A TEST date on the second of June against the Welsh peeved many a Springbok supporter the very minute SA Rugby made such an announcement. It precedes a massive series against the English on home soil a mere seven days later and a kick-off in Washington DC means that scores of fans will long be in La-La Land come its onset. But while the one-off spectacle will undoubtedly fatten up local rugby’s coffers, there is an additional sliver of feel-good to come from it: it’ll provide the spotlight for one of SA’s most gifted voices to shine.
The name Lyla Illing may not resonate with many people in South Africa as yet, but big things are to come from the Hluhluwe-born songstress. Her tale is somewhat of a rags-to-riches epic, one where a stubborn political and economic upbringing so nearly curtailed her road to success, but a little dogged resolve will undoubtedly see this young woman from a rural Afrikaans household accomplish greatness without the typical stilted attitude a few artists adopt.
“I grew up in an Afrikaans household and spoke Zulu better than English!” Lyla says of her childhood. “I never felt like I fit in; it was extremely difficult growing up in a community who had a hard time adjusting to democracy when apartheid ended. As a kid, you see everyone as equal – sadly the elders in my family did not.”
Nevertheless, Lyla was able to shape her own perception despite the oft-inflexible positions of those around her; various iterations of our national anthems were a particular contentious topic. “I remember my mom being extremely upset when Die Stem was changed to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika – but I remember my sense of pride when the new anthem was sung during rugby matches. Somehow I always managed to make up my own mind about my views and how I chose to see the world.”
Lyla was very close to her mother, though, and it was through her that a burgeoning musical talent blossomed, although she sadly succumbed to breast cancer when Lyla was 10. “My mom was a choir director and pianist at the school I attended. I started singing because she did. I remember singing to her in the car on the way to school in the mornings – we couldn’t afford a car radio but I didn’t realise we were ‘down and out’ because she always made everything seem fun.”
Lyla had to relocate to Pretoria after her mother’s death and, unfortunately, her father’s support was not as forthcoming – he’d rather have her study business economics over music. As a consequence she moved out at just 15. High school students are obviously in no position to fend for themselves, but it was a move she simply had to make. Therefore Lyla had to rely on the kindness of strangers for room and board – she’d often travel from place to place with nothing but a suitcase and a guitar.
She also worked as a waitress to put herself through matric, but luck had it so that her employers funded her radio production studies after she left school. What followed was live shows in bars and clubs and, finally, auditions for televised talent shows. For some time after she also worked as a producer for reputable radio personalities like Darren Scott and Jeremy Mansfield. Success was palpable and Lyla figured if a career as a singer failed she’d have something to fall back on.
At 23 she left South Africa for New York to start a new life. “When I moved to New York in April 2017 it was my first time travelling abroad; I am the typical example of a girl who never stood a chance. I had to work really hard to create a future for myself and I’ve had to make some compromises along the way, but it has made me work so much harder.
I networked relentlessly in the radio and TV industry in SA and have funded my own recording sessions in NY studios. No matter how hard I tried, playing shows twice a week at venues in Johannesburg, I just couldn’t get myself to stand out. So I took a chance on NY. It has punched me in the face a couple of times but I really love this city. I landed a weekly gig in Times Square, but stopped performing in November after a sexual assault by one of the venue’s staff members. When I managed to pick myself back up, I busked in Central Park and carried on creating video content, collaborating with other singers.”
While the move has had its challenges, on the whole it’s been an interesting and rewarding journey. “It’s quite the upgrade living in Battery Park, Lower Manhattan with a beautiful view of the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty. I am a ‘cultural exchange visitor’ in America, which means I have a family who sponsors my stay abroad. I help them out with their little one and in return they fund my travel and studies. I hardly travel or ‘party it up’ here. In my free time I produce an online podcast – also airing on Eden AM radio in SA called The New York Minute and am working with a mentor on having my book Relying on the Kindness of Strangers published.”
How does this all relate to a rugby match? Well, it just so happens that an expat braai was held under the Brooklyn Bridge not too long ago where Lyla and her trusty guitar led our national anthem. As with so many things nowadays, a few smartphone cameras were promptly set to their record function and in no time at all the video went viral. A few radio stations in South Africa granted her rendition a handsome amount of airtime and since then heaps of praise and admiration has come her way.
“I am blessed to have creative people in my circle. I am blessed to be able to call the people who inspired my career my friends and mentors now. They are excited when I do something big and the coverage just comes naturally – I don’t have to ‘sell’ the story or ‘trade favours’ for coverage. I want my career to reflect the relationships I’ve built instead of getting attention for my looks. I wanted to make sure I knew who I was before some agency swept in and told me who to be.”
“I am proud to have come this far and I think I am finally ready to go and knock on some record label doors.” Lyla’s superb execution of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika saw an old friend and radio colleague of hers John Walland send forth a copy of an article of the anthem on to SA Rugby. The sport’s governing body afforded her the opportunity to record a professional audition clip and, upon its review, placed her on a list of other hopefuls who’d wish to sing it at a major match.
The Wales-Springboks match was announced sometime later after which a duplicate was sent to USA Rugby. Her singing talent and locale would greatly work in her favour. “Whilst all my friends bought tickets for the match, I refused to secure a seat next to them. Instead, I rehearsed the anthem daily, in blind faith, so that I would get the gig. And an e-mail came through weeks later informing me that I would have the honour of singing our anthem in DC!
Singing the anthem means more to me than the stadium I get to sing in and more than the TV coverage. Landing this gig is me celebrating the freedom to choose who I want to become one day. I know in my heart that my mom would have come around to democracy if she was alive to see the example I am setting, and could see who I grew up to be.”
The match will be broadcast live (23h00 SA time, Supersport 1 Channel 201 / 17h00 ET, ESPN / 21h20 UK, Channel 4)
Follow Lyla on her respective social media pages to keep track of her journey.