Afro-alternative Zulu princess, Toya Delazy has worked her way up from performing to empty bars in Durban, through her signing with Sony, collabs with some of the country’s best including Cassper Nyovest and Shane Lee Cooper, to multiple runs at the SAMAs and on to the BET Awards in just a few short years.

Right now she is currently spreading the JEHP (Jazz Electro-Hop Pop) gospel while touring the UK, with a short break to return to the continent for Malawi’s Lake of Stars Festival alongside heavyweights Young Fathers and Mokoomba. I spoke to her during her European tour.

So give us the grit on your travels across Europe! Word is you’ve met Larry Graham and just played your first gig in Camden…

It’s been surreal… this level of liberation is all I have ever wanted to experience. Coming from South Africa, we’re still working towards such a life. I feel free in so many ways; I don’t have to explain myself or explain my voice. Musically I just am. I am taking the time to mould myself into the musician I have always dreamed of being, delving deeper into my pianist roots and writing more music. Since Camden, I feel like travelling to the UK was just the push I needed in terms of getting my music out there. I’ve just played at RichMix and then on September 25, it’s Malawi for Lake of Stars.

Toya Delazy playing at RichMix
Toya playing at RichMix.

Meeting Larry Graham was like a musical baptism for me; he’s a man who once played at Woodstock, an originator of the renowned soul train vibe. To watch him do his thing after all these years and enjoy the goodness that comes from heartfelt instrumental funk made me realise the direction I want to head in with my music now.

I’m slowly seducing the London crowd and the London Jazz Cafe is a dream come true for me. The likes of Amy Winehouse played there and of course Larry Graham as well.

How does the UK compare to South Africa’s music scene?

It’s difficult to explain, I have been here for two months. I’m still building the puzzle. It mostly depends on the city you’re in. I feel like London’s scene is amazing and you can find all sorts of genres to enjoy; there is something for everyone whereas in South Africa people usually just go to what they know. It’s not as experimental.

I am focusing a lot on myself and writing new music, rediscovering my voice and where I am in my life at the moment… being in London has definitely inspired new music in me. Wait a little while and you’ll get to hear what it sounds like!

What with the emergence of gqom and digital maskandi artists, how do you see contemprary Zulu culture moving through the music scene going forward?

It could be quite a thing, the beats have a vibe that is recognisable all over the world yet the language is different, so just as Die Antwoord has has made it possible singing in Afrikaans it’s also possible for the same to happen with Gqom and Digital Maskandi. It’s all about integration of these genres and their stories. They speak to a global culture which any audience can identify with.

Toya at RichMix.

What sparked your ‘new beginning’, and can you tell us what it’s been like growing into who you’ve wanted to become whilst in the limelight?

When I realised that I was trying to be Toya Delazy because of all the narratives that have been associated with me rather than just being Toya Delazy, I realised that for the longest time I was a victim of my own success. All people wanted to hear was Love is in the Air and Pump It On. For years I had to sing the same songs. I am a composer and a pianist and not being able to express this side of myself had me frozen in one moment in time.

I realised that it was time for a shift. I wasn’t living and I wasn’t fulfilled. I was getting on stage and saying some words rather than telling a story I cared for. I believe that I can take full advantage of the space I am in now and tell another story.

When I got signed I was the artist who played the piano and had a beat boxer. This was where I was the most free. I could take the music wherever I pleased and show my skills as a pianist and singer. In my fame, I performed to a backtrack and didn’t have the freedom to show people what I can really do. The act became old for me, yet since it was lucrative the show needed to go on.

I decided to take a jump and start again and if I am lucky the vibe will catch on but this time it will be my vibe. When you look at my musical influences Radiohead, Tracy Chapman, Nirvana, Regina Spektor, Kate Nash, Amy Winehouse, Adele, I wonder how on earth I ended up not playing a real instrument on stage and having the entire show based around me and my piano. That is what I call the realest music.

Toya playing at RichMix
Toya playing at RichMix

What’s the next big thing on your list for things to accomplish?

Putting my show together. I met my guitarist and bassist here in London. Luckily they live in east London as well so we rehearse regularly. Lee Thomson plays trumpet in the band and it’s super cool as there’s at least one guy in our group who knows and loves my JEHP style. Let’s see where this leads, I want to reintroduce myself…

Five tracks Toya’s digging at the moment

1. Dr Dre’s Animals (feat. Anderson Paak)

This is a modern day struggle song. I love the way Anderson delivers the message. He clearly cares about the community and aims to change the oppressive mentality where all black people are just seen as dangerous.

2. Vic Mensa’s U MAD (feat. Kanye West)

This is my turn-up jam!!! No cares kinda attitude, going ham, balls to the wall vibes. Probably gonna need to take an Uber back home after this one. 😀

3. Gorgon City’s Here For You (feat. Laura Welsh) – the Bearcubs Remix

I’m totally into this sort of music at the moment and this remix makes me feel so good. Simple, to the point instrumental – love it!

4. ZHU’s Faded

When you’re faded in the club and you’re trying to find your girlfriend (lol), this is the song…

5. D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s Betray My Heart

I love jazz and D’Angelo nailed this song. The running bass drives the song till the end and the message makes me feel like everything is going to be dope! I listen to this when I jog… or whenever really.

Toya will be back in Cape Town on September 27.

Photography by Roozbeh Tavakoli