'Are Die Antwoord blackface?'
"Brother man, I'm blacker than you. I'm keeping it real ... "
Although Die Antwoord's parodies reference white and coloured working-class subjects, it is clear that the artists themselves are far better resourced than the subjects of their work. The set design, props, costumes, cinematography and editing of the band's first music video, Enter the Ninja, suggest that a great deal of conceptualisation and expertise went into producing this video.
The video opens with Ninja (aka Waddy Jones) addressing the camera directly: "Checkit. Hundred per cent South African culture. In this place, you get a lot of different things. Blacks, whites, coloureds. English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, watookal [whatever]. I'm like all these different things, all these different people, fucked into one person."
Before this monologue, there is a close-up shot in which only the left side of his face and naked shoulder are visible in the low-lit set. His head is tilted down and his eyes are closed as he holds his hands to his face, as if in prayer. Shots of tattoos on his body – including an image of cartoon character Richie Rich accompanied by his name, a hand wielding a knife, and the words "pretty wise" at the base of his throat – flash briefly across the screen, accompanied by eerie sound effects that one normally encounters in horror films or slasher movies.
As he begins to speak, we do not see his eyes; we mostly just see his mouth, which draws attention to what appear to be gold fillings in his teeth. Ninja is supposed to seem sinister and menacing by associating the opening scene with the genre of the slasher or horror film, specifically those parts of such films where the edits and sound effects signify that the plot is about to take a violent twist at the hands of a "psycho", a term he references towards the end of the music video. This appearance is facilitated by the tattoos on his body.
Although his accent may mark Ninja, Jones's character, as white, Afrikaans-speaking and working-class, the tattoos allude to Cape Flats gang culture. In fact, the references to the knife, Richie Rich and the graffiti image of Casper the friendly ghost wielding a large penis are reminiscent of prison-gang tattoos and gang graffiti. The term "pretty wise" alludes to raak wys – a call for people to become wise or "get with the programme". To become wise, in this context, means to become streetwise or to obtain the knowledge that is needed to gain the respect of the gang members.
The aesthetic of the tattoos on Ninja's body mimics those of prison-gang tattoos, too, in that they appear to be hand-drawn – as they are in prisons with the makeshift materials at gang members' disposal. Ninja's tattoos allude to prison tattoos connotatively without actually making denotative connections; the band does not refer directly, but alludes to the Numbers Gang through tattoos and the graffiti that appears in the background of their set. The set design and costumes of Die Antwoord evoke associations with coloured gang culture without actually confronting the gritty detail of township life under the shadow of gangs.
Ninja's lyrics operate in a similar manner by using terms and expressions associated with Cape Flats gangster-speak: "Trying to fuck up my game with razor-sharp lyrical throw-stars, here my flow's hot/ ho$tyle, wild out of control/ Ninja skop befokte roftaal [Ninja kicks fucking rough language], rough rhymes for tough times."
In this context, "ho$tyle" alludes to either gangster style or cool style. The use of the dollar sign in Afrikaans blogger Griffin's transcriptions of Enter the Ninja is also a reference to gang graffiti, which often employs these symbols in words where the letter "s" is meant to be used. One could read the repetition of these symbols with Cape gangsters' obsession with American culture as well as the desire to become rich.
In essence, superficial references to Cape gang culture are made to establish the street credibility of Jones's persona, Ninja. The rap borrows from battle rhymes in its rhetorical aggression and boasts that: "Ninja is poes koel, but don't fuck with my game boy or I'll poes you ... "
The term "poes" is a pejorative term for "vagina"; here, it is used as an adjective that qualifies the term "cool" ("koel"). Ninja's repetitive use of this term, along with other Afrikaans expletives, is meant to position him as "hardcore".
It is ironic that Jones, the crew's founding member, is neither coloured nor white Afrikaans working class; rather, he is a well-resourced white, English-speaking South African.
Die Antwoord's use of the nonstandard dialect of Afrikaans that is often spoken in Cape Flats townships, created by the apartheid state's Group Areas Act to separate erstwhile coloured, white and black African citizens to further its system of racial categorisation, amounts to cultural appropriation given that coloured subjects themselves have not been able to convert their cultural expressions into symbolic capital.
Like Wikus, the protagonist of District 9 who literally becomes an alien in a film that references apartheid-era racism and forced removals in neighbourhoods such as District Six, Jones "goes native" by adopting the Cape Flats dialect of Afrikaans, by acquiring tattoos that reference Cape township gang subcultures and by employing Afrikaans expletives that are stereotypically associated with Cape coloured gangsters.
Jones's transformation into Ninja of Die Antwoord happens both literally, through the transformation of his body with tattoos, and figuratively, through his use of language. Like Wikus, Jones operates in the tradition of blackface minstrelsy; he needs to "blacken up" to make his performance work. He becomes a wit kaffer [a white black person], in other words.
Ultimately, diverse South African subjects' access to the necessary social and economic capital to produce internationally competitive cultural products is constrained by South Africa's neoliberal economic policies, which have done little to reduce racialised class inequalities, as well as by hegemonic perceptions of blackness.
In essence, this is how a privileged, white, English-speaking South African artist is able to "go native" and become a Web 2.0 viral marketing success story in the US and Europe.
Download the full version of Static: Race and Representation in Post-Apartheid Music, Media and Film by Adam Haupt, published by Jacana.
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".
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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.
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