Thursday, March 18, 2010

Die Antwoord

NINJA and Yolandi look just like their web incarnations when they take to the stage at the Alexander Theatre in Joburg. Ninja is sporting his signature brush-cut last seen on churlish Afrikaners in the eighties. A pair of boxer shorts bearing the artwork from Pink Floyd’s 1973 album, Dark Side of The Moon, hangs loosely on his emaciated frame. His bony, bare chest is colonised by tattoos some of which display the names of notorious Cape Flats gangs. In other words, he is every bit an eighties-throwback with a Cape coloured flavour. He is like an impoverished protagonist, whose hybrid look is both a result of creative invention as it is born of necessity.

Yolandi may be petite, childlike, even a touch delicate looking with her wispy ashen-blonde hair, but her svelte frame covered in a gold body suit is subject to angry, sharp movements. She darts around the stage like a pugilist warming up for a fight. She’s the antithesis of the retiring pretty “Afrikaanse meisie”. Their lyrics are a conflation of languages and accents, echoing their mongrel status. They are also crass and full of expletives - they would even make a Bergie blush. DJ Hitek, said to be the music powerhouse behind the band, recedes into the background. This is not the “real” DJ HiTek, just someone standing in for him, his public stand-in – apparently the real figure doesn’t want public exposure. Maybe he is a pimpled teen churning out hardcore beats from his bedroom. Maybe he is already in the public eye – aligned to another band or brand of music.
“DJ Hitek is a concept,” posits Roelof Van Wyk, an artist who is friendly with Die Antwoord.
Monochromatic child-like drawings flicker on screens positioned around the stage. They are haunting stylised representations of human faces inspired by the naïve doodles that appear in Roger Ballen’s photographs of impoverished Afrikaners living on the fringes our society. The visual association isn’t superficial; Ninja and Yolandi look like the kind of couple that well-heeled suburbanites would only encounter if their car broke down while traversing through a no-go neighbourhood on the periphery of Cape Town, in suburbs where the boundaries between impoverished whites and coloureds are loosely defined.

The audience mostly comprises middle-class English-speaking suburbanites. It is more than voyeuristic curiosity that has brought them to a Die Antwoord concert. Die Antwoord are not a regular band, certainly by South African standards. Their rise to fame via social media and the internet has been unprecedented for a local music act; within the space of two weeks they went from being a local phenomenon to a legend in such far-flung places as the Russian Federation.

They are a cultural oddity. It is not every day that a white, English-speaking South African from Randburg parades as a coloured Afrikaner from the wrong-side of the tracks, appropriating the patois from the Cape Flats. But Waddy Jones aka Ninja is not your average muso; he has a gift that extends beyond musical savvy. He is a theatre-maker, a visual artist with a chameleon-like nature. He penetrates beneath the skin of his own creations.

His incarnation as Ninja has caught the world’s attention. Blogs, websites and twitter are aflutter with discussions about Die Ant-woord. What are they? What do they represent? Are they real? Is there a historical precedent for what they are doing?

These are some of the questions that this iconoclastic band are raising. Clearly, while this musical act might be called Die Antwoord, the answer, no one seems to be sure what the question might be. In this way Die Antwoord seem to be presenting an unfathomable riddle. Are they parodying Afrikaner culture or elevating its status, giving it cool-street cred? Can they rightfully appropriate Cape Coloured culture as their own, when they are white? Are they mocking this culture or do they genuinely feel an affinity for this segment of our society?

The band aren’t giving out any answers: despite all the buzz they have generated they have desisted from granting interviews. It might be part of their cunning strategy to establish themselves as enigmatic pop heroes.

Unlocking the significance or unveiling the motivation behind Die Antwoord probably comes down to grasping Jones’s modus operandi. Those in the know rave about the innovative electronica and rap music he pioneered with his former band Max Normal, but the manner in which Jones has harnessed visuals, costume, and characterisation in the production and presentation of his music indicates that he is an interdisciplinary performer whose work traverses and exploits elements of the visual arts, pop culture and theatre. The Pink Floyd shorts he wears offer a clue to the historical roots for the kind of musical sensibility he has embraced. This British band were after all one of the first musical acts to blur the boundaries between art and music, pioneering live shows in which the performance aspects became an integral part of their expression. This approach has become embedded in music production, manifesting not only in the visual components of a musical act but in the construction of many pop personas.

In a recent interview with the rising princess of pop, Lady Gaga, she suggested that the time she spent studying acting and drama was more beneficial to her career than studying music, engendering the notion that musical performance has its roots in theatre. During his Max Normal TV phase, Jones paraded quite a different character to the one he is associated with now. Replete in a business suit and tie, he appeared like a conventional, conservative character.

The pseudo instructional videos that he created further extend this business-like approach and the cheerful, simple lyrics are reminiscent of TV shows for kids. But they are full of subversive sexual innuendos. In songs such as Dassie, the lyrics are centred around a “back-to-front bum demon” – a wry reference to homosexuality. In Max Normal’s Eat Meat video Yolandi (Visser) talks about how “racism is wrong and leads to drug abuse” – it’s all very tongue-in-cheek, parodying the PC attitudes that have emerged since 1994. In these videos Jones seems to advocate liberal moralising while simultaneously mocking its dogmatic thrust and always testing its boundaries. In other words, Jones revels in occupying two contradictory positions simultaneously.

Die Antwoord is a continuation of this approach, in the guise of Ninja, Jones vacillates between embracing a multicultural identity but at the same time mocks the artifice not just of the persona but of the impulse to identify with a group. Some fans have expressed their disappointment with the fact that Die Antwoord is a construction, that Jones is just playing an angry nihilistic Afrikaner. However, the boundaries between Jones and his Cape coloured alter ego are completely blurred, according to Andy Davis, who has observed Jones’s career evolve over the last decade. He is also the editor of Mahala magazine, a publication focused on youth culture, whose online edition has served as platform to analyse Die Antwoord and for fans to exchange ideas on the topic.

“He has become Ninja. He won’t speak to a journalist unless they address him as Ninja,” says Davis, who suggests that off-stage Jones has become his onstage identity. The fact that Jones has tattooed the names of gangs from the Cape Flats onto his body implies that he is fully committed to his new identity, urges Davis.

In grasping Jones’s assimilation of the Ninja character, Van Wyk proposes that Jones operates like a method actor, in the sense that he remains in character off stage too. Of course, method actors risk losing themselves in the characters they assume.

Many describe Jones as a “control freak”, who plans and oversees the minutiae of his musical/visual products.

“He wears a dolphin (earring) in his ear and if you look carefully you will notice a dolphin painted on the wall in the background of one of his videos. That is not a coincidence; he put it there. It is part of his composition. Every single thing is thought through,” observes Van Wyk.

Jones had an opportunity for worldwide success years back when his band Max Normal caught the attention of Nelly Furtado, but he desisted from signing up for the big time because it might have involved compromises he was unwilling to make, according to Davis

“He didn’t return Furtado’s calls. The rest of the band were furious, potentially she was offering them international success. But I think he knew that it wouldn’t have been creatively satisfying. He likes to push himself into creative spaces,” observes Davis.

Die Antwoord first caught locals’ attention after their performance at the Oppi Koppi musical festival last year, but their genesis can be traced back to Yolandi’s Afrikaans accented rap in tracks such as Rap Made Easy from Max Normal’s 2008 album Good Morning South Africa.

Interestingly, one reviewer found the rap “false” and “irritating”, declaring that such songs weren’t a good example of “Waddy’s new direction”.

At what point and why Jones decided to move his practice in a completely divergent path to Max Normal is hard to establish, but certainly it isn’t hard to see why the Cape Coloured persona, which has been a popular target for caricature in this country, could be appealing to an artist looking to rally against convention. The coloured personality also signifies the amalgamation of all the different races in South Africa thus it serves as the ideal vehicle to engage with the politics of identity.

In one track Ninja sings that “There is a coloured in me that just wants to be discovered.”

This has led Davis and others to believe that by appropriating a Cape Coloured identity, Jones was establishing the notion that just as black South Africans have battled to define themselves beyond their racial identity, so too do whites wish to redefine themselves outside of their racial profile.

“I think Ninja is telling us that we all have the right to self-determination. If we (as white people) want to be coloured, or Xhosa we can be. Just because you are born into white middle class suburbia doesn’t mean that you can’t be something else,” says Davis.

For a white English-speaking South African to embrace the identity of a Cape coloured is a powerful transgressive act.

In other parts of the world, however, it isn’t unusual for musicians to embrace a street-style persona and low-brow or working-class vocabulary, particularly in the realm of rap, where affluent musicians living in good neighbourhoods still employ the lingo of the ’hood.

The Britpop movement that took root in the UK in the ’90s, also saw bands such as Blur appropriate a mock cockney or mockney as they call it, to create music that fitted in with a broader trend which was seeking to valorise the working-class or as some of have suggested a form of nostalgia for a time before deindustrialisation nullified the notion of a working class. This trend manifested in the art scene too, where artists boasted of their working-class backgrounds and established low-class aesthetics as desirable.

In South Africa aesthetisising or popularising Afrikaner lowlife culture gives credence to a segment of our population that has been ostracised. It also comes with the baggage of the politics of representation: who is permitted to speak on behalf of coloureds?

Van Wyk believes that Die Antwoord are giving the marginalised a voice.

“In songs like Rich Bitch Yolandi is singing about a young girl, her best friend, who only ever got a standard eight and can’t get a job. She helps out at the door (at their gigs). That song is about her,” asserts Van Wyk.

“I think Ninja is trying to tell us that Cape coloured culture is our culture too,” suggests Davis.

Davis and other journalists have framed their understanding of Die Antwoord within the context of Afrikaans indie rock and rap, contextualising them within the Afrikaans music scene emerging out of Belville, in Cape Town, and Pretoria. Nevertheless there is a sense that Die Antwoord are simply parodying these bands, mocking their angry angst ridden music.

According to Van Wyk, their song Jou Ma’s se poes in the Vispaste Jar directly pokes fun at bands such as Sibot.

“We are all tired of Fokofpolisiekar. I think they (Die Antwoord) are tired of these Afrikaans artists copying others instead of creating new work.”

Chris Chameleon, the solo artist and frontman of Boo!, believes that Die Antwoord have shaken up the Afrikaans music scene.

“They are highly exceptional in the Afrikaans music landscape, but rather less exceptional in the English music landscape. The hardcore element, the freedom of expression, the machine gun tight rapping and free associative thinking that drives the thought processes are all familiar qualities in the global rap scene.

“But they are completely new to Afrikaans, which indeed makes Die Antwoord the answer to, as they put it, raising the game to the next level for Afrikaans. They fulfil the same role as Voelvry, Karen Zoid and Fokofpolisiekar have each done in the last 20 years – pushing Afrikaans thinking beyond the restraints of its self imposed cultural prison,” asserts Chameleon.

Of course, Jones is choosing to be Afrikaans rather than being involuntary subjected to the restraints that, that identity might entail. The language and the baggage that comes with that identity perhaps best allows him to articulate the sense of disillusionment that pervades communities that have been marginalised by the new government. English-speaking South Africans could to some degree justifiably claim to fallinto this category. But how do you claim victimhood when you are still viewed as the oppressor?

Seventies punk bands like The Sex Pistols or The Clash found it easier to snarl in the cockney accent. The Cape coloured brogue provides Jones and Visser with an apt vocabulary to express frustration – as well as finding a way to legitimately claim victimisation.

Afrikaans music acts also pull bigger audiences than English, so Jones’s choice to embrace the language might have been driven by purely practical concerns too.

“He was hungry for influence. Now he is known all around the world and I think it is well deserved. Just like he sings in Ninja (one of Die Antwoord’s hit songs) no one believed in him, they thought he was a freak, a weirdo. He says he is going to make everyone dress like him. I think that is exactly what has happened,” concludes Davis. - published in The Sunday Independent, 14 March, 2010.


Unknown said...

This just shows the value of 'the new'.
Many of the comments that I have been picking up on the interweb about Die Antwoord have been based on what role marketing has played in driving Die Antwoord? I have been trying to piece things together and I think it boils down to people being bored with the same old trash being marketed by mainstream media, shiny carbon copies of each other. Non-South Africans and South Africans have been slapped in the face with something they don't understand - something new, and they love it. But is it art? Oh yes indeed, that's what will give them longevity.

Anonymous said...

I love it! It's a hype here in the Netherlands. Hope to find some merchandise on the fansite soon as well :)

Allie Hoenes said...

What nonsense.You confirm what many of us suspect he is in blackface.

BTW, what is a "Cape coloured"?