Fans Debate Tyla's Identity as South African 'Coloured'

North American listeners have questioned why the singer-songwriter is associated with a term many consider racist.

Phillip Faraone / Stringer via Getty Images

Western fans of singer-songwriter Tyla have questions about the 21-year-old Johannesburg native after learning she doesn't identify as "Black."

The singer-songwriter has steadily been getting attention stateside thanks to her hit song "Water," which peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100. She also has a string of popular tracks on TikTok as well as a nomination for Best African Music Performance at the 2024 Grammy Awards. But some fans have expressed shock to learn that she identifies as "Coloured" (with a u, specifically), a term that can be used in South African for those of mixed ethnicity.

The term "colored" has a different connotation in the United States—a racist categorization used prominently during the Jim Crow era to segregate people—which explains why some Western listeners have questioned its usage.

One such TikTok posted by user Simone Umba in September sparked debate when she shot down someone correcting her for saying Tyla is Black.

"This is a miseducation," Umba said. "Baby, colored is what they called Black people before they got rights in this country."


Replying to @Bridgette Bester

♬ original sound - Simone Umba

As South African journalist Misa Narrates wrote for Afropunk in September, "Coloured is a term that identifies a community who have cultivated a culture, language, and overall identity that wasn’t related to their segregation, but rather to identify the newly established community."

"Coloured" (again, with a u), was legally defined as a racial classification during South Africa's apartheid, which lasted from 1948 until the early '90s. It specifically refers to those who are neither white nor among Africa's aboriginal groups. They are regarded as a separate race group in the country alongside those who identify as Black, white, and Indian. It does not have the same connotation as it does in America, where it does not feature a "u." The community is incredibly diverse and doesn't fit into America's idea of racial binary.

Asked about her musical influences by Breakroom Africa in 2021, Tyla replied, "If you grew up in a Coloured home, you would know that I grew up listening to a lot of old school R&B [laughs] so that definitely has something to do with my sound."

She's also revealed her relatives are of Zulu, Indian, and Mauritian descent. Many South African fans have been quick to point out that her identifying as "Coloured" is a reminder that the world does not revolve around America, and South African artists do not need to "repackage" themselves for the world at large.

As South African comedian Dillan Oliphant said in a recent TikTok, "The world is bigger than you. ... You can't erase a whole identity to suit your comforts."

Check out some reactions to the debate below.

Tyla is colored in SA and biracial in the US or European countries. Simple. Y’all need to let it go omg. Y’all are so painfully unemployed

— lewis (@blxndedthot) November 20, 2023
Twitter: @blxndedthot

The worst thing about Tyla blowing up outside of South Africa is Black Americans doing identity Olympics and completely disregarding Tyla's cultural identity because of their superiority complex regarding what 'Coloured' means to them.

— sim simma (@leizenomis) November 20, 2023
Twitter: @leizenomis

Y’all can whine about Black Americans centering themselves in this “colored vs Black” discourse re: Tyla which is HILARIOUS because here? It’s just all semantics. But at the end of the day, she’s trying to cross over into AMERICAN territory. She has to pick her battles.

— Mel Smith (@iamMelsmith) November 19, 2023
Twitter: @iamMelsmith

Now why y’all in my mentions saying Tyla music don’t have Black American influence?

True she not Black but that musical composition is, okay!

— Get Her, Jade! (@keatingssixth) November 20, 2023
Twitter: @keatingssixth

Anyways, this diaspora war over Tyla’s ethnicity is fucking stupid. The girl is mixed. Let’s move on now.

— 𝐭𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐬𝐚. (@unfriendlyvixen) November 20, 2023
Twitter: @unfriendlyvixen

Tyla understand the history of indigenous, black South Africans, they do not take identifying as black as a joke - I respect it, they created the racial construct "Coloured" for that reason. We should respect their culture, and decentre our North American construct of race.

— Goddess of BLACK. (@xm_muva) November 19, 2023
Twitter: @xm_muva

see the reason why this conversation about tyla is revealing is, particularly b/c the generation of south africans we are talking to are the 1st born free generation post-apartheid.

— mbuya nehanda’s risen bones ⚱️ (@sucolorfavorito) November 20, 2023
Twitter: @sucolorfavorito

Americans are getting agitated about Tyla being referred to as ‘coloured’. *sigh*

Hope they get to see this

— Jason Nomoa (@1992sFinest) November 19, 2023
Twitter: @1992sFinest

Tyla race discourse needs to be wrapped up immediately but the very easy resolution is surely to just say “South African Coloured”

— Jason Okundaye (@jasebyjason) November 20, 2023
Twitter: @jasebyjason

Someone just said Tyla is not black but she wears black hairstyles LMFAO and yet they want to fight me when I say Americans think they own blackness

— Luna MN 🇵🇸 (@MphoMoalamedi) November 19, 2023
Twitter: @MphoMoalamedi

Latest in Music