I have a very extensive catalogue of old articles that I think are worth revisiting. Here’s one of them, which I can hardly believe is almost a decade old. (This article originally appeared in The Georgia Straight.)
Justin Bieber is everywhere. The 16-year-old Canadian pop star and Twitter junkie has so thoroughly achieved global media saturation that he’s the unlikely first topic of conversation when the Georgia Straight connects with the members of zef-rap act Die Antwoord for a somewhat anarchic telephone interview. At the same time that MCs Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er are at home in Cape Town taking calls from Canada, Bieber is also somewhere in South Africa, on holiday. According to his constant barrage of tweets, the young singer is going on safaris, petting cheetahs, jamming with marimba ensembles, and meeting “incredible” SA girls.
As fate would have it, a Bieber song is the hold music to which Die Antwoord is subjected while waiting to talk with the Straight, a fact that prompts Ninja to remember the first time he saw a picture of the fresh-faced Ontario lad.
“I thought it was a girl,” the rapper insists, “and Yo-Landi said, ”˜That’s Justin Bieber.’ I was like, ”˜Whoa.’ He looks exactly like a girl!”
Ninja also offers his take on Bieber’s signature hairstyle—a helmetlike affair with bangs cascading down to his eyebrows—and what might be lurking beneath it: “Maybe he has an eye on his forehead, right in the middle.”
If Ninja seems more inclined to gossip about teenage pop stars than he is to discuss his own music, it’s probably because he’s tired of answering the same questions over and over; anyone exposed to Die Antwoord tends to stagger away shell-shocked, wondering, “Are these people for real?” and “What is zef, anyway?”
As a condition of interviewing Die Antwoord, all reporters are instructed to visit the group’s website and watch a video titled “Straight From the Horse’s Piel”. In addition to offering a flash of Ninja’s tattooed penis, the eight-minute mini documentary purports to answer the above questions, and then some. Like everything else Die Antwoord does, though, it really seems designed to make you wonder what the hell you have just witnessed, with Ninja’s obfuscations taking viewers further down the rabbit hole. Addressing the band’s much-discussed authenticity, for example, the lanky rapper offers the following: “It’s actually a deep question, that question, you know. ’Cause the only real things in life is the unexpected things. Everything else is just an illusion.”
By that yardstick, Die Antwoord is as real as they come. No one outside of South Africa—and few outside of Cape Town, for that matter—knew of the group before February 1 of this year. That was the day Boing Boing co-editor Xeni Jardin posted the videos for “Zef Side” (aka “Beat Boy”) and “Enter the Ninja” to the popular U.S.–based blog. Both clips instantly went viral, with the latter racking up more than 7.6 million YouTube views to date, thanks in large part to its off-the-chart WTF quotient. It’s a safe bet that no one watching the “Enter the Ninja” video had ever seen anything like it before. While Ninja spits head-spinning rhymes about decapitating haters, Vi$$er does a Lolita routine in a bedroom plastered with pictures of her bandmate and crawling with rats. While she lip-synchs the song’s helium-voiced hook, she changes out of what looks like a school uniform and into an oversized T-shirt that hangs off of one shoulder.
“Enter the Ninja” is striking enough on a musical level, its melodramatic, synth-swept beat topped by Ninja’s rapid-fire flow of English peppered with Afrikaans slang. But it was probably the physical appearance of Die Antwoord’s frontpersons that seemed so foreign to a North American audience accustomed to picture-perfect pop stars. Impossibly long and lean, and covered with what look like homemade tattoos, Ninja is menacing in a comic-book-villain sort of way, while Vi$$er’s petite frame and postlobotomy mullet give her the look of a Skipper doll whose platinum locks have been attacked by a toddler armed with a pair of scissors and a malevolent streak. (The group’s third member, the portly DJ Hi-Tek, is absent from the video, but his place is taken by Cape Town artist Leon Botha, who, at 25, happens to be one of the world’s oldest survivors of progeria, a condition that gives him a prematurely aged appearance.)
If Die Antwoord shocked North America, the feeling was mutual. Vi$$er says the band was totally unprepared for the sudden explosion of interest. “We didn’t even know people overseas,” she tells the Straight. “We didn’t even think that Die Antwoord would ever do well there. We just did it for ourselves. It grew in America first, and that was the biggest surprise to us ever. It wasn’t something that we planned.”
The group’s newfound success is, however, the culmination of years of toil. Ninja, who has claimed to be 35 but refuses to divulge his date of birth, has been at it the longest. His real name is Watkin Tudor Jones, but he has adopted a number of different personas over the years. The most notable of these is probably the clean-cut Max Normal, who—in addition to making adorably demented stuffed animals—wore a business suit on-stage and delivered satirically instructional and motivational raps set to PowerPoint-style visuals. It was still hip-hop, but its presentation seems pretty far removed from what Jones is doing now in his Ninja guise. It certainly wasn’t zef.
WHICH BRINGS US TO the other question on everyone’s lips: “What is zef?” At the risk of oversimplifying things, let’s just say it’s South Africa’s gift to lowbrow pop culture circa now, typified by a knowing obsession with all things kitschy, equal parts ghetto-fabulous flash and mobile-home trash.
The website Wat Kyk Jy? has been documenting zef for the past decade, which makes its one-named webmaster, Griffin, something of an authority on the subject. Speaking to the Straight on his cellphone in Johannesburg, Griffin explains the zef aesthetic in automotive terms. “You take a normal car, an entry-level car—something your dad would go to university with,” he says. “Let’s say it’s a small Toyota Yaris, right? It’s got one exhaust pipe. What you do is, you go to your scrap-metal dealer, you buy the thickest sewage pipe you can get, and you put that as an exhaust.”¦You make the car sound like the most bad-ass car on earth, and it still goes the same speed, if not lower. And you think it’s fuckin’ cool, and you’re pumping out beats in your car with a sound system that costs more than your wheels.”
Vi$$er freely admits that Die Antwoord had no part in creating the style of which it is now the leading (well, only) exporter. “It’s been around for years,” she says. “We were just the first people to rap about it and take the style and turn it into our style and present it as rappers. No one had presented it; it was always there. It was always the underdog. It was just part of a slang, you know? The same with, like, whatever slang’s floating around in New York. You maybe have some rap group who’s claimed that slang and made it their flavour. That’s kind of what we did. It was an accident. We did it because we were feeling the flavour.”
It probably goes without saying that in adopting zef as its own, Die Antwoord also took onboard considerable cultural baggage. The web has been ablaze with chatter about the group’s authenticity, with some bloggers pointing out that zef rose out of the poverty-ridden Cape Flats townships, and that Ninja’s appropriated gang tattoos could get him killed should he show his face in the wrong neighbourhood.
Others have posited that the whole thing is a brilliant piece of performance art, which would make Watkin Tudor Jones the Sacha Baron Cohen of South African rap, with Ninja his Ali G. Addressing that very question in “Straight From the Horse’s Piel”, Jones seems to be saying yes and no at the same time: “Ninja is like what Superman is to Clark Kent,” he says in the video. “The only difference is, I don’t take off this fuckin’ Superman suit.”
Whatever its back story, Die Antwoord’s skill at making records is undeniable. Its debut album, $O$, is a vulgar, crass, and ridiculous collision of thumping hip-hop beats, multilingual rhymes, and strobe-lit rave synthesizers. It also happens to be one of the best albums of 2010. $O$ is slated for release by Interscope imprint Cherrytree Records on Tuesday (October 12), which is also when the group plays a show in Vancouver, kicking off a 14-date North American tour. Controversial as it might be at home, Die Antwoord is bringing global attention to South Africa just as surely as District 9 and the FIFA World Cup did. With its history of institutionalized racism and deeply troubling recent statistics regarding rape, violence, and unemployment, the republic of nearly 50 million people isn’t always regarded favourably from the vantage point of more privileged nations.
“When people think of South Africa, they used to think of apartheid,” Vi$$er agrees. “There was a stigma attached to it, but no one had ever looked for the flavour of South Africa. Every place has its own funk, and the funk of South Africa is the zef fokken style. There’s a lot of zef people here.”
“I think everything you hear about South Africa is true, except for lions running in the streets and that kind of thing,” Griffin wryly notes. “We do drive nice cars, and we do live in houses. Everything is fine here and everything is not fine here. Things are cool, things are fucked up; it’s a rough place, but it’s also a beautiful place.
“You really have to come here and experience the country for yourself,” the webmaster concludes. “It’s four seasons in any given day. Just choose a province to go to—there’s wildlife, there’s city life, there’s everything. I don’t think there’s a country I would trade for South Africa. This country’s got a lot to offer, and I would say don’t judge until you’ve been here.”
As for Ninja, he seems comfortable in the role of cultural ambassador for his oft-troubled homeland, even while admitting that the place he lives is far from perfect. “It’s pretty much fucked, but we like it here; it’s fine,” he says. “We’re from here, and we represent South Africa. If you think of Die Antwoord, that’s South Africa. Zef is a perfect representation of South Africa. They should feel proud of us.”
No doubt they do, at least as much as Justin Bieber’s fellow Canadians feel proud of our little homegrown pop sensation. Well, maybe not quite that much.