Why should Tyla have to define herself as ‘black’?

America’s racial identity politics is now imposing itself on South Africa.

Inaya Folarin Iman

Inaya Folarin Iman

Topics Culture Identity Politics World

It has been a tremendous decade so far for African music. Many artists have achieved global chart success, won prestigious awards and sold out shows in major venues around the world. But few have enjoyed a rise as meteoric as Tyla, the 21-year-old Amapiano sensation from Johannesburg, South Africa.

She is now one of the hottest tickets in town, thanks to her viral hit, ‘Water’, which set TikTok ablaze earlier this year. But it’s not all good news for the young popstar. She is now coming under fire from racial identitarians in the West for entirely non-musical reasons – namely, for her choice of racial identification.

Rather than describe herself as ‘black’, Tyla chooses to describe herself as ‘coloured’, a proud tribute to her mixed-heritage background. This has ignited a fierce cultural debate in the Anglosphere due to the fact that many see the term ‘coloured’ as a racial slur.

In South Africa, however, the term ‘coloured’ is not offensive. As a black Brit visiting South Africa in 2014, I can recall my own surprise at being asked to specify my racial identity on an ID form, and finding ‘coloured’ listed as a category. I only knew it as a negative term, one to be cringed at when used by elderly relatives. But I soon discovered that it has very different connotations and nuances in South Africa. Originating during the Apartheid era, the term now serves to describe millions with mixed African, European and Asian ancestry. Many South Africans today embrace and celebrate being ‘coloured’.

There are plenty of other racial terms like ‘coloured’, which have negative connotations in one cultural context, and positive connotations in another. Take ‘mulatto’, a racial classification used to refer to people of mixed African and European ancestry. It’s considered outdated and offensive in the US, but not in Italian-, Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking parts of the world. In South America, to be a ‘mulatto’ is even considered a source of pride.

None of this has stopped woke Americans taking to X, formerly known as Twitter, to denounce Tyla for describing herself as ‘coloured’ rather than ‘black’. One tweeted that ‘the term “coloured” was created to divide black people… That term is rooted in racism, discrimination and division.’ Another accused Tyla of ‘cultural appropriation’ because she sometimes braids her hair. One said that: ‘We are not gonna call her coloured here [in the US] and if she personally demands it, her career will end before it begins.’

It seems that far too many in the US want Tyla to conform to a distinctly American notion of racial identity. That is, she must define herself as ‘black’ or ‘her career will end before it begins’.

This American idea of ‘black’ stems from the so-called one-drop rule, which deemed even those with 1 / 32 black ancestry as ‘black’. This bizarre classification, outlawed by the US Supreme Court in 1967, meant that even individuals with blond straight hair and blue eyes could be labelled as black if there was a black person somewhere in their ancestry. Many black Americans have embraced this culturally and politically determined concept of ‘black’, with everyone from the dark-skinned basketball player, Shaquille O’Neal, to the very fair-skinned rapper, Ice Spice, all proudly identifying as black.

But why should Tyla have to conform to this particular, absurd system of racial classification? Why should she have to call herself ‘black’ or risk being ostracised in the US? The demand that someone should have to fit themselves into arbitrary racial-identity boxes impedes their ability to express themselves as individuals.

Just as absurd is the accusation that Tyla is ‘culturally appropriating’ black fashion and style. Tyla who, after all, is a native African woman herself, should be free to ‘appropriate’ whatever ‘black’ fashions she chooses.

We should celebrate Tyla as a person and a musician. She shows us the beauty of cultural mixing, exchange and diversity – indeed, of being ‘coloured’. She shows how it is possible to be a proud African and draw inspiration from all over the world.

Yet too many in the US and UK are clearly uncomfortable with Tyla’s way of being and expressing herself. In societies that value racial grievance and moralistic posturing, the sight of a brown-skinned, curly-haired African woman who rejects ‘black’ identity is treated with suspicion.

Thankfully, Tyla has so far resisted the pressure from certain quarters to identify as black. Her stance is to be applauded. Rigid, arbitrary racial classifications fail to capture the richness of our diverse backgrounds and experiences. Tyla shows us that there is another way beyond the trap of racial identity politics.

Inaya Folarin Iman is a spiked columnist and founder of the Equiano Project.

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Topics Culture Identity Politics World


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