When Die Antwoord's "Enter the Ninja" video went viral, SA should've been ecstatic. But they ended up being our worst nightmare, writes Miles Keylock.
When Die Antwoord's Enter the Ninja video went viral on YouTube back in early 2010, the South African media should've been ecstatic. Ninja and Yo-landi had been given the thumbs up on Twitter by everyone from tastemaker Diplo and pop "it" girl Katy Perry to nu-metal messiah Fred Durst. In a matter of hours they were trending on Twitter. In weeks they'd signed to major US label Interscope, the home of superstars such as Eminem and Lady Gaga. Here, finally was the answer to our dreams: the great white hope that would feed our thirst for international recognition.
Instead, over the past two years they've turned out to be our worst nightmare. Rather than cultured and progressive, they've presented us as savage, crass, backwards, a freak show. From Ninja's prison tattooed torso, Yo-landi's pre-teen porn doll posturing and their "incestuous" sibling spiel to their potty-mouthed Afrikaans rap. Die Antwoord is a deep plunge into the white South African subconscious in all its ugliness – its child predators and body dysmorphia, its castrations and mutations, its hate crimes and neuroses.
And yet they've done it all so artfully, with so much artifice. Rather than trying to "keep it real", Die Antwoord turned to pure representation. They are the white trash Afrikaner ghosts that haunt David Goldblatt's photography. They are Roger Ballen's mutant psycho-sexual urchins, orphans and outlanders. They are Araminta De Clermont's prison-inked Cape Flats gangsters. They are Harmony Korine's Bunny Boy copulating with Paul McCarthy's rabbit-headed flaccid-phallused Spaghetti Man. They are childhood innocence morphed into adult perversion.
Even their music is an exercise in politically incorrect artifice. Their major label debut Ten$ion segues between grungey bro-stepped rave rap travesties (Never Le Nkemise), bulimic gang-bangers (Fok Julle Naaiers), paedo-pop skits about fucking with the fame game (Uncle Jimmy) and HI-NRG Sigue Sigue Sputnik synth-pop carpet rides (Fatty Boom Boom).
All this could be forgiven and we tried. The Mail & Guardian turned to postmodernism, reading Ninja and Yo-landi's 'Zef' punk hop parody as "another delightfully artful deconstruction of the impossibility of 'keeping it real' while 'selling out'". Rolling Stone struggled to look for substance beneath their performative punk-rapped shtick and middle-fingered salutes to corporate pop complicity, describing them as a white trashed travesty of gangster rap braggadocio. "Music used to be about people not giving a fuck. We're taking it back there" explained Yo-landi Vi$$er said in an interview with the South African edition.
But Die Antwoord don't just borrow from white culture. With a flagrant disregard for our complex colonial and apartheid history, they also unashamedly pilfer coloured culture. "What is an ageing white musician from Johannesburg doing biting coloured style from the flats?" asked one Africa is a Country blogger. Are they smart satire or basically blackface? As poet Rustum Kozain put it: "Waddy Jones has not suddenly discovered his 'inner coloured'".
What indeed. Die Antwoord it seems are indefensible. And it's precisely this that makes them so bloody good. A pop-lingo migrant-ethno-fetishistic mashup of poly-dialectal madness that refuses the answer, choosing instead to dwell in paradox; to generate artifice and perversion, lies and racism, Die Antwoord attack neo-liberal values of authenticity and self-expression. It's unashamedly a copy, an abhorrence of exploiters and exploitation that blots out conventional economies of worth and value.
On stage the un-PC pair rage. They openly embrace marginality, deprivation, violence and pettiness; they hump and hums, swear and sweat, rape and rap, trashing the "natural" body and our "natural" family values. "I don't want to go to a fucking braai and talk shit about other people's lives – neither does Yo-landi," said Ninja in Rolling Stone South Africa. "I don't won't to work at Absa or work doing commercial advertising or television or suck cock to try and plug into corporate 9 to 5."
Like pirates and highwaymen, like punk fashion cultural provocateurs Vivien Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, Die Antwoord has penetrated our collective subconscious. Holding a mirror to a society is never easy. In the glare of the mass media, assumed stupidity can easily become real stupidity; irony is flattened out and you become the very thing you are trying to satirise or transcend. Their "Zef" vibes are at once too ironic to be acceptable, and yet too earnest and visionary for the kind of ironic acceptance the 21st century revels in. Their music is at once too weird to be taken up by a mainstream audience but also too pop to please serious critics looking for informed oppositional politics.
Yet, despite their pre-sexual los-lyf porn plundering, despite their love for common South African "Zef" culture, their Leon Schuster-style humour, their kitsch referencing of American gansta rap and their dodgy Cape Colour coon black-face parody, Die Antwoord remain a complex, contradictory phenomenon. Within an increasingly simplistic, monolithic media, which imposes stupidity from above, they show us that we don't have to take this shit. They prove that bad taste is at its heart kind of love, love for human nature. It's discomforting, filthy and hilarious, but it's also potentially the long-neglected first step in reflecting a culture's inner psychology, no matter how scary. As Yo-landi sang it simply, "I fink u freeky, but I like you a lot."
At a time when independent music is consumed with a kind of parasitic-feeding off supposed "weirdness" or "difference", Die Antwoord blows away any such trite notions. They're not afraid to make anyone, including themselves, see that any "Zef", weirdness and difference is always self-generated. The idea of inhabiting your own skin, thinking the thoughts you think or don't think should, at times, freak you out. At the same time it should make you laugh.
Herein lies their genius. It's precisely what makes them not only a fun band, but an important band. Sure, rhymes like "Zef side represent, you fuckin' with the best/Ninja! Die Wit Kaffir, ja julle naaiers, skrik wakker!" are bad, banal even. But they're contagious. Once you've heard them rapping. You can't get their lyrics out of your head. Suddenly you're part of the joke. Humour steps in, turning what is horrible and hopeless into an absurd miracle.
Often when neo-liberals talk about humour they are really talking about a kind of wit, that classic English satire: an ability to expose absurdity very subtly, without producing much of a grin. Die Antwoord aren't cerebral, they're stupid. They openly embrace low art, bad taste, toilet jokes, slap stick, stoogery. If we let them, they make us laugh outright and then immediately regret it.
"Fuck the no game-having, intellectuals out there ... Our style is straight up Malema versus Zuma. Everyday man. We appeal to the man in the street," says Ninja. "We make pop music. We don't make intellectual music. Our shit is hostile takeover shit. What the fuck you going to do about it? Nothing!"
See the rest of the the M&G's Die Antwoord package:
'Are Die Antwoord blackface?'
Adam Haupt explores the idea in this edited extract of his book "Static: Race and Representation in Post-Apartheid Music, Media and Film".
Video killed the radio star: Die Antwoord eats Lady Gaga
Turning down Lady Gaga's request to be her opening act during one of her tours wasn't enough for Die Antwoord, they had to have her eaten alive.
Die Antwoord is my pimp
Chris Roper says Die Antwoord's reaction to his review of their album "SOS" was a cry for attention from the South African audience.