Die Antwood: South Africa's Hip Hop Trio Controversial American Debut
Die Antwoord, South Africa’s cutting-edge hip-hop trio, is a viral sensation—even getting yanked from YouTube for their latest controversial video. Richard Rushfield reports on their American debut.
If the world were radiated by nuclear weapons, what crawled out from the rubble and summoned the survivors to one last desperate bacchanal would look, sound and feel a lot like South Africa’s hip hop viral sensations Die Antwoord (“The Answer”). But today, these avatars of oblivion are on the brink of becoming America’s next pop icons, glowering their way down a path that will soon make yesterday’s shock-the-bourgeoisie icons Lady Gaga and M.I.A. look like Mr. Rogers.
For the past year, the trio’s bizarre, unnerving videos have rocketed across the Internet, becoming a phenomenon in advance of a record deal or formal campaign. But with the labels having fallen in line behind the fans, they are about to be unleashed; their first album has just been released by Interscope Records and on Wednesday night in Hollywood, the group made their first U.S. TV appearance, performing on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where a sleeping nation was rudely awakened by their first glimpse of their new post-Apocalypse sensations.
The trio of Die Antwoord is headed by a rapper performing under the moniker Ninja (aka Watkin Tudor Jones), typically clad onstage only in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon basketball shorts, a wiry torso full of prison tattoos and a deep, full glower which suggests a man bearing the full crimes of mankind upon his muscular shoulders. Joining Ninja on vocals is Yolandi Vi$$er, a diminutive bleached white pixie in a blond mullet who styles herself as the Rat Queen, frequently cuddling her favored rodents in the bands publicity stills. Dj Hi-Tek, Die Antwoord’s backing musicalist, does not travel with his bandmates on tour due to a fear of flying and so is replaced at the turntable by a substitute disguised in monk’s robes and a demonic walrus mask.
Die Antwoord’s stated ethos claims to represent “Zef” life, the aggressive, though out of date, style championed by South Africa's white working class, heavy in gold chains and souped up cars. In their videos, however, their influences hark back to a much darker place. Seemingly set in a bombed-out basement, covered with Keith Haring-like hieroglyphic graffiti, a land populated not just by the scowling Ninja and the alternately childlike and hyper-sexualized Yolandi, but by ferocious street kids and enraged progeria disease sufferers, the videos paint a nightmarish dreamscape. As a blogger for the Houston Press warned his readers, “If you don't like random erections, wooden erections, talking breasts, breasts with no nipples, words that aren't English, mud, grime, gold lame pants, clean and strong peni, machetes, more erections, jackets made of rats, monsters with erections, questionable facial hair, and prostitution, don't watch this video.”
Along with the controversy since their emergence, Die Antwoord’s fame has inspired a webful of accusations that the band’s personas are fakes. The trio, it was noted, were known to have been in previous bands in which few affectations of the white trash style were to be found. Even worse, it was whispered, in the ultimate cred-destroying rumor, they had been art students. The band’s over-the-top violence, the Zef style and the martial arts/Zen religio-babble were all a Spinal Tap-like satire of contemporary rap.
In fact, they are semi-open fakes; Vi$$er and Ninja are a married couple, with children and formal education between them. When asked in a recent interview “Is it fake?” Ninja talked about creating his past personas saying, “Two seconds later you’re fucking bored and you’re on to the next. Die Antwoord was like, Oh fuck, this is the fucking one. This is the shit that is like to death do us part.”
In the parking lot behind the Jimmy Kimmel studios, where the band was to play, few among the hundreds who had gathered seemed to care much whether the Zef trappings were real, fake, or some sort of post-modern meta combo in between.
John Finno, a producer with Electronic Arts who had seen the band play days before at a club in Hollywood, when asked if he thought they were real replied, “I’m not sure I care. I’m really just out to be entertained and they make great music.”
Along with the controversy since their emergence, Die Antwoord’s fame has inspired a webful of accusations that the band’s personas are fakes.
The crowd it is said, is not as big as the legions who lined up for Maroon 5 the week before, but still, according to the warm-up comedian as he pumps up the parking lot, “I have not seen more anticipation for a band on this show in a long, long time.”
Preceding Die Antwoord, Lakers star Ron Artest joined Kimmel, and demonstrated how to do a hoax, or an act, or a goof, badly. Taking the stage in a fake Amish beard and safari hat, a la Joaquin Phoenix he rambled in private jokes and goaded Kimmel into playing catch with a football.
Artest’s joke time over, Antwoord took the stage; Yolandi in a giant hooded onesy covered in the mock Haring graffiti seen in their videos. As the music to the band’s theme song, “Enter the Ninja” begins, Yolandi trilled in a singsong chirp while Ninja launched into the machine gun barrage of his anthem. The audience of hipster Hollywood, hoodies at full mast, mouthed the words along. Four songs, one costume change, and countless expletives later, they leave the stage. The audience at home cut out before the true tide of profanity began, but whether they will embrace this bizarre phenomenon or recoil in horror will shortly be seen.
“Yo, that’s Die Antwoord, live and totally freaky deaky funky,” yells Yolandi, giving the crowd the finger with either extended hand. “Be happy.”
Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a recent memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost.