The Jackpot Question

“ons weet wat is die antwoord,

maar wat’s die fokken vraag?”

Die Vraag

 

© Erdmann Contemporary / Roger Ballen

It should be common knowledge by now that Die Antwoord is the brainchild of Waddy Jones, aka Ninja, and Anri du Toit, aka Yo-landi, (the accent being on common). DJ Hi-Tech is also a member of this band, but he seems to have a plethora of personas. We know he is human, and produces the beats. But is he fat or thin, white or brown, tall or short? Ninja’s scowling brows and gold-toothed sneer is familiar territory, as well a Yo-landi’s Lolita lo-life sex-kitten persona, and of course her unbelievable vocal range.

Not having much ooghare for their music, I gave them a wide berth at the beginning of their meteoric rise to world fame. But I liked their pluck, so I always kept an eye on their music videos and interviews. Much has been written about this band. I would even venture to say that more has been written about Die Antwoord than any other South African band before them, perhaps even more than ALL of them, together. At least one person is basing a PhD on them. Naturally, not every word written has been positive, but interestingly a lot of the negative reports originate locally. What features most, are accusations of appropriation. And lately, these accusations are coming hard and fast, like machine gun shots in Heideveld. But more about that later…

From the beginning, Die Antwoord has been stepping on toes. In fact, they’ve made it a trademark. Their fuck-you attitude is quite a healthy one, actually. The music industry deserves a little backchat and middle –finger posturing from the musicians it exploits, and there is too little of that going on. I can see the look of disbelief on the vice-president at Interscope’s face when he received that mail from Die Antwoord, telling him to shove his deal up his arse. Who would dare to say no thanks to a reported $1 million advance? Has he ever been tuned like that? Who would turn down a starring role in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Yo-landi, of course. It seems as if Jones and Du Toit knew exactly what they were doing, and where they wanted to be. They weren’t interested in their own backyard, which barely has space for a fishpond, a garden gnome and a braai. They were always more interested in the world out there – and who can blame them? Jones had been flogging a half-dead middle-aged horse for years with his previous incarnation as Max Normal, to little avail. And the clock was ticking. Rather a worldly ninja than a sugarman, anytime.

There is no doubt that Die Antwoord is The Sex Pistols of this decade. And the world hasn’t had one of those for quite a while. Ninja is Sid Vicious and Malcolm McLaren rolled into one, dripping menace while playing the game on his own terms. And, it’s all very proudly Souf Efrican:

“Fuck the system

We have our own system

We make our own rules

We don’t answer to no-one”

(Lyrics from Never le Nkenise)

February 2010 – Die Antwoord release their first videos online – Enter The Ninja, followed by Zefside, which cleverly includes a mock interview, allowing them to contextualize the Zef world that they’re trying to had introduce. That month, according to the website watkykjy, they get an unbelievable 41 million hits. 41 MILLION HITS – IN LESS THAN 30 DAYS!! Nothing, but nothing South African has ever done that. Not William Kentridge or Tretchikoff; not Mandela on his sickbed; not Zuma at his worst or Juju at his best, and definitely not Steve Hofmeyr. In a move of genius they then release their first album, $O$, online, as a free download. What started as a genuine call for help from a man desperate for success has become an overnight sensation: Within weeks they are snowed under with offers from all over the world. A world tour is waiting. Record deals, lots of cash in the form of $$, babes in the wings, thousands of badly dressed fans. This could be a Hollywood movie…

But even at this early stage there are accusations of appropriation: the Glue Gang Boys, a crew of homeless Cape Town youths, claim that Ninja sucked them dry (metaphorically speaking) and stole their style, and the drawing of Evil Boy (a rendering of Casper the Good Little Ghost with massive hard-on) from Wanga Jack, one of the rappers. Also, Afrikaans rapper Duitsman is claiming unpaid royalties for My Best Friend and $copie (acknowledged by Ninja in an email). One of the sets in the ‘Enter The Ninja’ video features drawings taken straight from a Roger Ballen photograph. (Later, they admit that they painted their entire house with similar imagery). But Ballen, ever the pragmatist, opts to work with them, instead of taking legal action. Says Ballen: a photographer may have a 100 people view his work, but a band has 10 000 people seeing them”. He is given the opportunity to co-direct the music video “I Fink You Freeky”, and releases a limited edition series of digital photographs, which sells more copies locally than his entire oeuvre to date. The list of appropriations goes on: The Butterfly song; The Butcher Boys by sculptor Jane Alexander; sequences from Delia Derbyshire, the Sixties experimental music pioneer. Even some real-life gangstas are upset that this snotkop called Ninja is fokking with their chappies and taal. There’s talk of a hit. And they don’t mean a hit parade hit…

Looking back, it becomes clear as daglig that from the start, Die Antwoord was all about appropriation. Ninja, according to himself, is “a symbol of all the peoples of South Africa, fucked into one person “. Together they selected the foul combo of white trash Afrikaner/coloured flatlands gangsta as their chosen peoples, mashed them up, appropriated the tattoos, accents, taal and styles – the very culcha of this unbearable bastard – and made it not only bearable, but desirable. It’s hard to believe, I know, but this is the genius of Mr. Waddy Jones. A New York fan described their concert there as “a window into another culture through a familiar gateway”. Perhaps, at last, Americans will not only understand us, but like us, or at least identify with us, and realize that South Africa is a country, not a direction – thanks to Die Antwoord.

It’s not like they invented a new form of rapping, have fantastic voices or lyrics, look like Beyoncé, or move like Michael Jackson. Instead, they have given the stiff middle finger to Magnetron (a prominent Dutch rap label), Interscope, Lady Gaga, David Fincher and the population of the world in general. They wear BAD clothes, swear all the time, and come across as total dofkoppe on TV. They are this century’s “last and greatest outbreak of pop-based moral pandemonium” – previously accredited to The Sex Pistols by journalist Sean O’ Hagan. But somehow, bizarrely, the world has become their oyster. They hobnob with the likes of Takashi Murakami, David Lynch, Roger Ballen and David Wang. They are Iggy Pop’s favourite rap band and Harmony Korrine has made a (very funny) short film with them. And now they are working with Neill Blomkamp on his latest film project, Chappie, where they play themselves.

How have they done it? It’s a miracle, really. Like a gangsta Jesus multiplying the fish-paste and brandy-and-coke at the block party. With those accents, and that music? And yet, in the process, they may have become the biggest South African export, ever. Perhaps even bigger than apartheid….

Whether you love or hate their music and their parody of the worst side of us as a nation, you have to respect their attitude, their marketing suss, their sense of humor, and their undeniable talent for pastiche, The Damascus experience of Waddy finding his “inner coloured” and Anri her “binne-slet” has beyond every doubt worked for them. They went fishing, and hooked a market. Simple as that. And clearly, they’ve had a lot of fun doing it.

But a dark cloud hovers over their success: For how long can they avoid the accusations of wholesale appropriation? Sampling and appropriation of music, art, writing, even brands, has become common practice in today’s creative world. Everything is derived from something, and the old chestnut that nothing is original is a truism. Its just a question of quantity: How much can be sampled before it becomes theft? Many artists use the ‘fair use’ argument when accused of copyright infringements. ‘Fair use’ is built into copyright law to enable creative people to build on others’ work without having to obtain permission, according to the website www.onlineartrights.org. And it’s interesting to note that parody has often been used as a successful ‘fair use’ defense, because it is transformative. In other words, it forces one to view something already created in a different light. This is clearly a strategy employed by Die Antwoord, consciously or by pure fluke.

So, if Die Antwoord has appropriated something of yours, and you’re UPSET, take a deep breath, think again McCain, and be grateful, because they like you. If they didn’t like you, you would be in a video being chased by a lion, or giving birth to an insect, like Lady Gaga. Rather be like Ballen, and find a way to exploit the opportunity.

On the other hand, since they are well on their way to becoming multi-million $-millionaires, why don’t they acknowledge what everyone knows they are doing, i.e. wildly appropriating, and just pay what they owe? Then they can sleep well on their Sealy Posturepeadic beds in their Woollies pajamas – a side we are NEVER going to see, ever, but which surely exists – knowing that whomever they borrowed, appropriated or stole from, can do the same.

 

Carsten Rasch writing as Steve Purple

Cape Town October 2013

Published by ArtSouthAfrica December 2013