/ 3 December 2010

Die Antwoord to young America’s prayers

Die Antwoord cropped up in conversation a few months ago when a friend here in New York described how his dogs got into their first fight when he played the band’s music. Trips to the vet and stitches were required.

I was intrigued.

By this time so were thousands, if not millions, of others who had delivered so many hits to the band’s Enter the Ninja and Zef Side videos that the website hosting had to be moved to a United States provider to cope with the traffic.

See Chris Roper’s review of the album here.

When Die Antwoord stopped over in New York during its $O$ tour in October, I grabbed the chance to see whether this extreme act, described by band member Yo-landi Vi$$er as a car crash you can’t help looking at, lived up to the cloud of “interweb” hype around the band.

Booking by phone proved something of a challenge because the voice-recognition system failed to understand “Die Antwoord”. Finally I got through with “Daai Ant-word”. The concert at the Gramercy Theatre was booked out so I turned to Craigslist, the online classifieds, where a last-minute bidding war was under way. I got the last tickets going — for double the price.

The familiar sounds of a few South African accents wafted above the queue that snaked around Lexington Avenue, but most were American. Some of the girls wore lurid lycra tights. Though a lot older than the twenty­something crowd, I too was blown away by the band’s compelling, raw aesthetic and the intense sexual energy it generated on stage. A sinewy, Iggy Pop-like Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones in his latest incarnation) spat his aggro 1990s-style rap thick with raunchy Afrikaans lyrics over DJ Hi-Tek’s dance rave beats, to a pumping, several thousand-strong audience.

Vi$$er, the impish, subversive daughter of a dominee, gyrated in gold tights and tossed water into the crowd ­– every bit as ethereal and naughty as a pixie with her high, silvery voice and nasty, “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah”, little-girl persona.

I found the mix of rap, rave, guttural Afrikaans, trashy gangsta aesthetic and punk-rock agro all rolled into one as compelling and addictive a fix as any intravenous rush could claim to be.

An oddly euphoric feeling came over me when the crowd started chanting along to “Jou ma se poes in a fishpaste jar!” Was it national pride?

Love it or hate it, Die Antwoord has ninjaed its way on to the alternative world stage like no other South African band before it, kindling renewed interest in the Rainbow Nation — or “broken fruit salad”, as Jones puts it in an interview with Mother Jones — by opening a window onto a hitherto unknown warped piece of it — white trashville.

Through its arty, provocative music videos, sleepless online presence and relentless run of live acts abroad, Die Antwoord has generated a sizeable global fan base in a matter of months. Now, with the backing of alternative label Cherrytree Records and big-time US distributors Interscope, things can only get bigger.

The band’s largest following is in the US where Bohemian young hipsters with an appetite for edgy, original music have given it a hero’s welcome.
With its novel pop-art take on a distinctively South African white and coloured working-class culture, it has piqued the interest of those hungry for new material and fatigued by the hyper-polished rap and pop music that hogs the airwaves, all sounding the same.

Die Antwoord’s “poor but fancy” zef concept is intriguing for Americans, says Ian Herman, a San Francisco-based South African musician. “Most Americans’ ideas of South African culture are Krugerrands and a burning Soweto. People have no idea of the cultural diversity, so this uniquely South African ‘poor white’ vibe mixed with hip-hop rolling on to their laptops — it’s like ‘what the fuck?’?

“The beats that Ninja and Yo-landi perform against are generic and undemanding,” he says, “and the songs are arranged in short attention span, friendly, pop-dance style, which lends itself to repeated listening if you’re American,” he says.
Demetri Manolatos, a New York-based photographer, is an ardent fan. “They’re like two aliens. I’m still trying to figure out where they parked their spaceship,” he says. Nevertheless, he finds the music easy to relate to. Die Antwoord raps in a foreign language but its “music sounds familiar”.

Matthew Knuti, a 27-year-old fund-raiser and classical musician from Brooklyn, who owns the band’s debut album $O$, agrees. In his view Die Antwoord’s success lies in the fact that it offers “a window into another culture through a familiar gateway”.

Die Antwoord’s timing could not be better. The Fifa World Cup, Invictus and District 9 have helped shine a fresh spotlight on the old news story that post-apartheid South Africa had become.

Knuti says: “For the United States, South Africa has always occupied a unique position. Viewing South Africa makes us feel better about our racial politics. They [Die Antwoord] also give people the opportunity to engage in some light cultural voyeurism,” he says, likening the band’s success to that of British-Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A or Brooklyn-based rappers Das Racist.

Ironically, Die Antwoord’s US fans tend to be indie rather than rap or pop lovers, despite the band’s gauche, “anti-trendy” image. They are attracted to Die Antwoord’s boundary-pushing performance art and the ironic musical and cultural references, like 1990s’ rap and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, that they, as same-generation Americans, can identify with.

Die Antwoord’s reception at home is more complicated, however, with some seeing the band as the “national embarrassment” Vi$$er says it is. The band is vulnerable to the kind of criticism photographer Roger Ballen (a co-collaborator and major inspiration for Die Antwoord) stirred up with his disturbing, stylised photographic essays of poor whites in South Africa. Like Ballen, Die Antwoord would defend this portrayal of a “low life” aesthetic — or zef culture — as an expression of something innate and true. But others may see it as exploitation for art’s sake.

Nevertheless, the band has conveyed to a global audience that South Africa is a more nuanced place than many may previously have thought.
Manolatos says his interest in Afrikaans has grown and he has spent time trying to decipher the lyrics. Now Die Antwoord puts these translations on its website and explains the meaning of the lyrics on stage. It cleverly sprinkles predominantly English lyrics with Afrikaans. Too much Afrikaans would put people off.

The music videos and live acts are just as carefully choreographed. As Knuti says, Die Antwoord pushes the limits in a highly stylised way. “You get every suggestion that they know exactly what they’re doing.”

It’s the band’s post-modern celebration of the malleability of identity — Jones’s adoption of a Ninja personality like a Superman suit he never takes off — that appeals to fans like Stefano Fuzzi and girlfriend Nora Johnson. For them, the question of how authentic the band is is a moot point. Fuzzi, a 25-year-old performance artist and musician here, says: “I think they’re pretty much the most vital, exciting thing going on in music right now. They have perfected and polished the art of being unpolished.”

The pair dressed up as Ninja and Yo-landi for several Halloween parties and were recognised everywhere they went. Johnson (21) says she loves Die Antwoord because it’s “different from anything I’ve ever seen or heard before”.
Fuzzi says Jones’s Ninja character is compelling in its over-the-topness. “People identify with the character he impersonates. Ninja is completely free and visceral, acting on impulse; not rational or logical.”

Don’t the obscene lyrics and huge dildos that parade the sets turn people off? “So many hip-hop guys talk about their dicks,” says Fuzzi. “He’s just taking it to the maximum extreme. There’s lots of irony to it.”

Knuti believes the extremity of Die Antwoord’s act will only increase their popularity. “It’s so over the top. If you’re willing to consider it, then it’s hard to pull back. They’ve very successfully positioned themselves in a high/low way that is nearly unassailable. If you criticise them, it’s because you don’t ‘get it’ — they’re too ‘arty’ for you or you’re being judgmental.”

Knuti doesn’t think the band’s meteoric rise can be sustained, however. Neither does he see it breaking into the mainstream market. “When a band’s success is based on the spread of a viral video, it’s hard to live up to,” he says.

But the well of creative material overflowing from this duo seems limitless. Despite the hard-living image, they two are highly driven, largely teetotal workaholics. Moments after performing, Jones is apparently back at his computer. Interscope will surely inject sizeable muscle into the band’s coming projects: the next album, Ten$ion, and a planned feature movie, for example.

Fuzzi believes that, if managed ­properly, Die Antwoord could be one of the biggest things in American pop culture. “They’re doing something very unique that people have been hungering for.”