In a junk shop near Gordons Bay*, I recently stumbled on a book called The Invisible Ninja: Ancient Secrets of Surprise.
The foreword starts with a quote: “Looked for, they cannot be seen; listened for, they cannot be heard; felt for, they cannot be touched.” The quote is attributed to “Old Ninja Legend”. How fortunate a name, I thought.
The book was published in 1983 and contains many photographs of how to stealthily evade or attack an enemy (the enemy being, in most photographs, a Che Guevara-esque guy – your everyday Cuban commie, you see). The “Ninja” in the pictures wears work overalls and what looks like a rather inexpensive (perhaps even homemade) balaclava.
Why the hell did I buy this book, apart from the fact that it chased nothing more than 10 bucks* out my pocket? I want to give it to Watkin Tudor Jones, otherwise known as Waddy, Max Normal or, these days, “Ninja.”
Ninja of Die Antwoord* is now known all over the world as “that guy” who raps in that “weird fucking language” (it’s Afrikaans*) and begs the question from YouTube-commentators: “…wtf… is this a joke?”
The best answer to this question I’ve been able to come up with is: No, it’s not a joke. But it’s not NOT a joke. To simply label it as “satire” and move on just wouldn’t do justice to what this group is doing.
Die Antwoord’s massive and instant internet success was never simply a stroke of luck. They’ve just come back from a US business tour where they reportedly signed a deal with Interscope Records – the same label that folds its motherly arms around (among others) Eminem, Rise Against, Dr Dre and, uhm, Enrique Iglesias.
Since then, they’ve been notoriously hard to reach. In an interview I did with them a while ago for the newspaper where I earn my crumbs of bread, Ninja did tattle on where their inspiration for the zef-rave-rap-themed band came from. This was only a few days after the world started taking notice of Die Antwoord.
“Have you ever seen a video clip called The Matrix: SA Style?” Ninja asked me. I hadn’t, but searched for it later that day. Sure enough, a whole lot of the soundclips and lyrics come from this piece. It’s a spoof of a 2003 MTV music awards spoof of The Matrix. The original spoof, featuring Justin Timberlake and Sean William Scott, was dubbed with nasty zef Afrikaans and English insults: “Nice name, where’d you get it? The Waterfront*?” is just one.
This video and the website www.watkykjy.co.za, which celebrates zef culture, are cited by Ninja as the biggest inspirations for the creation of Die Antwoord. The project’s been coming for more than two years. Ninja originally started planning a satirical movie about “the zeffest guy in the world” and then realised that he wanted to “become” this character. “We’ve tapped into our inner zef,” Ninja explains. “The world is suffering from an information overload. We’ve created something that cuts through that like a laser.”
But why is the world so fascinated with a bunch of “zef” rappers?
Die Antwoord and their far-reaching crew of collaborators and friends, including Jack Parow, Fokofpolisiekar*, Jaak Paarl and Garlic to name a few, have created something that not only celebrates the unusual and forgotten, but exalts it to the “next level”, if I may, Ninja.
Apart from that, their viral marketing plan, relying largely on the internet to do their work for them, has worked like a charm on crack. In the one corner, their highly intriguing website, complete with a “secret chamber”. In the other, their irresistibly unusual and high-quality music videos. It would never be long before blogging sites such as the popular Boingboing.net (based in the US) would pick up on this phenomenon and start spreading the word – thus was born the instant fame of Die Antwoord.
I paid a visit to one of the stars of their Enter the Ninja video (2 865 171 YouTube views and counting), Leon Botha aka DJ Solarize.
Botha, a revered artist and DJ in his own right, is one of the world’s oldest survivors of Progeria at 24. He recently collaborated with celebrated photographer Gordon Clark to produce a haunting exhibition – Transgressions: Who am I.
Hanging on every wall of Botha’s Brackenfell home are enlarged prints of selected photographs from this exhibition, with Botha having added his own artwork onto these canvases. The ever-enduring investigation, destruction and reconstruction of identity is hardly subtle – in fact, it might be considered narcissistic, weren’t it so hauntingly relevant in this land and its many societies.
“The world is not something that happens overseas,” he states assuredly. We’re chatting about the sudden explosion of creativity and originality in Afrikaans popular culture – perhaps a consequence of a severe na-dors* from the apartheid babbelaas*?
“I think we were all just really fed up,” says Botha of this sudden explosion. “Locally, people generally try to emulate whatever is happening overseas. Local art is always so focused on that precedence. People look at art and think: ‘But will it make money?’ A guy like Waddy had no guarantees.
“When you think about making fresh art… Well, you are the link. You are the reason that what you do will be something completely new.”
The contrasts of it all are inevitably what make it interesting enough to keep around, Botha postulates. His earlobes are fully studded, his forearms bear symbols of Egyptian mythology – not quite the images of a man with a rare disease that Huisgenoot* would want you to feel sorry for. But his condition as played a great part in his developed views on contrasts, his fascination with that which cannot be seen and how it ties into that which cannot be seen.
“That which you see on television is not reality… I don’t think there is such a thing as a tangible collective identity. Our ideas of good and bad, of how everything is supposed to be, are crumbling. Words are just shells of inner content. This is where my head is at… look at Die Antwoord’s Enter the Ninja video. In a way that video fucks you up completely. You don’s know what to think about it – to create that inner conflict for the viewer. The viewer becomes their own enemy in a sense.”
So identity as a mirror, in conjunction with what can be called extreme performance art, is a means to ask serious questions about social identity, collectively and individually? On one level, yes. But there’s an important, if subtle, difference between acting and embracing. And on the “next level”, becoming.
Jack Parow, the giftige* rapper from the Northern Suburbs*, has made quite a splash locally and internationally with his raps about Parow* culture and, notably, his hatred of the rich and pretentious. Case in point, his famous song: Jy Dink Jy’s Cooler As Ekke*.
But even with his novel baseball cap, oversized jewellery and gigantic handlebar moustache, he denies any “creation” of identity. Whether this is true or not, Zander Tyler (the name Jack Parow’s mother gave him) remains adamant that this is “how he is”, in the same way that Die Antwoord has disparaged the “haters” who deem them “fake”.
This is my style, this is who I am, this is how I grew up and this is what I live every day,” he says. “The way I look on the streets is the way I look on stage and at home I talk like I talk in my songs. I come from the place where all this kak* was born, and I still live in the place where all this kak comes from.”
He does agree, though, that local creatives are waking up in a new way.
“Ja, definitely my bra*, they’re waking up now and it’s fokken* kief*. I dunno why it’s only now, it’s probably just the right time,” he shrugs.
“I think we’re just something different,” he says of the sudden international appreciation. “I don’t think I sound like anyone else, and I think that’s what people like. I don’t rap about big chains or fancy cars, because I don’t have any of that kak. All the American raps are just about how fokken rich they are.”
What’s the one thing that stands most prominently in the way of South African creativity and originality?
What’s the greatest thing South African creatives have got going for them?
Parow’s postulation is that whatever’s happening here is more interesting than what’s happening internationally. South African creativity has “flavour, fokken super kief fancy braaivleis* flavour,” he says.
I suddenly find myself thinking about District 9, that film that grossed millions of dollars at theatres worldwide while being undeniably and unashamedly South African in its humour, context and allegory. South African creativity is becoming tired of toiling away at finding the end of a maze of guilt, confusion and, most of all, minority complexes.
Now that I think about it, I hope Die Antwoord remain hard to get in touch with. And I kind of hope I never get to give Ninja that book. He doesn’t need it.
To say that Die Antwoord, Jack Parow, Leon Botha and scores of other artists are obsessed with identity in this country would be an understatement.
Take, for instance, Bok van Blerk’s song De La Rey in which he sings about an Afrikaner general in the Anglo-Boer War, calling for the general to come lead the boers*. The song came out in 2006 and stirred an enormous (and emotionally messy) public debate over Afrikaner identity, stripped of power in a post-apartheid society.
Compare that with this – Ninja opens the group’s track Whatever with: “Check it… I represent South African culture. In this place, you get a lot of different things. Blacks, Whites, Coloureds, English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, watookal*. I’m like… all these different things, all these different people, fucked into one person.”
To which Yo-Landi calmly responds: “Whatever, man.”
I’ve heard a lot of commentators on Afrikaans music and art saying that it’s not like in “the old days”, where singers and artists considered original were overtly subversive and against the apartheid regime. They miss the point.
If there is still a collective cause or struggle for not just Afrikaans artists, but all South African artists, the days of it being an outward struggle are over. The struggle has turned inward.
The rock group Fokofpolisiekar made waves in the early “Naughties” with their explicitly honest lyrics regarding religion, Afrikaner identity and the hypocrisy of Afrikaner society. They were rewarded with numerous bomb threats and beatings at the hands of conservatives for their effort.
Die Antwoord, in their own words, take it to the “next level”. They’ve snuck up, unseen, unheard, unfelt – like a Ninja – onto the scene, with a bag on their shoulders like a belly full of undigested cultural foodstuffs just begging to be punctured.
Tongue-in-cheek, yes. Yet, undoubtedly real.
The fluidity and multi-faceted aspects of identity, be it individual or collective, is a drift that remains hard to catch. Yet Die Antwoord and friends are riding it like kings. Or queens. Or rodents. Or space aliens.
* For the foreigners
- Zef: Remains hard to define. The word is derived from a Ford Zephyr car and basically refers to white trash culture – fur on the dashboards, drag racing, fights, the works.
- Gordon’s Bay: A suburb at the beach near Cape Town, known for second-hand shops and ice-cream.
- Bucks: Monetary units.
- Die Antwoord: South African zef-rap-ravers, translates as “The Answer”.
- Afrikaans: One of South Africa’s 11 official languages, derived mostly from Dutch but with Mandarin, French and English influences.
- Waterfront: The Victoria&Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town, a very touristy shopping, leisure and restaurant centre.
- Fokofpolisiekar: Fuck off police car.
- Na-Dors: “After-thirst” or the dehydration typically experienced the morning after the night before.
- Babbelaas: Hangover.
- Huisgenoot: Very popular Afrikaans gossip magazine that often runs sentimental and/or sensationalist stories.
- Giftige: Poisonous. Slang for very cool, very talented and very potent.
- Northern Suburbs: The suburbs to the north of Cape Town, typically stereotyped as being the cradle of zef.
- Parow: A suburb north of Cape Town known for drag races, brandy and general zef-ness.
- Jy Dink Jy’s Cooler As Ekke: You think you’re cooler than I am.
- Kak: Shit.
- Bra: Short for “brother” as in “bro”.
- Fokken: Fucking (adj).
- Kief: Cool.
- Nicholis Louw: One of the most popular Afrikaans bubblegum pop artists.
- Brannewyn: Brandy, the supposed “drink of choice” of Afrikaners.
- Braaivleis: Barbequed meat. The act of “braai-ing” is a near holy experience in Afrikaans culture.
- Boers: Literally translated as “farmers”, but culturally translated as Afrikaners.
- Watookal: Whatever.