Tyla’s racial identity: ‘Coloured’ South African music sensation sparks culture war

Tyla’s racial identity: ‘Coloured’ South African music sensation sparks culture war

By BBC News

LONDON: Caught in a culture war, South Africa‘s hottest music sensation Tyla is in the crossfire of an online debate over the word she uses to describe her racial identity – “coloured”.

Before her rise to fame, the 21-year-old made a video proudly talking about her mixed-raced heritage on TikTok.

In it she slicks her coily hair into Bantu knots, while donning a traditional beaded necklace, with the words, “I am a coloured South African” splashed across the clip like a badge of honour.

The star says this means that she “comes from a lot of different cultures”.

It is a simple video intended to share a part of herself with her audience. But instead, her racial identity has stoked flames across the internet, most notably, in the US.

Americans see the word as a slur, unlike Tyla’s South African community, who see it as a part of their culture. In South Africa, it is a distinct identity that is officially recognised.

One US user on X, formerly known as Twitter, said: “We are not gonna call her coloured here and if she personally demands it, her career will end before it begins.

“She’s trying to cross over into an American market, she won’t be able to use that word here, she can use it somewhere else though.”

In the US, the word harks back to the Jim Crow era, when segregationist laws were instituted in the southern states to oppress black Americans after slavery was banned.

Water fountains, toilets and bus seats were marked “whites only” or “coloured only”.

South African music sensation Tyla

This painful history of racial segregation mirrors that in South Africa before white-minority rule ended in 1994.

Apartheid was a political system with a racial hierarchy privileging white South Africans.

The Population Registration Act of 1950 required people to be registered into one of four racial categories – white, black, Indian or coloured. Another law designated residential areas according to race.

Michael Morris, head of media at the South African Institute of Race Relations, says the history of the coloured community is complex, but “quintessentially South African”.

The community has disparate origins but was brought together under apartheid rules.

“Being a mixture of black, white, Asian, it was forged in the southern African geography in a way that no other can claim,” Mr Morris told the BBC.

But because of this mixed heritage, the community was sometimes derided and dismissed in a system obsessed by categorisation.

Marike de Klerk, the late wife of apartheid South Africa’s last president, once said of the coloured community in relation to the regime’s segregation laws: “They are the people that were left after the nations were sorted out. They are the rest.”

Out of this complicated history people like Tyla who identify as coloured have woven a rich cultural tapestry.

According to South Africa’s latest census coloured people make up 8.2% of the population.

Tessa Dooms and Lynsey Ebony Chutel
Tessa Dooms (L) and Lynsey Ebony Chutel (R) have written about the eclectic culture of South Africa’s coloured community

Lynsey Ebony Chutel and Tessa Dooms, co-authors of Coloured: How Classification Became Culture, grew up in Eldorado Park in Johannesburg, a historically coloured township.

They describe the people there as an eclectic mix of appearance, language, accents and heritage.

“I never thought of myself as mixed black or white. I thought being mixed meant being from this diverse community,” Ms Dooms told the BBC, adding that it was also shaped by religion, music and big group dances.

When Ms Chutel went to Columbia University in New York she found her identity, like Tyla, was the topic of conversation after she introduced herself as a coloured woman from South Africa on her first day.

It did not go down well with her classmates; her roommate pulled her aside and said she had made the American students feel uncomfortable.

She was forced to defend her own identity, background and culture while trying to assuage the discomfort of others.

“I understand that it is a slur, but that’s not the only story here,” she says with a deep sigh.

She warns that it is dangerous for Americans to try to be the arbiter when it comes to blackness, because there is no single way of being black, nor is there a single way of being coloured.

South Africa radio host Carissa Cupido, who grew up in the predominantly coloured area of Mitchell Plains in Cape Town, says that despite the fact that the classification was imposed on her, she has “embraced, accepted and celebrated” being coloured.

Ms Cupido interviewed Tyla two years ago, and says her accent, natural hair and energy are “tangibly coloured”.

Seeing Tyla’s meteoric rise to fame has given her goose bumps, she adds.

Carissa Cupido
I am excited for the next generation of coloured girls to see Tyla and draw inspiration and hope from her representation” Carissa Cupido South Africa radio host1px transparent line

The star is further popularising the amapiano sound, itself a South African blend of styles: jazz, hip-hop, soul and slowed-down house music.

Tyla’s hit Water became the first solo song by a South African musician to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 chart since Hugh Masekela’s Grazing in the Grass in 1968.

“Often when I talk about her on-air… I have to hold back tears,” Ms Cupido told the BBC.

The emotion stems from searching for, but never finding, coloured representation in magazines as she grew up.

Now in her early 30s, it has come in the form of Tyla.

“I am excited for the next generation of coloured girls to see Tyla and draw inspiration and hope from her representation,” she says.

There have been other coloured South African musicians who have found international fame, like rapper AKA, who was murdered earlier this year – but none have reached Tyla’s heights.

Ms Cupido’s voice booms with joy when discussing Tyla’s success, but her tone shifts to annoyance at the scrutiny around the star’s identity.

“I find it so disrespectful. Do not undermine someone’s way of life, just because you do not understand it,” she says.

People who disregard Tyla’s heritage, she says, are also “erasing and dismissing my existence and my family’s existence, and the way we understand, perceive and navigate the world”.

Ms Dooms agrees and says that even before the Tyla controversy, defending her community had been a constant: “We are fighting for the legitimacy of what we have built. What we have created, the culture we have made.”

To those in America targeting Tyla, she says: “To have the audacity to question somebody’s self-identification and replace it with your own – that’s ridiculous. You are not progressive.”

With a new album coming out early next year and a Grammy nomination, Tyla is likely to be dominating headlines and prompting further debate over her identity for some time yet.

For Mr Morris, there is no room for criticism: “[It is] simply up to Tyla to say who she is, and what she wishes to be called.

“It is nobody else’s business.”