyla won a Grammy Award for Best African Music Performance.

Tyla Laura Seethal is a born performer who grew up dancing and singing for her family. However, her parents encouraged her to prioritize her education and preferred music to remain a hobby. So, she studied mining engineering, but shortly after beginning, she left school to pursue music full-time.

“Water” combines Tyla’s essential elements: her African roots in amapiano-pop, dance, and moving R&B vocals. It’s become her defining song and turned a long-shot dream of becoming a pop star from South Africa into a global reality.

Water” Is “Frisky

Tyla told Rolling Stone “Water” is a “frisky” song. She said, “It’s me letting a guy know, ‘Show me what you got to offer. I’m done with all the talk.’ Men will just talk and talk and talk.”

Inspired by Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat,” Tyla used innuendo instead of direct language. She created a water metaphor for sex, delivering it over a bubbly groove rooted in her home country.

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
Can you blow my mind?
Set off my whole body, whole body

She recorded “Water” in Cape Town, South Africa, and entered the studio wanting to create a “summer banger.” She said, “As soon as I heard ‘Water,’ I said, ‘It’s over. We have the song.’”

After hearing the track, Tyla was confident about its commercial potential. She added, “I would describe ‘Water’ as the song of the year … it’s the sound of Africa. It’s not only for Africa, but it’s for the world—It’s literally me [bringing] Africa to the world.”

Make me sweat, make me hotter
Make me lose my breath, make me water

African House Music

Tyla wrote “Water” with a team of writers, including Tricky Stewart, who collaborated with Beyoncé on her No. 1 hit “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).”

British producer and DJ Sammy SoSo produced the song and combined amapiano and pop music. Amapiano loosely translates to “the pianos” and combines South African house music and jazz. Though its roots are disputed, it can be traced to a Johannesburg subgenre called Kwaito, which blended house beats and hip-hop in the 1990s.

“Water” is the pop version of amapiano, which Tyla calls “popiano.”

SoSo built a slower house beat under jazzy textures, synths, and a percussive bassline for Tyla. She sings through audible Auto-Tune, creating a cosmic sound as if she’s underwater. Meanwhile, Travis Scott remixed “Water” with a new verse and an alternative music video featuring the two artists standing on opposite sides of foggy glass.  

Bacardi Dance Challenge

During the pandemic, Tyla performed dance routines on TikTok and quickly attracted an audience of more than 700,000 followers.

She said the “Water” dance came naturally to her, and like many in her generation, she grew up comfortable with social media. Tyla and her choreographer Lee-ché Janecke created a version of the Bacardi dance for her TikTok video, and last year, the South African dance became an internet sensation, with Bacardi dance challenges amassing millions of views.

Bacardi involves belly dancing, twerking, and complex legwork set to amapiano music. Tyla found inspiration after Janecke used the dance for another song.

A “Hot and Steamy” Music Video

The music video for “Water” follows Tyla out with her friends at a beach party. The racy clip also features Tyla with a romantic partner and her famous TikTok dance, complete with a water bottle.

She told Essence, “I really wanted to create a video that felt organic. I wanted something that felt hot and steamy.”

Her Story

Streaming music and social media have shrunk the world. Typically, global pop music with world sounds was recorded by Western artists mining other cultures for inspiration. Artists like David Byrne, Sting, Madonna, and Paul Simon looked around the world for new sounds or sounds new to them. Vampire Weekend famously looked to West Africa for their version of indie rock. Now, world-infused music is populated with artists originating from these places.

Tyla explained the importance of home to Complex, “I come with the story. I come from a very small place, a little city in South Africa all the way at the bottom of Africa, the tip. And literally, I was just a girl with a dream.”

Still, she didn’t know if her dream was possible. Though pop stardom didn’t seem like a realistic goal, Tyla made it her reality. She said, “We need an African pop star, and hopefully, I’m that one.”

But Tyla isn’t content with being an African pop star. Like her heroes Rihanna, Michael Jackson, and Drake, Tyla wants to be global. Like “Water,” she’s everywhere.

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Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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