Toya Delazy on charting a new path

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Toya Delazy is making her way back with a new sound and is more adamant than ever to make bold and colorful statements to the world about who she is. Welcome Lishivha talks to her about her latest beats, coming out and overcoming adversity.

Born Latoya Buthelezi and a princess to the Zulu royal Buthelezi family, Toya Delazy grew up being the tomboy who was ever protesting against wearing dresses and insisted on playing with boys. Coming from what one expects to be a heavily traditional family, Toya says that her family had to accept her different ways from an early age, before they could even attribute the behaviour to her sexuality.

“When I was 18, I had to tell my grandad that I really hated dresses and that was the first time I was allowed to go to church wearing pants and everyone just got over it,” she tells #Trending. By “grandad” she means Inkatha Freedom Party founder and chief of the Buthelezi clan, Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

When she tells me, “my grandad is actually really woke,” a thought crosses my mind – Suthu Delazy possibly featuring on her next album? She says that in her process of coming to terms with her sexuality and identity, she asked him if queer people ever existed freely in our society.

“He would tell me stories about a place where men who were gay would hang out called Enyameni. They all stayed there and no one was hurt and abused. From that, I started learning that being queer is not new in African cultures as we have often been told. What is new, however, is the discrimination that now comes with it,” she says.

Although her music often sounds upbeat and cheerful, Toya admits that her journey about coming to terms with her sexuality began in the making of her first album, Due Drop. It was when she left the KwaZulu-Natal countryside and headed to Durban that she first encountered herself as an independent adult with city lights all around her.

“With my head held high I’ll buck alone if it breaks my body or breaks my bone,” she sings in one of her earliest and most popular songs, Pump It On.

Her first album resulted in her winning three SA Music Awards, including newcomer of the year in 2013. Toya also took home producer of the year and pop album of the year – and went on to release her second and last album with record label Sony, Due Drop Deluxe.

Her third album, Ascension, came out when she felt she had truly come into her own. “I realised that I needed to accept every part of myself,” she says. Ascension for her was the breakthrough album where she had broken the mould of feeling like she had to appease the world.

She had grown up and wanted to move from making pop music into an era of making music that was meaningful and spoke of her coming of age as an artist. The songs on Ascension include As You Are, Cheeky and Forbidden Fruit where she sings about what sounds like a potential lover. “... her walk shows she’s the queen / She’s got fire in her being / Now we got fire in our veins.”

Earlier this month she released her new single, Funani, along with a colourful, queer and futuristic music video that was shot in Tembisa and directed by Kyle Lewis. She admits that she doesn’t know what the next album will be titled yet but says that her move to the UK has been an extension of her quest for freedom as a queer artist.

When I ask what her pronouns are, she says: “Her, she, I think. I am still thinking it through, you know.” She goes on to say: “Non-binary and queer people are constantly dehumanised and robbed of expression. When you treat people like that, you are killing them. You are perpetuating mental illness and robbing people of their experience of being here on earth.”

She says she is now a lot more comfortable in her own skin and sexuality and feels no shame about who she is.

“I am someone who has accepted being queer, I am okay with being who I am.

“I will stand up for it and will talk about it. It’s not something to be ashamed of.”

Going independent and finding her voice

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After having several arguments with Sony about the direction of her art, she decided it was time to go independent, which was when she founded Delazy Entertainment.

The experience with the record label, coupled with the fact that she was growing and needed to make what she calls meaningful music, pushed her to go her own way. She didn’t want to be “Toya for pop’s sake”, she says. She wanted to talk about things that reflected her growth and to sing freely about same-sex love without having to feel censored or side-eyed by her colleagues.

“I was making this art that wasn’t being released or was being pushed back by the labels. So I decided that it was time for me to go my own way.”

Beyond the artistic limitations she found herself in, Toya says going independent has allowed her the kind of financial freedom she didn’t know when she was in a 360-deal with Sony – which she says is one of the worst deals you can get as a musician. “

They own your music, your image, your gig earnings. You are a slave to the record label and they pretty much own you. You can’t release without their permission, you can’t interact with who you want. You can’t take your art in your own direction because you are their property,” she says.

Getting out of the record label deal, she felt like she had more control over her art regarding what she wanted to say, how she wanted to say it and with whom she wanted to work. She coined her new sound Afro-rave. The beats pulsing throughout Funani draw from the elements of garage and dubstep, popularly known as British beats that are often laced with raps in English. In Funani, Toya raps in Zulu over beats traditionally known to be British.

“It felt good to be able to add Zulu to this beat because I felt a lot more in my element,” she says.

I was making this art that wasn’t being released or was being pushed back by the labels. So I decided that it was time for me to go my own way.

For the music video, Lewis made the most of the colourful and otherworldly masks and props by hand. I ask her about the possible irony of working with a white man to tell her story given that she recently released an article in the UK’s Independent titled History books are written from a white perspective. As a queer black woman, I had to educate myself. She notes that she’s worked with Lewis on Forbidden Fruit and My City before.

“He understands me and respects me and what I stand for,” she says. As a queer man living in South Africa himself, Lewis says that as a white director and film maker, it’s been important for him to listen, step back and truly learn. Making a music video that celebrates Africa’s vibrant, bold and beautiful queer community is something he takes pride in.

“There is a sense of joy and purpose in these visuals that pushes visibility overall. As a filmmaker, I am humbled and proud to be able to express myself with respect and mutual understanding,” says Lewis.

Herein lies the beauty in Toya having left Sony.

She gets to enjoy the power of collaborations by working with artists, such as Lewis and others who share her values and aesthetic without having to jump through hoops for permission.

“What this also represents for me is that you can be whoever you want to be in your sound, you can take influences from various cultures and bring them into your work because we are global beings.”


Overcoming loss and pain

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Don’t be fooled by the colourful aesthetic, the often upbeat electro sound and the fact that she pretty much grew up a princess; Toya has had her fair share of loss and pain. In matric she lost her single mother in a car accident. Her absent father died in 2017.

“When you lose the people that brought you into the world, it is so easy to not know who you are and feel so alone in the world,” she says. The closest people in her life have been her grandparents and last year she lost her grandmother, Princess Irene Audrey Thandekile Buthelezi, which she says was the toughest thing she’s had to go through.

Her grandmother had dementia and initially, Toya says, she didn’t understand that she was losing her. Last year in August she went home to spend time and reconnect with her because she had missed her. She came back again on New Year’s Day to see and celebrate the new year with her. “It felt like she didn’t see who I was. Here was someone whom I knew loved me unconditionally, yet she was unable to identify and remember me. My world fell apart.”

The four walls of my life crumbled and it was time for me to find out who I was on my own.

It was in April this year when she received a call while in the UK from her grandfather telling her about the death of her grandmother. She was at the gym when she received the call and says she wanted to immediately pack her bags and go home, but couldn’t because she was booked for shows.

Cancelling the shows proved to be tricky, given that she was in the early phases of establishing herself in a new market that was hard to penetrate, especially as a foreign national. She was mourning while also fearing going home to be with her family because of the possibility of taking up the no-show reputation.

“I had to dedicate the show to her and decided to go home afterwards. The four walls of my life crumbled and it was time for me to find out who I was on my own.” The loss of her grandmother is why she went for sometime without writing or making music.

“I felt so isolated and alienated.” What was the turning point when you decided to get up and start making music again, I ask. “When I felt that I had truly identified my pain. When I realised that I knew what it felt like to be let down, disappointed and shown flames by life. I knew how it felt to be silenced. All these experiences made me know who I was. And I got to a point where I could talk about this and that’s when I realised that I had something to express. That was when I decided to invest my cash in doing my own thing.”

Finding confidence in history

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Toya admits that although her family had taught her about the erased history of black people, it wasn’t until she recently went to the British Museum and saw ancient African artefacts that were proof of African civilisations before colonialism. “This made me realise that all the things they had been telling about us, bathi we are a bunch of savages running around, is nonsense. We have always been a people of civilisations.

It was from this experience that I became even more confident in myself as a black person. Seeing all these artefacts that my people made so many years ago and learning about them, I realised that we are more than what history says we are.

The stories my grandparents told me when I was younger started falling into place. I started learning about women warriors who were erased from our culture. I am still learning and with all this knowledge I keep getting prouder and prouder to be black. This knowledge has made it easier to accept and celebrate myself more, and the realisation that I deserve to be here is constantly cemented.”

She says the killing of women and foreign nationals we see is a result of people lacking history about themselves. “People don’t understand what we can do when we stand together. We built civilizations when we stood together, but I guess people are lost and impoverished.”


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