Is Die Antwoord Blackface?

First world hipster bloggers and music websites (with foreign correspondents’ not far behind) are besides themselves about South African performers, Die Antwoord. Linking to them. Talking about their style.  Good for them and Die Antwoord. But even boosters for the Die Antwoord, like Richard Poplak,have to concede this: “…  what their lyrics mean — or what they stand for precisely — no one in Brooklyn or Paris or São Paulo can say.”  Which is why I like this piece of of writing, below, by Cape Town writer Rustum Kozain, about Die Antwoord’s music and style:

(I kept the South African English spellings and for those with little or knowledge of South Africanisns, I added some hyperlinks):

Firstly, I like Die Antwoord, and my problems are with how Die Antwoord is interpreted and framed. Of course, I don’t know what its creators have in mind; I don’t know enough about Waddy Jones and Max Normal, etc., so I can only talk about reception of Die Antwoord.

To me, Die Antwoord is basically blackface and blackface is tricky; it exists on a continuum from satire to parody to mimicry to misdirected appropriation, but the points on the continuum are given valency by reception. As Ninja and Yo-landi are personas, I’ll take Die Antwoord as satirical.

But what are they satirising or parodying? The people on which the personas are based? I.e. the ‘coloured’ gangster or ‘gangster’ or youth? Or is it white working class youth, the select few who due to new proximities in working class and lower middle class neighbourhoods, are now developing habits and mannerisms that will not raise an eyebrow on the Cape Flats taxi-line?

This to me is interesting: that Die Antwoord suggests a fusion of white Afrikaans working class and ‘coloured‘ working class identities, expressed in the most eloquent way through dialect/s.

But it cannot escape parody. Waddy Jones is, after all, not white working class Afrikaans (maybe he has roots there, I don’t know; he lives in Higgovale. Although language identity may be slippery here); at the class remove that he inhabits, and …, yes, the racial remove too, the adoption of the persona of Ninja treads that difficult and exhausting terrain of South African entertainment culture wherein ‘coloured’ people almost always figure as coon – delightful language skills (Afrikaans, after all, was born on their tongues) enhanced by gold-capped teeth. Tattoos that mimic the style of prison-garnered ‘tjappies‘ (stamps), but tattoos that KNOW to stay well clear of any other direct references to gangs. For me the depth of the INVENTION is probably the most troublesome, because it reveals an anthropological bent: it is not a persona that has emerged in any organic way, such as our identities change in different environments; rather, it is a persona invented, but clearly based on detailed anthropological study.

Had Ninja been white working class with actual regular, day-to-day interaction with people on the Cape Flats, then the parodic would have no purchase; nor would accusations of appropriation. Or had Ninja, for instance, rapped in a mixture of white working class English and Afrikaans and Cape Flats English and Afrikaans, without developing the visual embellishments, then the social commentary and satire would have stood out in relief. And it would have been an interesting point about fluid identities emphasised. But the visual embellishments – especially the tattoos that tread gingerly between celebration and disavowal of prison-gang style and the gold teeth – do point to appropriation and Waddy Jones has not suddenly discovered his ‘inner coloured’.

Or is Die Antwoord parodying gangsta hip-hop in the US itself? If rappers there can garner fame and fortune by adopting gangster stances (if they were not Original Gs), what would it mean to do this in South Africa? What would ‘gangsta rap’ a la mode in South Africa look like? Die Antwoord could be the answer to that question. Imagine, on a whim the musician wonders: Let’s take hiphop, what is happening in it now, transport it to SA, but with all its logical conclusions. Doing this, Die Antwoord then happens also onto all sorts of interesting conjunctions.

There’s more here (especially the comments).


47 thoughts on “Is Die Antwoord Blackface?

  1. as a canadian i find all of this very interesting. immediately upon seeing die antwoord i realized that there was something odd going on but i couldn’t figure out what it was. it’s odd isn’t it? the further that i delve into it the more it appears that i am through the looking glass. it seems like there are many social issues that south africans are still dealing with on a day to day basis that i wouldn’t have considered if i hadn’t stumbled upon DA.

  2. “Blackface” is such a loaded political term. Perhaps it would be better to see Die Antwoord as “Drag”, since while they meld various cultural elements there’s a playfulness in the way it’s done that helps also provoke responses and understanding.

    It’s camp, and kitsch, in a way that blackface can’t ever be. Think of Die Antwoord as RuPaul going back to his Detroit roots to collaborate with Eminem.

  3. Die Antwoord’s genius is that they are capable of penetrating your psyche’s firewall wherever you have a weak spot. The chattering class is of course too jaded to be shocked by their antics, but I see discomfort and disorientation in all these lengthy attempts to digest The Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er into something classifiable, properly contextualized and therefore non-threatening to people who feel they need to have all their shit figured out on an intellectual level. It’s just a more sophisticated way of asking “Is it real?” (to this query Ninja says “No, it’s just a big black joke!”) But Die Antwoord is truly some next-level $hit in its relentless disregard for all the tired categories of human experience: race, sexuality, class, performance, commerce, authenticity, and of course taste. Culture is created through transfer of experience, not ownership of identity, and the future for a true global culture is for everything to be appropriated a million times over and “fucked together” that no-one remembers who used to be “us” and “them.” Mostly this will look like people interbred of different colors and backgrounds hanging out, calling each other “nigga” and/or “poes”, smoking much dagga and bumping to Die Antwoord. I want to be a part of this future.

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