Cover Story: Welcome to Toya Delazy's Afrorave

Now based in London, South African artist Toya Delazy channels her Zulu heritage with contemporary club sounds into a powerful mix of rhythmic gold. Here, Yewande Adeniran learns how her new album, Afrorave, is simultaneously the past, present and future.

18 min
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Aug 24, 2021
Yewande Adeniran

Beginning her musical journey in Zululand, South Africa, Toya Delazy explains how her ancestry underpins her music. “Being Zulu, we are very musical, we sing for every occasion.” When listening to her sing, there is a particular intimacy and energy that grips you. “One thing that is very powerful in our culture is the drums — isigubu.” Afrorave — Toya’s latest album — embodies this throughout. There isn’t a single track where the drums don’t force you to move, to release what you’re holding onto and just let go. Explaining further, she delves into the importance of indlamu — a traditional Zulu dance from Southern Africa. “Everything starts with the drums,” Toya says. “The drums speak to our ancestors, to us, to our emotions.”

Toya Delazy’s birthplace holds significant weight for her. It’s an ancestral land where the drum itself is a communication tool — a language that is used to connect to our ancestors, but in day-to-day life, is used for initiations into adulthood. “When young people come of age they are bestowed with gifts, music is a huge part of this,” Toya explains. “This is where I fell in love with indlamu. People would dance in front of the King and for any celebration. The dust would be flying and everyone would be caught in this moment.”

Fast forward to the present day and the influence of modern club music can be heard in Afrorave. It’s an afrofuturist project through and through, a relinquishing of the old into a mirage of traditional, familiar and contemporary electronic sounds. As a multiracial individual, Toya Delazy’s musical expression captures her whole being. She recounts the genres that she was exposed to. “Growing up and learning about the English sides of things, I came across drum & bass, rock, leftfield bass — when I listened to these genres I connected to the bass and the drops.” Then of course like many of us, how this translates into the club and dance floors can be a spiritual experience. “The first time I was at a rave, I remember thinking this reminds me so much of the freedom I felt at home with the isigubu.”

“For the Afrorave journey, this is one of the things that led me to connect my culture to rave music. Seeing what the drums, the freedom of basslines and drops can do for a person.” Toya Delazy’s lineage is clear throughout. Dance music, since its conception, has been a source of sonic liberation for Black people across various diasporas. The drum itself — once banned for most African slaves upon their arrival in the Americas — contains hundreds of years of oppression. This emphasis on connection in contrast to the individualist nature of the West is echoed throughout Afrorave.

Listen to Toyu Delazy’s ‘Afrorave’ album on Beatport.

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Although our heritage is from different parts of Africa, we discuss the different words in Yoruba and Zulu for drums, ceremonies, and collectively coming together. What is powerful in this moment is realising we are describing the exact same milestones of life in our different cultures.

“We thought we were different people, but there are things that bring us back, and we are finally realising this,” Toya says. Moving from South Africa to England gave Delazy an opportunity to relinquish control and find out who she really is. “I wanted to speak about deeper things. I grew up in a very conservative place. Big institutions, religion, [and] politics [were] governing who I need to be.”

Delazy is now openly queer, and her forthright honesty in her sexuality is inspiring — but not without consequences. “Leaving home was a way of liberation. As a queer person, my life was in danger. If I stayed there, I think I would be gone today.” Even as a top 40 artist, she always questions why she’s making music and who for. After her arrival in the U.K., she continued exploring her heritage, with spirituality taking centre stage.

“After I lost my [grandmother], I went through the dark soul. But it was history that brought me back. I found empowerment in different African cultures and learned about my ancestors. That’s missing in the UK.” The erasure of Black people in British history is not a new conversation, but the question of how it relates to dance music is still ongoing. “The drums are spiritual. If we are telling people they’re vibrating at a low frequency, then they will. If you tell people they have no history, they will believe that and start from a low point.”

We’re at a point worldwide where various African and Caribbean diasporas are still healing and unlearning the trauma of colonialism and slavery. As dark as that ongoing chapter of human history is, Delazy believes in taking pride in who she is and where she’s come from. Her lyrics speak to a future where liberation isn’t fought for, but simply exists. “I want to share stories. I thought, maybe this is my gift? To share with my community. I speak English but I’m not an English person.”

Delazy’s lyrics flow between Zulu and English, allowing non-native speakers of either language to connect with her words — and, of course, the drums. “Rave was the closest thing I could experience that captures indlamu.” As we become an increasingly globalised world, the benefits we have such as being able to hear Delazy’s music, the downside is that local dialects in the global south are being erased in favour of colonial languages. “People are shamed or ashamed of who they are because they can’t speak their language.” Delazy says. “I hold onto it to reclaim parts of me.”

“I often felt you couldn’t be traditional and still be modern,” she continues. ”It was either/or — success is Western or [you aren’t successful at all]. Afrorave gave me the platform to describe stories, visions, and issues in the Black community, such as depression, that we don’t often talk about.”

The aftermath of Apartied is a topic that particularly hits home for Toya Delazy. “They should have summoned everyone, psychiatrists, doctors, everyone. But what we had was music. My music may not be in a language they understand, but once they translate the lyrics, they can see how it can also speak to their experience.”

The lyricism, honesty, beauty and resistance you hear is the result of generations of powerful women in Toya Delazy’s family. “My great-grandmother, Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu, was the first indigenous composer in South Africa. She would hit on the drum and tell stories.” She continues by giving homage and thanks to her defiant lineage, saying, “The role of praise-singing was reserved for men. It’s because of her I believe in myself and push against the grain, while preserving as much of our culture as possible.”

Check out Toya Delazy’s Beatport DJ chart.
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As a pianist, poet, artist and dancer, Delazy’s music captures her multidimensional artistry. She credits working with a multitude of producers — from Joe Anaminous to Raf Riley — in giving her the space to explore different genres and stick to what she knows is true. “I never thought I would be able to speak in my own language and still be understood. It’s becoming a really beautiful journey for progress, not only for me but for those wanting to still perform in their indigenous languages,” she says. Even though the producers on her album “don’t speak a shred of Zulu,” she says, “they feel. You can’t hide real energy, and when the mood is right. It’s all about that vibration you can’t see.” The mood on Afrorave was clearly right throughout. “Qhawe” has subtle footwork inflections that morph into drum & bass, “Mango Love is an emotional fusion of club and grime, and the album’s spooky closer “Guquka” touches upon UK funky.

Hidden in the Zulu language are many facts about the world, and Delazy explains the similarities between words. “Isikhathi is time and umkhathi is space. They’re basically telling us, time and space is one thing. Einstein might have said this but our culture told us first.” Delving into this further, Toya Delazy speaks on the magic of language. “In Zulu, we have a lot of clicks in our language. This is inherited from the Khoi Khoi. They’ve been erased, but anyone who has been in touch with them have the clicks — it’s vocabulary.”

As she sounds out the clicks to me over our call, the slight differences in each further highlights the nuances found in Afrorave. For instance, how certain words pause and glide over the instrumentals is as significant as the word and sound itself. As an Afrofuturist project, Afrorave deals with the future by empowering us to look at the past that’s been silenced, giving it a new life to speak to us now.

When the pandemic started at the beginning of 2020, Toya Delazy didn’t envision her sound would take the form it did, and learning to adapt and forge new connections with people across the globe was vital in keeping the momentum throughout lockdown. “I worked with a huge team to create Afrorave, including Mxshi Mo, Ahadadream and Sam Interface. It’s been a really inspiring time. Creating a genre and having their input.” The majority of the album’s songs were recorded remotely during a time where there was great emphasis globally on isolation, and there is great excitement in Delazy’s voice as she explains the joy that has come out of what has been a dark period for us all. “Covid is all about being alone and secluded, but instead it’s brought us together.”

Within the last decade or so, South African electronic music genres have broken into the worldwide mainstream. From national radio stations to underground party basements, it’s impossible to not have heard South Africa’s influence from gqom, Amapiano, or omopiano, which is a combination of amapiano and afrobeats. “No matter where we are in the world, music is going to shine through, we are finally connecting with others and it’s been a beautiful time.”

Speaking candidly about the club, Delazy explains her love for rave as a form of spirituality. “What is it about rave? It’s the intensity. When the Zulu slam their feet on the ground, it’s like God is beneath. Compared to the English, we believe it’s below and above, not above and below.” It’s not only music at this point, it’s prayer. For those of us who use music to heal, the sound of drums becomes a necessity and refuge away from the confines of capitalist modernism.

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Delazy’s plans for the future are clear: to empower the next generation of queer musicians in Africa to be themselves and to carve out their own spaces in the music industry, whether it’s back home in South Africa and elsewhere in the diaspora. “The African voices have been stifled. People that speak to something else [outside of the Top 40] are ignored. There is no vocal diversity in South Africa. When one thing is popular, everyone follows.” These are hard topics, and even when Delazy discusses why certain demographics have been excluded and prevented from creating art, her voice never waivers. Indeed, her enthusiasm for a better world is motivating and inspiring.

“My whole life, I never felt [like I was] enough. I felt I had to be a little bit white to be accepted,” Delazy says. Realizing assimilation isn’t possible — even if it feels necessary — is a difficult life lesson for People of the Global Majority. But the freedom you begin to experience is unmatched. “Our ancestors took the shackles off their ankles and now we [must do the same] for the mind.”

As we continue to push forward for racial equality and against anti-Blackness in a hyper-digital and hyper-consumerist world, coming of age as a Black person has never been so fraught with tensions. “There is so much more to us. This is why education is so important. When you deny us our history, you deny us,” Delazy says. This is why Afrorave speaks to future generations. “I felt like I was being buried, but now it’s time for us to resurrect. This is my dream,” she says. Empowering herself, those around her and the youth is the key to rebuilding a connected future.

The response to Afrorave has been big, and global. “I feel alive now,” she says. Afrorave as a whole is a space and time where we release all our emotions by dancing to the beat, singing along to the lyrics, echoing the early days of dance music, when the club was a crucial space for the self expression of the marginalised. And Delazy wants us to let go — it’s not slow jam time anymore. “There’s pent-up energy and it’s time to rave it out.”

In a world that doesn’t seem to understand her existence, letting go is everything to Delazy. “It’s all or nothing right now,” she says. But this doesn’t hinder her from looking into the future. “I want to see us also playing in the pinnacle, playing in the billboards, being allowed to also exist. Every nation has had its time.”

As for her hopes for the diaspora, Delazy says, “I would love to see the world connect with the energy. Africa has so much to give. It’s not just a poor place but a poorly managed place, we know why: The Berlin Conference and slavery. But I hope a lot more people come through and collaborate with each other.”

Yewande Adeniran is a freelance journalist living in the UK. Follow her on Twitter.

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