Toya Delazy is setting the US on fire

2013-06-30 14:01

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Musician from Mahlabatini is up for a BET award.

When I meet Toya Delazy at a coffee shop in New York, she’s wearing a onesie.

An adult-sized, blue-coloured Angry Birds-themed onesie with a cap to match. And her favourite pair of shoes, leopard-print high tops.

Of course, with her trademark spunk and confidence, she pulls it off – not that anyone in seen-it-all New York takes a second look.

“I love it,” the 23-year-old singer says. “It’s so liberal here. People are free. They’re not judging you. It’s so cool. I could stay here.”

But she’s not in the US to stay in the Big Apple.

Our coffee date is part of a quick visit en route to Los Angeles, where she and another South African singer, dance star Donald, are nominated in the Best International Artist (Africa) category at tonight’s BET Awards.

“It makes me realise this stuff’s actually serious,” she says, of the nomination by the Black Entertainment Television network.

“Music’s never been a joke to me, but when you’re starting out learning jazz and making pop music, me, from Mahlabatini of all places, you never know how it’s going to work out.”

Delazy may appear tomboy tough, but says she’s been doing a lot of growing up since she first spun into the music orbit.

For one, she’s starting to look towards what she calls “the second phase of Toya Delazy”.

The mix of jazz, electro, hip-hop and pop she’s become known for – the first phase, if you like – will still be part of her future, she says.

Delazy’s story and her rise from self-made busker to award-winning, major label-endorsed musician is well documented here at home.

Her heritage, both musical and political, is well known too.

But Delazy’s always wanted to show she’s more than the great-grandchild of Princess Constance Magogo Sibilile Mantithi Ngangezinye kaDinuzulu, revered custodian of Zulu culture, and more too than the grandchild of the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

This trip to the US – her first – is a chance to meet the kind of people who might help her launch an international career.

But there’s something far deeper and more personal at play too.

It’s the first time Delazy is travelling to the place where her late mother, who was killed in a car crash five years ago, spent her university days.

Accompanying her on this trip is her partner, Ali, who works for a French travel company.

Her mother’s death was a catalyst for this aspect of Delazy’s life.

“I wasn’t always into music,” she says. “I always thought I was going to be an athlete.”

She played hockey for KwaZulu-Natal, was a runner and won provincial awards for discus. “But I lost my love for it all after my mum died,” she says.

“You fall out of love with the things you used to love.”

Music has helped her heal.

When she attends the ceremony tonight, she’ll be wearing an outfit made from material from her mother’s clothes.

“My friend Moonchild sews, so I told her what to do and how I’d like it. It’s going to be special. I’m going to represent!”

It’s her mother who Delazy credits for her eclectic sartorial style. “My mum was such a free spirit – especially because of all the time she spent in LA (her varsity life).

Her style was so fresh. She started me off at a young age, and showed me how to make it work.

“I wasn’t always cool,” she admits, peering through her glasses, glancing down at the Angry Bird on her chest.

“Sometimes I’d look nasty. But knowing I could do it and no one was judging me, that my mum was okay with it, helped me find my own style.”

Some of Delazy’s favourite things to wear are her late mother’s.

“Her jewellery, mostly,” she says. “Sometimes I lose it, and when I do, I realise, ‘Hey, that phase is probably over now’. I don’t want to hold on to things too much. But I like wearing her stuff.”

Part of Delazy’s approach to style is that she doesn’t believe in being different just for the sake of it.

“Anyone can be different now,” she says.

“I want to know, what do you have to share, to give? I’m sharing self-empowerment; a different angle.”

While she’s completely turned off by the idea of following in her politician grandfather’s footsteps, Delazy says she could see herself one day using her influence for social good.

“I’ve been talking about it with my mates. When the time gets there, I think I could influence people. As much as you jump up and down, there is something (inspiring) to take away from my music. I mean, hey, I’m from Mahlabatini and here I am chilling at Starbucks in New York City – wearing a onesie.”

There’s a wonderful energy in the city today.

Two landmark decisions have just been made in the move towards greater equality for same-sex partners in the US.

“You can’t take away love from someone,” she says, reflecting on the rulings.

“It’s so rare to find someone that you actually care about. So I feel like if somebody’s found that and then the whole world is against them, saying no, it’s tough.”

Delazy says she’s found the kind of love she’s talking about.

“I’m happy. It’s a special feeling. And it’s hard to find love again after losing someone you really care about. You never think it’s going to happen again. You’re scared, ‘What if I lose them?’”

But then her face becomes animated and she explains how she “prayed” for the beautiful kind of love she’s talking about.

“I said, ‘God, I can’t get famous and have no one. Do you want me to skank around?’” she chuckles.

The next day she met Ali at a nightclub in Joburg and they’ve been together for about two years.

Gay rights are the day’s big issue in the US, but at home, there’s only one thing on people’s minds: Madiba.

Delazy is hoping for a South African win at the BET Awards, since we could all do with some light relief.

“Whether it’s Donald or me who takes it, South Africa could do with a smile right now.

“Everyone’s tense at the moment.”

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