Die Antwoord: South Africa’s answer to conformity
This strangely successful Afrikaner rap-rave troupe are a joyous middle-finger to the politically correct and the musically boring.
In a culture so saturated with manufactured popsters, with their over-the-top flicks and auto-tune, that even your wizened grandparents speak lovingly of One Direction’s Harry Styles, South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord are a welcome antidote. With a rude irruption on to the international music scene sometime in 2010, Die Antwoord (‘the answer’ in Afrikaans) have pissed a lot of people off. From the traditional rap hierarchy to Lady Gaga and the politically-correct brigade, everyone has an axe to grind.
Fronted by Afrikaners Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er, Die Antwoord are a group so nuts that they evade precise definition. Indeed, given the deliberately philistine and tongue-in-cheek nature of their lyrics, doing them the honour of a serious analysis is tough. Rapping in an interchangeable hybrid of Afrikaans, English and Xhosa, their tracks stay true to the genre’s convention of self-aggrandisement. A skit referring to Dr Dre on Eminem’s The Marshal Mathers LP informs us that rapping about ‘big screen TVs, bitches, forties and blunts’ is what sells records. That catechism has changed little.
Most will agree, however, that Die Antwoord’s music has an undeniable catchiness, and something about the staccato of their accents gives a biting edge to their raps, no matter the content. Their appeal is also bolstered by their image: two white-trash junkies of indeterminable age rattling off trenchant rhymes and flailing their genitalia at elated crowds, providing shocks and delights in equal measure. Ninja, the older of the pair, is tall and sinewy with a gaunt face and spiky Bart Simpson hair. Yo-Landi, undeniably the star of the show, is a delicate looking elfin woman. Much like in The Exorcist, seeing a childlike and seemingly innocent creature spewing pure filth stirs a sinister fascination.
Set apart by their unique image, the group explains that this is as important as their music. The name given to their attitude towards life and ideas is Zef, professed almost as a philosophy on their world tours. At its most simplistic, this is essentially a regional term that we might understand as ‘ghetto fabulous’. Incorporating bits of working-class white and coloured culture from the Cape Town suburbs, Zef is all about pride in poverty and self-creation. This weird-is-good approach is revitalising, especially in a popular music landscape increasingly devoid of individuality.
And as an entity, Die Antwoord certainly practice what they preach. Off stage, neither Yo-Landi nor Ninja tell the cameras that kids should stay in school and away from drugs. Rather, they emphasise total independence and the confidence to do whatever you goddam please. Their street cred increased dramatically when, in a much publicised spat, they rejected Lady Gaga’s offer of touring with her. Rubbing salt into the wound, they then went on to film a music video in which a Lady Gaga lookalike plays the dumb American on safari in inner-city Cape Town.
Conservative South Africans despise Die Antwoord, and it’s not hard to see why. In a country that still struggles internationally with its racist legacy, the establishment is horrified that the underbelly of South African society has been exposed so shamelessly to the world. Amusingly, this rejection is almost encouraged by Die Antwoord, who love to goad their critics (by blacking up in their videos, for example). But the conservatives miss the point. True, Die Antwoord are not sophisticated – they glorify sex, drugs and money. However, they also endorse an admirable cultural harmony and self-reliance which is borne-out by their adoring fanbase. ‘In the overseas they think I’m the shizzle/In South Africa they think I’m a criminal’, raps Yo-Landi.
Loved all over the world by a wide variety of people, the non-scenester quality to Die Antwoord’s music exemplifies their positivity and inclusiveness. Really, it is astonishing that a minority group whose music is flavoured entirely with an obscure local argot has attracted such attention and loyalty. If only all musicians had their moxie, and dared to defy convention as often, we might be rid of One Direction forever.
Emmet Livingstone is a writer living in London and a former intern at spiked.