Today, a formerly obscure, multi-racial underground rap act called DOOKOOM releases their second EP, called A Gangster Called Big Times. The first single, ‘Larney Jou Poes’, and its accompanying video have caused a storm of outrage. Is it hate speech? AfriForum certainly thinks so. And here we go, with another made in South Africa musical controversy. By RICHARD POPLAK.
DOOKOOM, the hip-hop act fronted by Cape Town rap stalwart Isaac Mutant, would owe the minority-rights lobby group AfriForum an enormous chunk of their royalties were musicians still receiving royalties in this, the Age of the Free Download. At the very least, a thank-you note and a bottle of Two Oceans Chenin Blanc are in order. For a variety of reasons, I think that’s unlikely to happen. After all, politesse is dead in this country, and the gift basket has gone the way of arbitrary lynching and the dompas. We’re a shiny new democracy, with our rights entrenched in a Constitution that is designed to protect us from other people’s music.
It does so rather badly.
But first, who are DOOKOOM, and why has AfriForum decided to make them famous? All things being equal, they’d have blown up last year on the strength of their great self-titled EP and its lead single ‘Kak Stirvy’, a boast rap largely concerned with the size of Isaac Mutant’s dick. Things, however, are not equal, and songs about dicks don’t create the same frisson they did in 1988. While DOOKOOM’s debut went sadly unacknowledged, the ‘Kak Stirvy’ video clip was passed around by the hip-hopnoscenti, and the EP itself was as coherent an artistic statement as any band could hope to make with a first release. Producer Human Waste took sandpaper to his studio and scuffed up every preset, rendering beats that burrowed bowels-deep, and synths that were doused in sonic witblitz.
This was music to contract Ebola to: “I’m a walking, talking Ouija board,” opined Mutant on title track ‘Dookoom’, and the whole thing flowed from there like a stream of outhouse seepage. (Their name is derived from the Muslim Afrikaans term doekoem, both a verb and a noun, referring to a shamanistic entity or act, either evil or benign.)
As a mission statement, the EP wasn’t all magic and genitals: the opening bars of ‘You Mustn’t Push’ included an ironic rendition of ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’, a warning of the hellfire to come. The collective – rounded out by Spooky on visuals, Roach on the decks and L i L i † H on ethereal backing vocals – is the usual result of weird spelling, hard work, and timely cultural accidents. No matter how energetically some commentators try to negate the influence of the Die Antwoord on “authentic” Cape Flats rappers like Mutant, Ninja and Yolandi clearly factor in Mutant’s evolution, from DOOKOOM’s visuals to the more measured flow in his sharp new Englikaans raps.
I see some Tyler the Creator and his Odd Future hip-hop collective in the mix, with the deranged album Goblin functioning as something of an aesthetic template. (And perhaps the disclaimer that opens Tyler’s ‘Radicals’ applies equally in this instance: “Don’t do anything I say on this song, okay. It’s fucking fiction. If anything happens, don’t fucking blame me, White America. Fuck Bill O’Reilly.”) Death metal, terrorcore, grime, drum and bass – culture is a bag of Licorice All-Sorts, and DOOKOOM have been a-snacking.
But influence, shminfluence – a band is only properly exciting when it comes into its own, when it takes what it knows and shows us something that we don’t know. And so we come at last to DOOKOOM’s latest single, ‘Larney Jou Poes’ and its accompanying video, which has so upset AfriForum and their congregants:
It starts innocently enough, with some shots of farmyard life – a rusted bakkie, a hen pecking, sheep looking sheep-like. Then an unhappy Mutant, in a stark black and white close up: “Farmer Abrahams had many farms/And many farms had Farmer Abrahams/ I work one of them and so would you/ So let’s go burn ’em down.”
He goois us a double-barreled zap sign, and then gets on with the business of creating another Great South African Musical Controversy.
What do we next see, and what do we hear? (Much like Die Antwoord, there isn’t much to be had by separating DOOKOOM’s visuals from their music.) A bunch of angry farm workers participating in poor farming practices: throwing hay; pointing guns; waving scythes; drinking from papsakke; driving tractors in a haphazard and unsafe manner. All this intercut with Mutant rapping at the tractor’s steering wheel, cows urinating, and a bemused Boer in a safari suit looking terrified/enraged. (He’s the video’s only weak link, his facial hair a bit to lusciously Cape Town barista beardo for the farming life). But director Dane Dodd’s winning salvo is the close-ups of real-life farmworkers addressing the camera with a furious “Jou poes, my larney”.*
None of this would have had much effect if the track sucked and if the video blew along with it. But that is not the case. You can smell the sweat and the booze and the rage and the cow shit, and then there’s this: “Bra, remember, you came here in 1652/ You a skollie too/ You were fokken sentenced with a convict crew/ You robbed and screwed the natives/ Now who’s the savage?” All of ‘Larney Jou Poes’s’ gut punches land – the track feels like the sonic revolution South Africa has been waiting for, the EFF of hip-hop sans the R16-million tax bill and the R7,000 lizard-skin loafers.
And why not? This, after all, is the second most unequal country on earth – a place that makes Afghanistan look like a Shangri-la of reconciliation. ‘Larney Jou Poes’ takes its inspiration from the 2012 farm strikes in the Western Cape, in which aggrieved farm workers were asking for their wages to be doubled from R69.39 to R150 per day’s work. To the incredulous agriculturist, this sounds insane – fuck that, fire ‘em, bring in the machines! The farm workers were black, the farm owners white, and the history of farm labour in this country so perfectly articulates colonial exploitation that you’d think the whole issue would have been treated as a moment in which to redress past wrongs. But no. The farm labour strike, ending as it did in the shadow of the Marikana massacre, was another missed moment. Nothing was fixed. Nothing was solved.
For Mutant, this was not an acceptable outcome. As he recently told City Press, he was enraged by the strikes, and ‘Larney’ serves as his statement of discontent. “Nobody was talking about it or sticking with these bras,” he told the paper. “And I actually have family in Vredendal who come from that kind of background. And I was pissed off enough to do a track about it.”
In an interview last year with the local version of Rolling Stone, Mutant explained why there aren’t more “Larneys” in South Africa’s recent discography. “That time was a beautiful time,” he said of the happy days of legislated racial segregation. “It?was a brilliant time for people that was in hip-hop, because it was apartheid, bra. You know, fucking apartheid was a moerse fucking… it was a battle to fight, my bru. You didn’t have time to think about ego and bullshit; it’s like make or break. It’s a war, bru.”
It’s not hard to see Mutant’s point. The brilliance of neo-apartheid is that it doesn’t read as apartheid – now that we’re all Democratic Freedom Lovers, it’s time to rhapsodise about our awesome Puma sponsorship deals and to swan about town like Tall A$$ Mo. Or, alternatively, to go all Steven Hofmeyr and sing a complete version of Die Stem, the ancient exceptionalist Afrikaner hymnal, as a “courageous” rebuke to endemic political correctness.
If apartheid focused the mind and allowed for some bracing musical fuck-yous to status quo (and don’t forget, as far as Hofmeyr Inc. is concerned, non-apartheid is actually apartheid for white folks), DOOKOOM has reminded us that the new inequalities resemble the old inequalities, and its time to once again get angry. Ironically, they don’t have to look far for inspiration: Hofmeyr and cronies like Bok van Blerk, with his 200,000 copy-selling De La Rey, have been pulling ‘Larneys’ – AKA creating politicized and polarizing music for artistic and economic gain – for over a decade.
Well, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, as my rabbi used to say.
Which brings us, as it must, to AfriForum, and their legal parry against our favourite new plaas leidtjie. “The song contains extremely racist and degrading remarks against white people in general. We received various complaints from people who feel tremendously offended by this song,” noted deputy CEO Ernst Roets in a statement. Blaming AfriForum for playing the aggrieved victim is a waste of time, because they were created in order to develop and enhance white victimhood. But they don’t do themselves many favours. For instance (and I want you to keep in mind that I’m not making the following up):
AfriForum [has] launched the AfriForum GPS, designed for a variety of smartphones. Steve Hofmeyr’s voice gives directions in Afrikaans on this fun GPS. The GPS can be downloaded free of charge by all members of the public by just typing in the words, AfriForum GPS on Google Play Store, Apple App Store and Blackberry World.
I’m no marketing guru, but I would consider this “fun GPS”, newly released in September, as an endorsement not only of Hofmeyr, but of all things Hofmeyr-ish – and the man does schlep around a few tons of baggage. And if AfriForum is in the Hofmeyr biz, then their manufactured outrage with regard to ‘Larney Jou Poes’ starts to fray at the edges.
The issue with ‘Larney’, in AfriForum’s eyes, is that it is hate speech designed to incite violence against a marginalised sector of society, and therefore it must be banned. There’s no doubt that life in rural South Africa can be violent and nasty, and they argue that ‘Larney’ will make it more so. Do they have a legal case? Doubtful. Do they have a scientific case – which is to ask whether the violence depicted in art makes us more violent as a society? No one has ever answered that question satisfactorily. But they certainly have no moral case. Check this, as per AfriForum’s press statement: “The second verse claims that Jan van Riebeeck arrived in South Africa with a group of criminals, that his descendants are scum and that white people are villains and criminals because it is in their bloodline.” Ja, but not really. As Mutant puts it in the verse I quoted above, “you a skollie too”, which I take to mean that both settlers and settled can be a bit shit when the spirit takes them.
See, if Hof is legally able to prod South Africa’s racial wounds in order to deliver an artistic statement and a political point – and make no mistake, he is – then so too are DOOKOOM. This is what art looks like in a divided, angry country: divided and angry. Cutting grooves of rage into a slab of rotating plastic is a tenet of free speech, if an oft-challenged one. If we were all thinking sanely, we’d agree that the angrier the message, the more air it requires in order for us to process it. It’s sort of like digestion: unlovely to observe, but we’d die without it.
At the end of the ‘Larney Jou Poes’ video, farm workers burn DOOKOOM’s logo into the land, and Farmer Beardo stares at the rising smoke in mock upset. It is a powerful, dangerous image – the swart gevaar, rendered in black and white. But will DOOKOOM’s ditty inspire a violent revolution in the Western Cape’s farms, resulting in hundreds of dead white farmers and millions of badly roasted cattle? That’s the question a judge will have to answer. I’m thinking, Nah. First off, as good as they are, DOOKOOM are about as commercially accessible as a sack of bricks playing the ukulele. Second, it took about 200,000 hip-hop songs concerning police brutality and the shooting of an unarmed teenager to rouse the good people of Ferguson, Missouri, from their homes and into the streets. If songs portraying violence incite violence, they only do so in bulk, accompanied by inciting acts of violence.
AfriForum, which so often argues for the free speech and equity for its members, should probably have kept quiet about ‘Larney’s’ audio-visual excesses, and concentrated on unraveling the fuck up that is farming sector. Instead, they hauled a band up from semi-obscurity and turned them into future headliners. As Human Waste put it to City Press, “We’re making a point about social injustice and the legacy of apartheid. If you’re offended by the video, then you are the problem.”
Your move, Hofmeyr. DM
* You throw a lot of jokes at the wall, some stick, some don’t. I translated this as “You’re a puss, rich person”, and folks took offence. Still, debate is debate is debate, and here’s one: Defenders of Die Antwoord, Your Ignorance is Showing
Afriforum, jou ma: Who’s likely to win the ‘Larney’ battle? A column by Pierre de Vos in Daily Maverick.