They’re verging on Australian institution. They’ve played Future Music, Stereosonic, and gigs all over the country. The destination for Die Antwoord? Sky-high success; the kind that a South African artist has rarely seen. The journey there however, appears murky.
Upon attending their concert at the Metro Theatre in Sydney’s CBD in early 2015, the evidence was clear that they had become a massive deal in Oz. A small act born in hipster Cape Town exploded into something that had the Oztix website struggling to keep up with. They have played the world over: Europe, the US, down under, even Colombia and Russia. They are magnetic, rousing performers who have crafted a strong aesthetic and some excellent music videos.
It was in a film lecture at college one morning in 2010 we heard news that they blew up overnight on the “interwebs”, and we were all bemused that such a crass South African act could find approval overseas.
South African culture is not much represented in international media, so most of us South Africans still get a “hey look!” feeling when the bad guys in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium speak in Seffrikan accents, or an artist from SA makes it big overseas. Yo-Landi herself says in Baby’s on Fire, “my daddy says it’s lekker fokken spif to see a South African cherry makin’ history” (my daddy says it’s really fucking cool to see a South African girl making history).
Nowadays, they hardly play concerts in their home country anymore. They are more known for well-crafted pieces on identity politics and rainbow nation reconciliation in South African publications than for playing headline tours. A sold-out large venue might be out of the question for them. Backlash game, strong.
Witnessing their manic performance in Sydney, Australia, devoid of South African context, felt like the majority white/middle-class crowd was likely unaware of the band’s true beginnings.
Ninja and Yo-Landi’s act balances on a knife edge between conceptual art and complete parody: the references in the parody span working-class culture and race in South Africa, both white and coloured. It should be noted that coloured people in South Africa are a separate cultural group, a uniquely South African blend of Malay, black, white and more, with their own distinct identity, cuisine, dialect, and so forth.
Although their aggressively anti-intellectual language and vibe might make it seem like they just walked of the street onto a random set one day, you need only look at their first videos to realise the skill, conceptualisation and yes, even resources that went into them.
If you listen to Ninja’s accent and rhymes, you could say he’s working-class, Afrikaans-speaking, well versed in street slang, and familiar with aspects of Cape Town gang culture. His hand-drawn, gang-referencing tattoos allude to the ones made in prison, where limited equipment render them rough and basic. The one on his neck, “pretty wise”, is a reference to raak wys: Afrikaans for “get with it”, meaning to obtain the necessary know-how to get the respect of your gang.
But when examining his background, something most concertgoers might not be (or indeed have to be) interested in, a different picture emerges. Watkin Tudor Jones (his real name) attended the prestigious Parktown Boys School, one of the oldest and most respected in Johannesburg.
His bandmate Yo-Landi Vi$$er, birth name Anri du Toit, is the daughter of a pastor in the conservative Dutch-Reformed Church in Cape Town’s Afrikaans-speaking suburbs.
The irony emerges then, that the act’s founding member, Ninja, is neither coloured, Afrikaans nor working class, but from a privileged, English-speaking white background. The language that they use for street cred, differentiation from other hip hop acts and symbolic capital is not available for usage by coloured people for the same purposes, and therefore it must be cultural appropriation. (At this point in my reflection, the irony of being a white South African living in Australia writing about identity politics and appropriation doesn’t escape me either, unfortunately.)
One of the reasons they are probably not called out on this is because the group they are capitalising from is less visible than say, the African-Americans who have been able to speak up against appropriation by artists such as Iggy Azalea, for example.
“We’re basically just exporting our South African experience. South Africa is like undiscovered real estate.”
Die Antwoord’s story and their meteoric rise above other, equally or more interesting hip hop acts, must then amount partly to this white, English-speaking artist’s play at “going native”, as the Mail & Guardian’s Adam Haupt so aptly put it.
Tumblr stalwart Your Fav is Problematic goes even further, putting forth their repeated use of the word “rape” in their songs, the use of the word “faggot” (concerns are dismissed by saying one of their group members is gay) and the use of blackface in their music videos.
In Fatty Boom Boom, their Lady Gaga diss video after she asked them to open for her concerts in SA and they were offended that she was inferring a comparison, includes Yo-Landi in full black body paint (with yellow eyes however; not 100% blackface in the true sense of the word but still investigating). They go for the more classic blackface look in other videos though, such as Ugly Boy featuring Apex Twin in black body paint and an afro wig and their daughter Sixteen’s black-painted stare in I Fink U Freeky.
Perhaps their attitude to this is the most problematic part. Yo-Landi reported to an Afrikaans newspaper that she “doesn’t know what blackface is”, dismissing comments by saying “it’s an African thing” and other people “wouldn’t understand”. Again, they benefit from the lack of visibility of the very group whose culture and identity they are plundering.
In a country like South Africa, you simply cannot afford to be so wilfully ignorant and dismissive.
Social media has woken everyone up. Unfortunately, the shroud covering South Africa from much of the world, where it’s only a safari destination, small chapter in colonial history or cheap destination to film American blockbusters, means that the kind of appropriation Die Antwoord does has mostly escaped notice. Perhaps therein lies part of their “genius”.
In Ninja’s own words, “We’re basically just exporting our South African experience. South Africa is like undiscovered real estate.”
Notwithstanding the colonial tinge of an artist claiming that the culture of the people they have “discovered” needs a white hand to distribute and filter it to the rest of the world (“undiscovered real estate” sounds like Terra Nullus as spoken by a current property developer), they rely on this fact for edge and relevance in the world at large. Without their running commentary on aspects of South African culture, their music would be even emptier than it is already.
“South Africa’s like the wild west,” says Ninja. “The PC-version people try and promote is this image of South Africa as a rainbow nation, and make it all pretty and stuff. But it’s actually like this fucked-up, kind of broken fruit salad.”
Repackaging aspects of South African culture to hawk overseas is their main strategy, one that has worked rather successfully if you contrast it with the duo’s previous acts, which were marginally successful on the local market, but nothing compared to I Fink U Freeky’s 50+ million views on Youtube, for example.
The contrast of their overextended meme aesthetic and repetitive music, with the fact that they are clearly excellent marketers and very engaging performers, still make them an act to watch. The question is: are we watching for the right reasons?