An edited version of this story appeared in City Press.
When I meet Toya Delazy on her way to LA – at a coffee shop in NYC – 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, there’s no doubt she pulls it off. Not that anyone in seen-it-all New York takes a second look. “I love it,” she 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. After a quick run-through of necessary tourist spots for first-timers: the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, and a pop-in to a couple of vintage clothing shops, Delazy’s off to LA, more specifically the BET Awards, where she and singer Donald are to represent South Africa in the Best International Artist (Africa) category at Sunday’s ceremony. “It makes me realize this stuff’s actually serious,” she says, of the nomination. “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 the 23-year-old says she’s been doing a lot of growing up since she first spun into the music orbit. For one, she says she’s starting to look towards the next step – 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”, so to speak – 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, thanks to singles like Pump It On and Love is in the Air, off her debut album Due Drop. 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. Now, she’s hoping that while here in the US, she might be able to meet a few of the right people to come back and make a go of an international career. Accompanying her on this trip is her partner, Ali, who works for a French travel company.
This visit to LA takes on more significance for Delazy than just experiencing America for the first time. It’s also the first time Delazy is travelling to the place her late mother, who was killed in car crash, spent her varsity days. The accident was a catalyst for this part of Delazy’s life’s journey. “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 a silver medal for South Africa in discus. “But I lost the love for it all after my mom died,” she says. “You fall out of love for the things you used to love.”
Music has helped her recover from the heartbreak she says she felt. When she attends the ceremony tonight, she’ll be wearing an outfit made from material of 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!” she smiles.
It’s her mother that Delazy credits for the singer’s eclectic, stand-out-from-the-crowd style. “My mom was such a free spirit – especially because of all the time she spent in LA (which was all of 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 out of 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 she 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 also based on the idea 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?” she asks. “I’m sharing self-empowerment; a different angle to see.” While she’s completely turned off by the idea of ever following in her politician grandfather’s footsteps, Delazy says she could see herself perhaps one day using her influence for social good.
“I’ve been talking about it with my mates,” she says. “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,” she says, proudly, as a fleet of yellow cabs passes outside.
There’s an empowered, wonderful energy running through 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 another story is top of the headlines too: Madiba. The singer hopes the awards maybe might bring some light-relief to the country. “Whether it’s Donald or me who takes it” she says, “South Africa could do with a smile right now. Everyone’s tense at the moment.” And with that, Delazy and her onesie blend off into the streets of NYC.
The BET Awards take place on Sunday.