Just weeks before the South African Music Awards comes yet more evidence that there are many among us who get rankled, personally outraged even, when musicians from here make any significant impact abroad. Unless, let’s be frank, the musicians are black and playing a particularly township twist on rock a la the Blk Jks, or black and hip enough for UK rag, Dazed and Confused to punt, say, Spoek Mathambo.
Over the past year, South Africa’s mostly white male critics have whipped out the knives for The Parlotones and Prime Circle, snidely remarking, in a way that shows how put out they are, how it is that the “unremarkable music” of these two bands has scored them gigs and more overseas. Even Locnville’s groundswell of followers hasn’t excluded the pretty twins’ success from being sniffed at. It’s as if there’s simply no way these pundits can separate out hard-won success from their own personal music tastes (which, they want you to know, is always cooler, always more underground than yours).
But the most frequent target for these pundits is unquestionably Die Antwoord – and not surprisingly so. While Kahn Morbee and co. or even someone like Chris Chameleon, are making a decent dent in places like Germany or Belgium, it’s only Ninja and Yo-landi Vi$$er who have enjoyed real, credible contemporary success in the USA, territory that neither Robbie Williams nor Oasis were able to crack. And while I may rightfully be accused of bias (see disclaimer below), there’s no arguing with the facts: No other South African act has signed a multi-album deal with Interscope. Nor made Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Songs of 2010 list (“Enter The Ninja” was at #32). Nor racked up well over 20 million cumulative views for a trio of videos. Nor had filmmakers and hot NYC photographers falling over themselves to work with them. Nor played 60-plus mostly sold-out dates from Japan to Sydney in the space of six short months. I could keep going, but you get the picture.
As recently as 8 May, writer Charl Blignaut used a piece he wrote on Mathambo for the Sunday Times “Lifestyle” magazine to take a big swipe at the group. “Everyone knows that Ninja and Yo-landi are an elaborate act – well everyone back home anyway,” he snipes. Shortly before, he had accused Die Antwoord’s short film with US director, Harmony Korine, of “making caricatures of the caricatures they already are”. Really? Is buying into a now tedious, one-dimensional take on Die Antwoord the best a writer like Blignaut can do? Has he bothered to give “$O$” a proper listen? Or seen the group live?
In fact, Blignaut’s dig at Die Antwoord is hardly a first.
His attempt to set Mathambo’s international gains (his electro-township sound earned him a deal with respectable US indie Sub Pop) against those of Die Antwoord’s merely follows in the footsteps of several other pieces including one in the online magazine, Mahala – which Blignaut makes no attempt to disguise by selectively quoting from it. It’s hard to know what Mathambo must make of it all because, in spite of spending a third of his piece on Die Antwoord, Blignaut doesn’t actually ask the Sweden-based artist what he thinks of his fellow South Africans. It’s hard to imagine the question not coming up if the interviewer had listened to “$O$” and in particular the song “Fish Paste” where, in longstanding hip-hop tradition, Ninja lightly disses Mathambo (“Spoek Mathambo is a Spank Rock look-a-like,” he raps in reference to the bespectacled Philly MC).
It would appear that poor Spoek can only be praised by laying into Die Antwoord – the act of yanking someone down once they’ve proved they don’t depend on the self-appointed circle of cool at home is itself in danger of becoming a national South African sport. In fact, according to these writers, there’s simply no room for both Mathambo and Die Antwoord to find a following globally and so forge the way (as Die Antwoord has done) for others to follow; no room for fans around the world to help create sustained (albeit different) music careers for both these acts. And so the black guy who turns up before time for interviews, as Blignaut makes a big deal of telling us; who makes “valid” music, as Mahala puts it, must be the winner.
What’s markedly absent from most criticism of Die Antwoord on home soil is any real attention to the music created by Ninja and Yo-landi Vi$$er with DJ Hi-Tek – who are, first and foremost (at least for now), a music group. Instead, comments made by the group in other interviews are picked at and purloined to prove a point that’s built on smirk-filled intellectualism about cultural appropriation and has very little to do with the music.
And no amount of references to the likes of Samuel Beckett can obscure the fact that few writers locally have the critical tools or pedigree to engage meaningfully with hip-hop – their role is as consumer guides and commissars of taste. Out of their depth, they are quick to employ a vitriol and bitchiness that is often clever and rarely astute or penetrating.
If this wasn’t the case, there would have to be an acceptance – even a grudging one – of Die Antwoord’s place in hip-hop. Before the paradigm-busting, mostly self-created videos; before the hi-energy live shows and the impeccably conceived visuals, there’s a mastery of the hip-hop arsenal by Ninja and, increasingly so, by Yo-landi – whose creative boldness and combustible, unpredictable and defiant femininity make her the most genuinely enchanting figure in pop since Bjork.
It’s this that audiences and reviewers internationally have picked up on (though I’m sure the diligent naysayers will take that as a cue to race around the digital space in search of negative reviews – of which there are a few). In the spirit of quoting other writers that seems to be favoured in this arena, there’s this from The Guardian in September last year: “But for the huge crowd rammed into Berlin’s Magnet club to see them, Die Antwoord are no joke. Neither, it turns out, is their live show. Their set has the whole crowd thrashing and rapping along, often in Afrikaans, to every word. When they can keep up, that is, because Die Antwoord’s outrageous aesthetic makes it easy to overlook just how good Ninja is. Relishing its guttural smacks and hard edges, he makes Afrikaans sound like a language that was made for hip-hop.”
And this, courtesy of the LA Times after Die Antwoord’s Coachella performance: “Pound for pound … the most engaging and legitimately surprising act of the weekend might have been the hard rhyming South African “Zef-rap” trio Die Antwoord.”
Die Antwoord’s South African detractors may be surprised to know that their elaborately thought-out arguments haven’t sent Ninja and Yo-landi on their way. There’s a new song and video around the corner and a second album for Interscope being prepared. There’s a show coming up at the Sonar Festival in Barcelona in mid-June alongside M.I.A., James Murphy, Cut Copy and Aphex Twin who turned up on stage with Ninja and Yo-landi in London last year. There’s work to be done with Neill Blomkamp. None of these people see Die Antwoord as a novelty act. Or a caricature. Or a choice they have to make instead of Spoek Mathambo.
What they see are artists whose uncompromising attitude to pursuing their art is creating something genuinely exciting and new, but that’s nonetheless grounded in the most exacting aspects of their chosen genre of hip-hop. What we should see here at home is how a group went from obscurity to being aggressively pursued by every major record label in the world before concluding the richest deal in South African music history with Interscope, the label behind Eminem and Lady Gaga. How two outsiders, with virtually no support in South Africa, toured the world, made a number of audacious videos, were courted by Ari Emanuel (arguably the single most influential person in Hollywood), initiated projects in the art world, assembled a lean and effective management and legal team that includes Tony Ciulla (Marilyn Manson’s manager and previously part of Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor’s Nothing Records), all the while pursuing their vision with jealous ferocity.
It’s a rags to riches story that warrants applause and interest and respect, even from those who’re not fans. DM
Disclosure: Diane Coetzer’s partner is Die Antwoord’s music publisher.