South African singer Tyla, one of the biggest, new global music acts of the moment, did an interview with The Breakfast Club recently and it reignited a cultural debate that has followed her throughout her budding career.

Tyla appeared on the morning show on June 13. During the interview, Charlamagne Tha God brought up the much-speculated topic of how the “Water” singer racially identifies herself.

“School me on these debates that they be having about your identity as a South African Coloured person,” he said. “What does that even mean?”

Instead of responding, Tyla turned in her chair to look at a representative from her team. “Can we not? Por favor?” they replied.

Charlamagne continued to push the issue by nudging the singer to respond. “I like that… I like when they talk from the back and say we can’t— that’s even better.”

Off-screen, the rep interjected before the conversation continued, urging the host to move on from the question. “Next one, please,” they said. 

As the video went viral across social media, Tyla’s avoidance of the question led to conflicted thoughts.

One X (formerly Twitter) user insinuated that her refusal to answer was incriminating. 

“Dodging such a simple question is suspect,” they said.

Another user provided an alternate statement that would have appeased both perspectives. 

“Just say, ‘Where I’m from, we refer to it as coloured, in N. America and other parts of the world, you’d classify me as black,'” they suggested.

To quickly clear up any misconceptions from the interviews, Tyla posted a written statement on X.

“Never denied my blackness, idk where that came from… I’m mixed with black/Zulu, Irish, Mauritian/Indian, and Coloured,” she said.

The singer pointed out that she is aware that “race is classified differently” worldwide. She stated that in South Africa, she’s Coloured, and in other places, she’s Black.

She also acknowledged that she wasn’t expecting to be “identified as a Coloured” by anyone outside of South Africa, and she “understands” the weight of the word outside of her home country.

Ending her statement, she said, “But to close this conversation, I’m both Coloured in South Africa and a black women. As a woman for the culture. It’s and not or with that being said ASAMBEEE 💕,” which means “let’s go” in Zulu.

Most of the comments after the discourse supported Tyla’s decision to avoid the controversial conversation, primarily because she has continuously explained her stance on her Blackness. 

However, the artist is still forced into situations explaining herself to people who refuse to comprehend cultural or even geographical contexts. 

The argument around Tyla’s racial identity began when an old TikTok of the singer resurfaced. In the clip, she styled her hair in Bantu knots, a traditional African hairstyle. She referred to herself as a “Coloured South African” and explained that the term means she “comes from different cultures,” including Zulu. 

As her career progressed, Tyla has consistently voiced that her referring to herself as “coloured” is never an attempt to dismiss her Blackness but rather a term connected to her homeland. In her 2024 cover story with Cosmopolitan, she said, “I’m happy there’s a conversation happening and that people are learning that Africa is more than just Black and white.” 

She acknowledged that the conversation can be “messy” and uncomfortable but ultimately “happy” and that people finally realize that people who identify as “Coloured” actually “exist and have our own culture.” 

“When people are like, ‘You’re denying your Blackness,’ it’s not that at all. I never said I am not Black. It’s just that I grew up as a South African knowing myself as Coloured. And now that I’m exposed to more things, it has made me other things too. I’m also mixed-race. I’m also Black,” she said. 

The term “colored” (without the letter U) has a dark history with Black Americans. It originated during the Jim Crow era when laws were enforced to oppress Black people after the abolition of slavery. This word was often used to mark items, such as “colored only” water fountains, toilets, entrances and bus seats, to enforce segregation. The discomfort surrounding this word in America is valid, but it’s important to acknowledge that the same term has a painful, racist history in other parts of the world.

The inception of the “coloured” community in South Africa was a result of the dehumanizing caste system of apartheid.

According to the BBC, the Population Registration Act of 1950 established different racial categories based on criteria such as a person’s appearance, language and job. People were also required to register to vote using racial demographics: white, Black, Indian, or coloured.

The Population Registration Act was abolished in 1991 along with the end of apartheid, but the philosophies it fostered continue to influence South Africans today.

Despite the word’s oppressive connotation, the Coloured community has built its subculture that is detached from its original meaning.

The BBC shared thoughts from South Africans Lynsey Ebony Chutel and Tessa Dooms, co-authors of Coloured: How Classification Became Culture

“I never thought of myself as mixed black or white. I thought being mixed meant being from this diverse community,” Dooms said. 

Chutel recalled when she had to defend her self-identification among new American classmates. “I understand that it is a slur, but that’s not the only story here,” she said. 

Quintessentially, when directed toward an individual from South Africa, the term “coloured” means ethnically multiracial. The 2022 census stated that 8.2% of the country’s population identified as “coloured.” 

As we become more open to entertainment and art forms from different cultures, the viewpoints of those creators must be heard and respected.

It is not Tyla’s responsibility to explain or apologize for the history of a term. Her identity as “coloured” is tied to her lineage and a culture deeply embedded with the politics and history of her homeland.

Tyla’s defense of being “coloured” is not her defending Jim Crow or oppressive actions toward Black Americans; it’s her taking pride in the people and things that shaped her as an artist and a person.