So many questions, so few answers (published in Art South Africa, August 2010)
Fronted by Watkin Tudor Jones of Max Normal fame, Die Antwoord has caused ripples locally and internationally (just google it) and have signed with Interscope (Lady Gaga, Blackeyed Peas, 50Cent), or are on the verge of signing with them. One can’t be sure: it’s the internet, Die Antwoord, and there are conflicting reports.
Jones’s present incarnation is Ninja, a hardegat, working-class white Afrikaans man who either has truck, or wishes he had truck, with hardegat ‘coloured’ gangsters. Ninja sports gold caps and tattoos in prison fonts, some of them icons of number gangs (but no actual number) and some of them phrases from gang lexicons, like “Pretty Wise”.
With Ninja is Yo-landi Vi$$er, Jones’s partner in real life. Dressed often in skimpy clothing, she raps with Ninja and provides the visual attraction which finds approval with most adolescent heterosexual men. Completing the core of Die Antwoord is DJ Hi-Tek, who provides ‘next level’ beats with a genealogy stretching back from the crazy techno beats pumping from some taxies on the Cape Flats line to 80s pop.
The band celebrates and/or ironises ‘zef’. A white Afrikaans slang term, ‘zef’ describes and impugns working-class culture otherwise known as ‘bad taste’: fur on the dashboard, plastic on the settee, ducks to the wall. In other countries where such middle-class snobbishness obtains, it might be called ‘redneck’ or ‘chav’ culture. Die Antwoord also cultivates a hardegat ‘fuck you’ attitude to any disapproval of their zef ‘roots’. Within the conceit of Die Antwoord – which requires a suspension of disbelief that erases Jones and Visser’s real life in a high-rent Cape Town neighbourhood – the invented persona, Ninja, does not care what you think of him and his zef aesthetic.
Ninja lives a fluid racial identity and displays it also through his ‘next level’ verbal dexterity, flitting among several working-class dialects in both English and Afrikaans. Lyrics, Facebook updates and what-what are filled with phrases like ‘my blaar’ (literally ‘my leaf’, figuratively ‘my friend’) and the sexism of ‘Never make a pretty woman your wife’ (a song lyric from the 80s and a bon mot one might find tattooed on a gangster). Ninja then becomes a symbol of a particular masculine form of a South African hybrid identity, and critics and fans are excited that this hybrid identity is on the verge of mass consumption the world over.
The band has caused an internet storm, leading to the talks with Interscope and to mild hysteria among critics over the appeal of a hybrid South African identity to international audiences. WhoIs statistics provide modulation: the top origins of hits on the band’s site are: South Africa (37%), USA (21%), Germany (9%), UK and Netherlands (6% each), and Russia (3%) (checked 12 April 2010). Consider a South African diaspora and one wonders how many of their 60 000 monthly visitors (average over 3 months) constitute the mass international audience who are ready to consume this hybrid South African symbol.
Naturally, questions around cultural appropriation have been raised by some critics, myself included (http://is.gd/bqPET). One wishes that one could consider Die Antwoord as ‘just a band’ on the verge of international success, and therefore to be celebrated as a South African cultural achievement, as well as a celebration of Waddy Jones’s chameleon genius. But the band itself foregrounds issues of race – in lyrics and in interviews Jones/Ninja wants to ‘discover his inner coloured’. It is thus not unusual to consider questions of appropriation, considering also the real life distance between Waddy Jones and Ninja (a white, Afrikaans, working-class character), and Ninja and his own influences.
That Ninja sports gang-style tattoos but not an actual number shows that Jones is aware of the issues that surround cultural appropriation. Or, the gangs’ defence of symbols makes concrete such issues. Jones knows he can get into real life trouble if he sports a number without being a member of the relevant gang. In other words, he knows that he is close to stepping over a boundary and thus uses only what he can get away with. And so Jones’s cleverness lies in the cover Ninja provides to critical commentary. In the end criticism can be deflected by insisting on Ninja as artistic invention.
Song lyrics mirror this awareness of boundaries. “Dagga Puff Puff” is 99% stoner celebration, but reframed, unconvincingly, as moral tale at the end with “rook te veel dagga en dink oor jou lewe” (Smoke too much marijuana and think on your life). “Scopie” celebrates macho sexual fantasy, in appropriately vulgar language, but ends on the fade out with “I am the one/ the one wat fokkol poes vanaand gaan kry” to undercut the macho stance (I am the one/ the one who’ll get fuckall pussy tonight). Is this Waddy Jones stepping in to prevent Ninja overstepping?
It certainly shows an indulgence with sexual fantasy and the vulgar, but can’t let that stand. The ending on the fade out then reveals an ambivalence. The moral of the story is there, but hardly audible. Ninja has apparent free reign, but Jones is there to chide him. You can have your answer and answer it.
This shows Jones’s own awareness of what he is flirting with, and thus questions about that flirtation and cultural appropriation remain. Is it Ninja that wants to save the song from its adolescence by providing a moral ending, or is it Waddy Jones? Is it Ninja who feels he shouldn’t tattoo a ‘27’ or ‘28’ on his chest, or is it Waddy Jones? For all these answers, why?