Born coloured, not born free

Jazz bassist Benjamin Jeptha’s latest project interrogates the meaning of Creole identity in South Africa, thirty years after the end of white-minority rule.

Benjamin Jephta in his "Born Coloured Not Born Free Project" on the Molelekwa Stage at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival 2024, Cape Town International Convention Centre, Cape Town, 4 May 2024 © Gregory Franz.

The results of South Africa’s seventh democratic election on May 29 revealed a stark reality. Out of 42 million eligible South African voters, only 16 million voted. This is significant because until 1994, many in the country were not allowed to vote. The election results shocked many and unveiled a massive fracture in public opinion: as South Africa reaches its 30th year of democracy, for the first time since independence, the African National Congress (ANC) failed to win the majority of the votes needed to form a government.

This is something to consider deeply while listening to the new album by bassist and composer Benjamin Jephta. Born Coloured, Not Born-Free was released a year ago, but it is even more relevant now. It is Jephta’s fourth album in an ongoing project. Earlier this year, he presented a version of this project at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. At the performance, Jephta spent time introducing the ideas he interrogates on the album to the audience, many of whom were from the community the album addresses.

To break down the title: the word “coloured” is a racial classification created by the apartheid government under the Population Registration Act of 1950 to describe the Creole population of South Africa. It was a classification forced on a people who are one of the most racially diverse populations in the world, and who endured much violence under apartheid rule. This community has been plagued by negative racial stereotypes of gangsterism, drugs, violence, and more. 

The term “coloured” is still in use today and has been adopted by many as an identity, but is also contested and rejected by others as a vestige of apartheid and colonization. The term “born-free” refers to those born after apartheid ended, which includes Jephta’s generation. He explains that these are all terms he inherited, and not by choice. 

Jephta is adamant that this album offers no answers. He is merely suggesting something to consider, a way to begin conversations, and process his personal experiences.


Jephta was born in 1992 and grew up in the “coloured” township of Mitchells Plain in Cape Town. In recent years, he relocated to Johannesburg and is now lecturing in jazz studies and film composition at Wits University. He has scored many films and TV shows, often working with his sister, the talented playwright and filmmaker Amy Jephta. At the time of our interview he was incredibly busy—juggling lectures, film composition, independently releasing this album, preparing for gigs, and performing as a member of other bands. 

The album grew out of Jephta’s master’s thesis while he was studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2019. It was the seed of an idea that has grown into a much larger project looking into identity politics. “I was at the Global Jazz Institute,” Jephta says, “and their whole ethos is built around social justice and activism. So they really encouraged us to dig deep, and pull out from where we come from and how that relates to creating music for social change.” 

Jephta recalls having the difficult task of explaining to his American colleagues about what the “coloured” identity meant and how it has never really been represented accurately before. “The more you start to think about those kinds of things, the more upset you become about the way you feel you’re often represented. And then you start to really pick at the whys. Why is it that people think of ‘coloured’ people like this?”

Jephta explains that when he spoke to people from his family and their community, he found similar stories of hopelessness and disillusionment. “I started to dissect that which I call ‘coloured mentality’—the way that ‘coloured’ people view themselves, and what impact the way that society views them has on their own mentality in their lives. I went on that journey of trying to understand this. On one hand, the way that I feel ‘coloured’ people are misrepresented in society. And on the other, the effect that misrepresentation has on ‘coloured’ peoples’ psyche.”

Born coloured, not born free

Admittedly a deeply personal one, this album explores transformation in the country, identity, and the challenges of stereotypes. One of Jephta’s greatest strengths is his ability to draw on so many different kinds of music: traditional South African jazz, ghoema, maskandi, hip-hop, and kwaito.  At his album launch in Cape Town last September, Jephta introduced each song with video snippets that included interviews, commentary, and news clips, all of which depict different dynamics of identity politics. He let the images and music speak for themselves.

The album was released in early June by Jephta’s label Akoustik Electrik Music. For this independent release, he picked up new skills, like design, marketing, and video editing, in order to tease single releases and create separate album artwork for each single. 

“Born Coloured, Not Born Free” by Benjamin Jephta

The opener, “An Incomplete Transition,” refers to what was promised to South Africans, promises that were not delivered. He says, “One of the main promises being the idea of a racially free and undivided South Africa, which is what a born-free is. We were promised that freedom when we were born, but we really don’t get that when we interact with society today and we see how people live. There wasn’t a full transition from an apartheid state to a post-apartheid one.”

Jephta paraphrases a quote by academic Dr. Leonard Martin: “Racialism is a deep disease in the sociopolitical fabric. And for us to really move forward, we need to redesign and reconfigure the way we look at racialism in South Africa in general, which is a hard thing to do. But it’s even harder to do now, 30 years later.”

The next tune is the upbeat “Ben-Dhlamini Stomp,” which speaks to the feeling of being denied his African identity, his search for belonging, and the process of reclaiming his African heritage, which began when he was in the US. This experience was also deepened by meeting musician Randy Weston and reading the work of Sylvia Vollenhoven.

The next two compositions are titled “Gadija,” in memory of Jephta’s grandmother who raised him. “The song ‘Gadija’ was written for my grandma. It speaks to how her generation had to be courageous and adapt and be resilient.” Jephta’s grandmother grew up in District Six and the family was forcibly removed to the township of Bishop Lavis under apartheid—a single mother, living in a council house, who had to raise her kids without any education. “I’m here today because of my dad and my dad is here today because of her. This song is not only for my grandmother, but a lot of people like her in South Africa, who had to make the best out of a kak situation. It is about the sacrifices people of color had to make to raise their families.”

The album closes with the title track, “Born Coloured—Not Born-Free,” broken up into three movements: “Acceptance,” “Metamorphosis,” and “Resurgence.” For this, Jephta studied the Reconciliation Barometer—a survey that captures South African citizens’ attitude toward reconciliation and transformation, broken down by age, race, and gender. Some of the findings showed that among “coloured” people there was a general sense of disillusionment with the current administration and a sense of marginalization from the country as a whole. There are statistics around gangsterism, drug abuse, incarceration rates, homicide rates, poverty rates. The piece was a response to this in the form of three processes: “I believe ‘coloured’ people can interrogate themselves, and look at ways in which they can negate this way of self-destructive thinking and start with ‘Acceptance.’ And then ‘Metamorphosis’ is the process of ridding yourself of that mentality, to give rise to a better self. And then ‘Resurgence’ is kind of reconfiguring the way you see yourself within the South African social context. It’s quite simple to say; it’s quite hard to do.”

Moving forward

Jephta is part of the dynamic South African jazz scene of young musicians. Having released his debut album at the age of 25, he has carved out a space for himself as an important bass player. After graduating from the jazz program at the University of Cape Town, he went on a few years later to be the recipient of the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz in 2017. He has shared the stage with South African greats Hugh Masekela and Sibongile Khumalo, and further afield with the artists like Danilo Perez, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Dianne Reeves, among many others.

Despite Jephta’s achievements, being an independent artist in South Africa is incredibly difficult, and it takes courage to continue without much support from the government for the arts. With this album however, Jephta’s aim is to inspire and create a sense of hope, empowerment, and unity in the South African experience.

What makes this album timely and important is its ability to open up and deepen the discussions around this Creole identity. These conversations are definitely happening, but not nearly enough. South Africa can no longer be seen as a kind of binary of black and white, the way it has often been misrepresented globally. Moreover, as we reach 30 years of democracy, there are still huge levels of inequality, unemployment, and lack of togetherness, solidarity, and unity—so it’s imperative for artists to ask questions and interrogate their reality. 

Further Reading