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DJ TIRA

After 20 Years In Music, DJ Tira Is Still Taking His Time

The veteran South African DJ sat down with VIBE to talk about the changing landscape of DJing, the everlasting power of gqom, and the process of reintroducing himself and South Africa to the world.

DJ Tira is running late. The early afternoon chill in Midtown Manhattan didn’t stop him from lingering outside for a few extra minutes. He opted for the train instead of a cab. There was no traffic; he just opted for an impromptu iPhone photo shoot in Times Square.

He stops to take a few more photos. This time, inside the building, with the view of the city behind him. He strikes a serious pose before his suave stance disrupted by a smile and a laugh. His eyes are wide and his smile is wider; there’s an excitement on his countenance that feels permanent.

It’s the end of 2019 and he’s a world away from South Africa, his home country, but New York is warming up to him; he performed in Brooklyn at his sold-out show, and stopped by Beats 1 Radio with Ebro Darden to play a mix showcasing some of South Africa's finest talent. He captioned a clip, “Time is Now South Africa! Asibangene!” which, in his native language, Zulu, means “let’s go in.”

 

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Its time to make dollars

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The veteran DJ, record producer, and label owner is enjoying a 20-year anniversary in the music business, but feels he still has a long way to go. Despite his pioneer status, he finds himself at the threshold of a début, coming off the heels of his latest album release, Ikhenani. This is his first studio album in which he produced every track. After a long tenure in the industry, a collection of compilation projects, collaborative songs, features, and mixes, he finds himself in need of a reintroduction.

Born Mthokosizi Khathi in KwaHlabisa, KwaZulu-Natal, he moved to Durban in 1995 to study Human Resources. Instead, the move gave birth to another career entirely– music. Tira’s future was clear when he started djing at friends’ parties and campus events. He quickly became known on the local circuit, but his popularity was cemented in 1999 when he won the Smirnoff Club DJ competition. He’d win again the following year, and a prize trip to Ibiza secured his opportunity to go global early.

Together with DJ Sox he formed Durban’s Finest, the duo that would go on to change the face of Durban nightlife. Their performance formula was different; instead of simply playing at events, they would host them as well. Partygoers would fly in from Jo’burg, Cape Town and other cities and the duo’s high-end lifestyle would take off among young professionals in Durban and across South Africa.

Tira has found ways to maintain relevance through consistency and expansion. He forayed a DJ career into a full-scope entertainment career. He founded independent record label Afrotainment, where he’d introduce artists such as Big Nuz, DJ C'ndo, DJ Fisherman and Dladla Mshunqisi. He became a brand ambassador, aligning with brands like Distell, Rocka Headphones and Axe. He became a businessman, going on to own the Urban Zulu ‪Cigar Lounge‬ on the coveted Florida Road strip in Durban which he ended up selling to refocus on what got him going in the beginning: events. He became invested in promoting Durban as something of an entertainment hub for South Africa, and as a result, he has been a KwaZulu-Natal tourism ambassador, a symbol for his hometown.

He’s been a part of a slew of songs that mark the soundtrack of South African popular music’s booming success, like the 2018 “That’s For Me” with Vanessa Mdee featuring Distruction Boyz, “Pakisha” with Distruction Boyz and Dladla Mshunqisi, and the 2017 crossover tune “Midnight Starring” by DJ Maphorisa, featuring DJ Tira, Busiswa & Moonchild Sanelly.

His album’s single “Thank You Mr DJ” is doing well in South Africa, but now he’s vying for an American remix or feature. “I’m gonna try all genres, all styles,” he says.

“People do know me, but you just have to find that one special song that's gonna open all the doors,” he says. “I'm making my presence felt.”

The artist is already planning his next album, 21 Years of DJ Tira, in celebration of his storied career in the entertainment industry. But for him, tenure doesn’t translate to comfort; Tira is more interested in a challenge.

It took Tira two years to craft Ikhenani. At 43, Tira is less concerned with being left behind, and more invested in joining the wave as music across the country, and the world, evolves.

On Ikhenani, he bundles a bevy of genres that you would never expect to find in an album by one artist— there’s afrohouse, amapiano, hip-hop, maskandi, gospel, and gqom. Though Tira has been at the forefront of South Africa's house scene for some time. The album sounds predominantly gqom, but moreso, Tira’s interpretation of gqom— he expands it, adding more jazzed up vocals and subtle experimentation. “I try to move with the times, be aware of what’s happening in my community,” he told Apple Music in an album liner interview.

Gqom has already gone global, but DJ Tira was one of its prominent supporters of the sound from the townships of Durban, South Africa that swept the world.

Distruction Boyz are credited with helping push gqom to popularity. Tira even makes a cameo in the music video for their hit “Omunye,” showing his role in advocating for the collision and collaboration of the older generation with the new.

As an elder statesman in South Africa’s music scene, he’s already gained legendary status back home. Now, he’s aiming to become a member of the collective of artists bringing gqom and South African dance music into more American listeners.

Gqom itself means “bang” or “drum” – pronounced with a Zulu tongue click at the beginning and a hushed “om” end. The gqom sound is undeniable and inescapable. Its stripped-down rhythms fuse the traditional with the modern; Zulu chants atop high-octane, looming, broken beats and sinister synths. It’s repetitive and hallowed, not empty but full of the unknown in an entrancing way.

Before gqom, there was kwaito— the sound that sprung from Johannesburg, South Africa in the late 1980s. It’s a distinctive variant of house music, hip-hop, dancehall, and South African sounds. Kwaito is an Isicamtho term from SA’s Gauteng townships that originated from the Afrikaans word kwaai, which is slang for hot. The word from the language of the oppressors was reclaimed and redefined by black youth, and kwaito became instrumental in leading post-Apartheid township subculture into South Africa’s mainstream.

During apartheid, musicians faced significant censorship and blockades; black artists were denied access to stages and employment in the arts, while artists critical of apartheid were threatened and reprimanded by the government. South African artists were stunted.

There was a generation of South Africans who pulled from that place of disenfranchisement and plight pre and post-apartheid and created something new to claim. The South African teens of the early 2010’s who extracted a new artform from another period of plight to create gqom did more of the same. This is where the elder statesman forges a connection; that feeling. Genres would emerge that helped mold the musical history of South Africa post-apartheid. Kwaito was one of them. Gqom continued in that legacy.

During the genre’s rise, artists would give their latest tracks to taxi drivers as a means of promotion. It became the literal sound of the South African streets. But gqom wasn’t widely accepted at first; it was too raw.

“Originally gqom wasn't the sound that you [could] play on radio,” Tira says. “It’s a sound that originates [from] what you would call the projects— made by the youngsters. They’ve got messed up equipment, they’re staying at the back of the bedroom at their house, but they make the sound that is so strange, that is wretched, that is hard, that is dark, but with the vocals, it comes alive.

Its origins resembled the reaction to hip-hop before it blew. City clubs didn’t welcome the poor youth-driven musical movement. Producers refused to mix and master gqom beats and radio didn’t play it out of fear that it’d burn their speakers. Though known primarily as a kwaito artist, as gqom gained popularity, Tira welcomed, embraced, and amplified it.

“We need to commercialize this,” he thought. To do so, he says, international collaboration is key.

While on the search for gqom collaborators, Pharrell was introduced to Black Coffee, the most popular South African DJ and producer. The Durban DJ with a jazz background is known for making and mixing house music and modern dance beats with more classical inflections. He took his signature “Afropolitian” style mainstream, becoming one of the world’s most recognized international DJs.

But Black Coffee doesn’t make gqom, so he turned to Tira for his Midas touch. In a video of that studio session posted to Coffee’s Instagram, Coffee mentions Tira’s involvement with the collaboration. It was DJ Tira who orchestrated the could-be-crossover hit that has yet to be released.

 

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Conversations with King @Pharrell

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Tira lifts his phone and plays the cut of an infectious unreleased song with Pharrell rapping over a gqom beat.

“When Pharell was in South Africa for Global Citizen [festival], he heard this sound. Because this sound is exclusive in South Africa. He heard this sound like, ‘Aye, what’s this sound?!’ He was speaking to Black Coffee. This is not Black Coffee’s style. So Black Coffee’s like, ‘Okay, who am I gonna call? Who that I know represents the sound?’ So he calls me.

‘Gimme a beat. I’m with Pharrell and he’s going crazy. He wants to do something.’ I send him a beat. Then, same day, jump in the studio, Pharrell lays the vocals.

“The fact that an artist like Pharrell went crazy on gqom and actually recorded on gqom, that means there's something special about the sound. If Sho Madjozi is well-received like this, with the ‘John Cena’ song, that means there’s something there with the sound but it’s just a matter of how do we present it and how do we push it? How do we make it bigger and how do we get more of the US market coming to the shows, not just Africa?”

To Tira, connecting and growing his audience online is a pivotal step in that direction; embracing social media now more than ever. He boasts 1.4 million followers on Facebook and 1.4 million on Twitter. On Instagram, his following sits at 1.5 million, just behind DJ Black Coffee who tops him on with an extra million followers.

Tira handles all of his accounts and enjoys it. He uses Twitter and Instagram often — unlike many artists that reach a certain caliber — helming his accounts without a handler, using the platforms as a means to communicate directly with his fans and to help them. He gives away something that people on the continent across generations and genres and townships need.

“You know what I do on Twitter?” he laughs, his wide eyes fixated on his phone screen. “I buy airtime.”

In South Africa, most people don't have phone contracts and data can be expensive.

So, Tira usually buys 2000 rands worth of airtime, divides it up, and redistributes it to people in need. “I say, ‘at three o’ clock, I’m handing out airtime for free.’ I post the airtime sticker with the numbers. Whoever punches the numbers quickly on the phone to enter the airtime gets the airtime. I call it umalume airtime,” he laughs. Umalume is Zulu for ‘uncle’ and umalume airtime has become the hashtag of his makeshift contest, and the hashtag ends up trending almost every time. Brands would see this as an effective social media marketing campaign that organically grows a following while keeping them engaged. Fans may see it as philanthropy. Tira himself just sees it as one of the pleasant parts of social media: connecting.

“Twitter’s crazy. I'm not too dramatic... I’ve got a friend called AKA,” he laughs, referring to the South African rapper who stirred controversy on Twitter last September over a debate on South African xenophobia towards Nigerians.

His thoughts on the situation: “It worked for him.”

With the advent of social media, Tira has seen the roles of DJs change dramatically for South Africa in ways that resemble how the landscape has changed in America.

“I'm from the school of vinyls,” he says. When he learned how to DJ and when he won his first competition back in 1999, he worked with vinyls. But as things changed, he began working with Serato, laptops, and other more modern forms.

“It just became too much,” he says. Now, he sticks to two USBs. He prefers a Pioneer [CDJ] 2000 CD Player or 1000, just “nothing less than 850.” The bigger the number, the better, but Tira is a bit unconventional. “I hate the 2000— the biggest one with the mixer.”

“I think the most important thing is the right equipment,” he says. But adhering to the traditional skill-set required for using vinyl, he finds unnecessary.

“In South Africa, we no longer use vinyl,” he says. In recent years, South Africa experienced a vinyl revival, but as interest grew, factors like price became a deterrent for many collectors. There’s a lack of record pressing plants in Africa.

For DJs, it’s about access. “If you’ve got vinyl, that means you’re playing old music, classics,” Tira says. “New music is digital.”

The rise of the celebrity DJ and influencer DJs has sparked criticism for usurped opportunities and displacement of DJs by craft, and a larger conversation on the disruption and oversaturation of the market. Tira sees this happening in South Africa as well.

The industry has changed drastically since Tira first entered it. "It’s more about the likes. It’s not really about the music or the craft or the technique,” he says. “It’s more about how good you look in a flyer or how good you look when you’re up here. You need to represent. You need to come through and entertain. I think you get more props and you get more respect when you really [work].”

“There’s a lot of [people] that think, ‘press a button and be a DJ,’” he says.

As far as figures who come from different backgrounds and who bank more on a following and an image to jumpstart their DJ career and less on skills and talent, Tira says he hasn’t seen many DJs of that ilk grow to take the craft seriously. Tira acknowledges and amplifies the artists putting in the work.

“There's a female DJ that I know called DJ Zinhle, and she's from the school of vinyl as well.”

Zinhle rose to become one of the most prominent female DJs in South Africa and went on to counter the country’s male-dominated industry by launching FUSE DJing academy, empowering women and girls to pursue the craft. Her program birthed the careers of newer female DJ's like the popular Ms Cosmo.

But Tira notes how space in South Africa’s entertainment industry is still being given to those who don’t value DJing, and those who don’t fit the mold are gaining more access to insert themselves into it.

“What’s happening in South Africa is we're seeing a lot of beauty queens switching up to DJs because they've got a really dope following— when you want numbers and you want a person who’s gonna advertise for you, I guess people gotta do what they gotta do to get paid… It's their hustle and we shouldn't hate on them. We should just keep on doing our thing. It’s survival of the fittest.”

With new eyes and ears on African art and music, engaging US audiences has become a goal for acts across the continent. But much of the attention is aimed at Nigerian and Ghanian artists in particular.

“I think they've worked hard to make their presence felt in the US. They've managed to find the right sound— which is afrobeats —and it’s been well-received.”

South Africa, on the other hand, has been tasked with the double-duty of standing out and fitting in.

But Tira doesn’t feel pressure; he feels a responsibility. He tries to keep his ears to the streets and clubs of South Africa while trying to break into the US. He understands how his home market and audience demands are changing and how that differs from what the US audience is catching up to. It’s become something of a crossover balancing act.

“South Africa has got a lot of potential,” he says, "but it's been very hard to crack into the US market. There are people that are managing to find their foot here in the US— Black Coffee, Nasty Cl, and you see Sho Madjozi making her presence felt in the US,” he says on the popular gqom artist. “Funny enough, she’s coming in with a sound that is currently less appreciated at home because there’s a new genre— amapiano is actually dominating South Africa right now.”

Amapiano is a genre generated from Gauteng, South Africa around 2016. It blends elements of electronic dance music, low-tempo 90's South African house rhythms, jazz, kwaito basslines, and signature high pitched piano melodies. “But I’m a full-time member of gqom,” Tira affirms. “I still believe that gqom has a longer lifespan.”

But in order for gqom to retain and grow its appeal, he believes South African artists must continue reinventing it. “The bigger goal is to export our music and make it accepted here, which will open the world to us,” he says. “We are on our way. It’s just a matter of time.”

While he values new, international audiences, he never wants to neglect his home base. “I want to be remembered as a DJ from South Africa who managed to open doors for more South African artists to be heard in the US,” he says. “I represent South Africa.”

He rises from his seat and stares through the floor to ceiling window at a bustling Times Square.

“Moving to the US isn’t part of the plan right now,” he says grinning and gazing up. “I don’t wanna aim too high,” sunlight beams back at him, “not that I’m scared of heights.”

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I enter the doors of the popular music venue a little after 6 pm and see J Stone on stage for soundcheck. Twenty minutes later, he greets me with a hug and we head downstairs to the green room. He asks me if I want anything to drink and I reply, “Vodka with a splash of cranberry, please.” He kindly comes back with drinks in hand and our interview begins.

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Afro Nation

Women Of Afro Nation On Evolving Dancehall and Afro-Pop Connections

Last summer, thousands of music lovers of African descent gathered on the sands of Portimao, Portugal, waved their beloved countries’ flags and witnessed performances from the best in afro-pop, reggae, and hip-hop at Afro Nation, the premier traveling beach festival unifying music of the African diaspora. This was a euphoric scene for acts who had never performed for a large Black festival crowd, Afro Nation co-founder and U.K. music industry veteran Obi Asika tells VIBE. Nigerian promoter Adesegun Adeosun Jr., aka SMADE, and business partner Asika saw a need for a space to celebrate African music in Europe and created a globetrotting festival as the answer. Most of the featured acts have been from Nigeria, where the music industry is rapidly growing, the U.K., and Jamaica. As the festival evolves, Afro Nation will feature more artists of African descent from Europe, Central Africa, Latin America, and more.

“I want this event to be reflective of all African people,” Afro Nation co-founder and U.K. music industry veteran Obi Asika tells VIBE. “I also want it to pay homage to the countries that the events are in,” he adds. Afro Nation is expanding to reach fans of the diaspora in more regions. In December 2019, the festival was held in Accra, Ghana. In March, Afro Nation was scheduled for San Juan, Puerto Rico, but was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The four-day line-up would have featured 30 artists representing afro-pop, dancehall, soca, and hip-hop. Afro Nation still has festivals scheduled in Portimao, Portugal, in July, and Baja California, Mexico, in September. There are plans for at least one more location in the future, Osika says.

Afro Nation’s platform thus far reflects a global moment in which musicians across the African diaspora are blending sounds in new ways that are changing popular music. Connections between Afro-pop and Jamaican dancehall are especially evolving according to artists on Afro Nation’s line-ups, such as Jamaican dancehall artist Shenseesa, South African rapper Sho Madjozi, and Nigerian pop artist Teni the Entertainer. “Afro Nation is major for the continent, the culture, and the commonality that we share no matter how far we have all drifted into different parts of the world,” Teni, who performed at previous Afro Nation events, wrote in an email.

For Women’s History Month, VIBE spoke to the three sensations about their latest music, why Afro Nation is a game-changing platform, the evolving musical connections between Jamaican and African artists, and their women inspirations in music.

SHENSEEA

Shenseea, a versatile singjay, deejay, rapper, and singer, grew up in Jamaica’s capital city Kingston. The 23-year-old broke out as dancehall’s most promising star in 2016 with the flirty “Loodi” featuring Vybez Kartel. Since then, she has released a steady stream of energetic records, showering each riddim with conviction and lyrics of self-reliance that speak to women and girls like “Shen Yeng Anthem,” “Trending Gyal” and “Blessed.” Shenseea is inspired by fellow Jamaican dancehall artist Spice, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna, who she calls “a complete boss.”

Thus far, Shenseea has collaborated with dancehall veterans like Sean Paul, and internationally with Trinidadian soca star Nailah Blackman and American rappers Swae Lee and Tyga. American hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall artists are common cross-cultural link-ups. But now Shenseea says there are more musical connections between popular Jamaican dancehall artists and African-based artists too. “I feel like it has been going on, but more so between the reggae artists,” she says. “Now it's evolving more between dancehall artists and African artists.”

Here is a quick history. Popular music in the Americas, including Jamaica’s biggest musical export reggae, is rooted in West African music. Reggae has several influences including Jamaican folk music mento and American R&B, and its predecessors ska and rocksteady. During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, enslaved West Africans brought their rhythms to Jamaica and subsequent generations reimagined the sounds that circled back to Africa. Late reggae legend Bob Marley, a Pan-Africanist, and The Wailers toured the continent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this era, artists like Ivorian musician Alpha Blondy created a marriage of their traditional sounds and stories of home with the socially-conscious riddims birthing African reggae.

As technology digitized music production, dancehall music evolved out of reggae and dub music and  defined a younger generation in Jamaica. It would also inspire African artists, too. In the 2000s and 2010s, dancehall influenced “Afro-dancehall” artists Shatta Wale and AK Songstress of Ghana, and Patoranking and Wizkid of Nigeria. Ghanaian hiplife’s soft synths and dancehall’s percussion are said to have influenced the popular Nigerian sound “pon pon,” in 2017, according to OkayAfrica. DaVido’s inescapable “If,” is the most commercially successful “pon pon” track. Mr Eazi’s “Banku” style also borrows from Nigerian and Ghanaian pop and dancehall. With this has come more collaborations across the genres. Like Jamaican dancehall hitmaker Popcaan enlisting DaVido for “Dun Rich” in 2018, and Burna Boy collaborating with Serani and Jeremih on “Secret” in 2019.

The marriage between these sounds is impacting how Black fans experience music worldwide, which is especially pushed by second and third generations of people who migrated from Africa and the Caribbean to the Americas and Europe. In major cities, you’ll find Afro-Caribbean parties, where DJs play music across the diaspora. Afro Nation takes it to the next level by bringing these artists together on a bill.

The innovation of this sound is a diaspora-wide project. In the mid-to-late 2010s, UK, British artists J Hus and Afro B popularized the fusion of Afro-pop, dancehall, American and British hip-hop, and R&B music, in new genres known as “afro bashment” or “afroswing.” In 2019, Jamaican-American DJ Walshy Fire’s 2019 Abeng brought together afro-pop, with soca, and dancehall artists. Shenseea has some diaspora link-ups on the horizon. She already worked with Shatta Wale, the African dancehall king, on “The Way I Move” in 2018. Recently, she recorded an unreleased track with Mr Eazi and is in talks to work with Patoranking and Davido, she tells Vibe.

TENI THE ENTERTAINER

Teni is also tuned into these evolving connections between the Caribbean and Africa. “You can hear it in the drums and melodies,” the 27-year-old singer and songwriter says. “We love to have fun and dance and that extends into our music.” In 2019, the New York Times dubbed Teni a member of the new guard of Nigerian musicians. In October, she released her Billionaire EP which showcases her afrobeat fusion. The title was inspired by her time in Los Angeles. "I saw all these great cars and I just imagined a world where we can all afford things we like no matter the price," she says. On the Pheelz-produced afrobeat, she croons her wealthy ambitions. On the earnest “Complain” she singraps over JaySynths' afroswing beat.

Teni’s entertainment career began with her comedic viral videos. Her breakout hit was the 2017 “Fargin,” which spoke out about the harms of rape culture. Teni admires African music legends Brenda Fassi, Angelique Kidjo, and Mariam Makeba. Them "using the power of their music to influence governments and shape economies is beyond incredible,” she says.

In the future, Teni wants to experiment with more Caribbean artists. “I have gotten into the studio with Kranium and I'd like to still do a lot [more] with him,” she said of the Jamaican singjay who fuses dancehall and R&B. “I'd love to do something with Koffee. Her music is amazing,” she added.

SHO MADJOZI

Koffee, a Jamaican reggae artist who won over the world with “Toast” last year, and is the first woman to win a Grammy for best reggae album, is on South African rapper Sho Madjozi’s wishlist too. For generations, South African artists like Lucky Dube and NC Dread have embraced reggae and dancehall. The 27-year-old wants to contribute to this tradition by recording with Koffee and rising reggae singer Lila Ike. "The song would be about the fact that our joy does not come from having no problems,” she wrote via email. “It comes despite going through tough things.” Bringing her pain to the studio has proven to be viable for Madjozi.

On her biggest hit, the viral “John Cena,” named after her favorite WWE wrestler, she raps over a hard-hitting gqom beat, the popular South African electronic dance music, about heartbreak. On her 2018 debut album Limpopo Champions League, which is dedicated to the northern province she hails from in South Africa, you can hear more of her sonic influences which include the high-energy gqom on "Wakanda Forever," trap on “Wa Penga Na?” and R&B samples on “Going Down.”

Although Sho Madjozi and fellow artists are fusing the diaspora sounds in their music, she sees the Afro Nation platform as a necessary space for people of African descent to share these cultures in person. In these moments, “we notice how strong we really are" and "how powerful this gift of culture is,” she says. Hip-hop queen Lauryn Hill is her icon and inspired her to stand firm in her truth. Madjozi’s realness shapes her assertive lyrics and her vibrant style. She performs in “xibelani” skirts to pay homage to her Tsonga heritage, a group of people native to Mozambique and South Africa. She adorns her hair with her signature colorful Fulani braids. “My whole statement is to be free,” she says. “I hope it shows Black girls everywhere to not be shy or small. This world is ours as much as anyone else’s.”

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Karol G On The Magic Of "Tusa," Working With Nicki Minaj And New Album

Karol G's devoted intentions have kept her ahead of the history books.

As Women's History Month comes to a close, the reggaeton titan solidified her position just weeks prior on Internation Women's Day as Spotify included her in their list of the Top 10 Most-Streamed Female Artists. Others included were Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande in addition to iconic women of color like Nicki Minaj. But Karol's presence on the list proves just how she's been able to bridge the gap between Latin and pop music as the only woman on the list who primarily performs in Spanish.

It's something Karol, born Carolina Giraldo Navarro, has done since coming up in the male-dominated reggaeton scene. While plenty of her hits over the years have earned a coveted spot in the hearts of millions, it was her recent recording with Nicki Minaj that reminded everyone of her power.

"I grew up listening to her and we were sitting at the table across from each other," Karol says of "Tusa" and its insanely popular video that has 669 million views and counting on YouTube. "That was an iconic moment for me."

The song's title is Colombian slang for heartache after a breakup. On the regal reggaeton bop, Karol has Minaj rapping in Spanish as they promise to one another to eliminate those feels on the dance floor. The Tusa-terminators made history in late 2019 with the release as the song is the first collaboration by women to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart.

On the all-genre Hot 100 chart, "Tusa" impressively peaked at No. 42. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, self-quarantines in Panama were recently singing the song together from their balconies.

¿Cómo lleva el #ToqueDeQueda Panamá? Pues que más que con @karolg y #Tusa #COVIDー19 #PTY #QuedateEnCasa pic.twitter.com/jSNsEeaoUW

— errol (@erscr) March 23, 2020

For Karol, success like this has been over a decade in the making since signing her first contract in 2006 under her G stage name. At that time, reggaeton music was reigning over the globe thanks to Puerto Rican rapper Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina" setting the movement ablaze in 2004.

The música urbana genre was very much a man's world with a few women who were able to rise to the level of Yankee like Ivy Queen, someone Karol cites as an influence. "With the urbano music I wanted to do, there were not a lot of women," she says. "I love urbano rhythms. They've always fascinated me."

In the early steps of her career, Karol took advantage of the art of collaboration with Nicky Jam on 2013's "Amour de Dos," Ozuna on "Hello" in 2016 and a budding rapper by the name of Bad Bunny on 2017's "Ahora Me Llama." Her method was mindful and direct as she gained new fans in every pocket of reggaeton's wide-ranging cloth.

"They had a big audience and following," she says. "The way I got my opportunity as an artist and was able to be heard more was, in part, thanks to them." Later that year, Karol's debut album Unstoppable landed at No. 2 on the Top Latin Albums chart.

As she became the feature queen in her own right, Karol dropped "Mi Cama" in 2018 which led to her winning the gramophone for Best New Artist at the Latin Grammy Awards that year. "I love to sing in reggaeton, but it's not the only thing I do," she says about her diverse palette. The spirited 2019 release of Ocean showcased the vastness of her artistry with urbano, reggae, and pop influences.

With "Tusa" previewing her third album, VIBE VIVA spoke with Karol about her musical journey so far and what's coming next.

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VIBE: On physical copies of Unstoppable, there's the #GirlPower stamp. What inspired you to include it? 

Karol G: I have that tattooed on one of my arms as well because for me, it was a frustration that people in the media were telling me, "You're a woman. You don't have anything to do here. You can't enter here." There are women that can achieve things around the world. That's where my motivation comes from: to show that we, and myself as a woman, can do it. That was important for me to put on the album to show my support for this movement.

"Mi Cama" became one of your biggest hits without a featured artist. What's the story behind that song?

I loved that song because it has the attitude that I feel right now. It's a song about a woman talking to her ex-boyfriend who left her for someone else. It has the attitude to keep going, to keep dancing, or perrear (a twerk-like dance associated with reggaeton). In Mexico, I was in a press conference and a female reporter said, "I don't respect how you as a woman are singing about your bed making noise. You have to think about the children." I said, "This isn't music for children." It's a song that's exaggerated. I'm not swearing on it. I always tell that story at my shows and people love it.

How did you feel to win the Latin Grammy for Best New Artist?

That's one of the top five moments in my career. I dreamed of that moment since I was a little girl. When I was nominated, that was huge. I didn't think I was going to win. When I won, my mind went blank. I took my dad on stage with me because he's been supporting me since the beginning. After winning the grammy, my mindset has been what else I can do in my career that's even bigger.

You have recorded a lot of music with your fiancé Puerto Rican rapper Anuel AA. How do you like working with him?

We're a super team. We complement each other well. We understand each other well because we've enjoyed many great moments together. We've gotten to travel together. We did a tour together. It's a beautiful thing. We keep each other focused and motivated with our feet on the ground.

What do you think about the reaction and all the memes around "Tusa"?

I felt in my heart the song would be successful, but I never thought that it would be a global hit. It opened doors for me in markets where I've never had songs hit before. It's charting in countries that don't speak Spanish like France, Italy, and Sweden. Seeing all the memes from the people has been muy brutal (Puerto Rican slang for "beyond awesome"). It's been incredible to see so many men connecting with it. To see all the people dancing and singing to it has been a surprise. I hope my next single will be like that, but for now, it's nice to enjoy what's happening with "Tusa."

Speaking of men, many gay men been bumping "Tusa" too. I was wondering if you had a message for your fans in the LGBTQ+ community.

I love having part of my following from that community. I love people who can go out into the world and be fearless. I'm very proud of that because the world really lacks people like that: people with personality, attitude, and a strong will. That's something I admire very much from that community. They have a beautiful energy.

What are your plans for the rest of this year?

I'm happy because I'm working on a lot of music. I've gotten great invitations to work on projects with other artists. Right now I'm collaborating with artists in the Latin and Anglo markets. There are songs that are coming out very soon. It's a year for expanding and globalizing my name. We have a tour in Latin America and one in Europe again. We're going to end the second semester of the tour in the US with the release of my next album.

What do you see for the future of women in reggaeton music?

There's things I hope to evolve a little more, but I feel like we knocked over the door. That we've come through and people are hearing us. People are coming to our concerts. Artists are inviting us to their shows. We're here. I try to stick up for myself more as a human being. We're all talented in our own ways. I feel like women are demonstrating that. It's an era where women are taking chances and going for bigger things.

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