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Are South African Rave Ninjas Die Antwoord Exciting, Offensive, or Just Mystifying?

"Ninja!"

They’re exciting, or else offensive, or else just bizarre — or hilariously subversive, racially charged, a bad joke, brilliant, or possibly encouraging rape. Those are the kinds of alarming things we’re probably meant to be saying about the South African rave-rap crew Die Antwoord, whose self-released first album, $O$, just got issued by Interscope in the U.S. It’s like a teenager spray-painting a giant penis on the wall at school: alarming, amusing, and confusing us is part of the point, and if you start hyperventilating about it, that’s a win for you and the group both. When their first videos started going around, the North American bits of the Internet practically fell over themselves trying to figure out what the hell was going on with it all. And the result, for the most part, was exactly the kind of slack-jawed, mystified awe and amazement that gets people to forward YouTube links to their friends: “You have to see this.”

And “this,” early on, turned out to be clips like this one, with its memorable slow-motion shot of Ninja, one of the most wiry and intense-looking front men since Iggy Pop, standing in a small backyard, dramatically swinging his junk against the fabric of his Dark Side of the Moon shorts. His helium-voiced partner, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, sits behind him, looking encouraging. Their D.J., Hi-Tek, sits beside her, looking vaguely bored. It’s from there, more or less, that they started becoming actual sensations, signed a deal with a major U.S. label, and have had their tracks collected and reframed for this release.

So is it worth hyperventilating about? The appeal of their music is immediate and easy to recognize, though it’s hard to describe without drifting into overheated Internet WTF terms. They’re a white South African rap group with a terrific sound — choppy beats that sound like old rave tracks and new ringtones, bizarro screw-faced vocals. Yo-Landi describes their style as being like a car crash: “When there’s a car cash, everyone looks.” How much of the music you hear makes you stop and gawk like that? And yeah, once you see them — their videos, their style, their ethos — “car crash” seems exactly right. They say they come from the “zef” side; that’s an Afrikaans term that, broadly speaking, is a little like what Britons mean when they say “chav,” Australians mean when they say “bogan,” and Americans mean when they say “white trash.” Their lyrics range from hilarious to grotesque, and their video and web presence can be captivatingly crazy, as with that inspired genital-swinging shot.

And if that sounds kind of hilarious, well, that’s the other side of things. Turns out Ninja and Yo-Landi are married, and parents, and educated, arty types. Both have spent time in clever, conceptual hip-hop and electronic projects (like this one), and approach their current work pretty much “in character,” a fact that bummed out a whole lot of web surfers who thought they’d stumbled across some unimaginably crazy artifact from the real South Africa. When the group made a video responding to the question of whether they were “fake,” it had — like a lot of their videos — the pacing and feel of a mockumentary. And in that original clip — now approaching 4 million views on YouTube — Ninja explains that “Die Antwoord” means “the answer”; when someone asks “the answer to what?” there’s exactly the right length of silence before he says it’s the answer to “whatever, man.” He’s so doggedly deadpan he seems like he’s doing improv. And maybe he is — though if it’s all just a concept, it’s one this group has doubled down on, hard-core, enough to make it exciting and real again.

I don’t know if that air of satire will make you feel better or worse about the spots where the record goes beyond being marvelously bonkers and gets straight-up indefensible — say, the brief “no means yes” hook on “$copie,” the extended fantasia of women bound and gagged, left and right, on “Beat Boy,” or the rage on “She Made Me a Killer.” Even more confusing are the interviews where Ninja’s rhetoric circles back to his favorite “samurai philosophy”: “Become your enemy.” Every now and then, he suggests that pop is his version of this: “It was pop music that was, ultimately, the enemy I had to become. I mean, pop music is in control of the whole world, and the retards are winning.” But if convincing me that some of the beats on this record are fun to listen to is a form of satire, well ... on whom is that particular joke?

Top all that off with race issues, class issues, and a whole lot of profane Afrikaner slang, and American critics have approximately zero chance of getting to the bottom of things. South Africans can get a whole lot closer. Unfortunately, I’m working on the assumption that Vulture wouldn’t pay to fly me over and ask around (I didn’t ask; I’m still new), and I’m watching my phone bill, so the easiest South Africans to consult on the matter are the ones who have Internet connections — and I think we can agree that that’s a pretty specific slice of the nation’s overall public.

Still, results are interesting. Some commentators love the stuff, think it’s brilliant. (“It’s dark and it’s different,” as Yo-Landi says on “Wat Pomp,” a neck-snapper of a track that I can’t believe didn’t make it over to the new version of $O$.) Others seem proud and vaguely amused that Americans are actually taking their local prankster seriously — about the same mix of emotions you might feel if you discovered your mom was a huge sex symbol in Slovenia. Others think the group’s way too thin of a joke, just a dumb, one-note act meant to get a rise out of people, and nowhere near as complex as some of the other put-on personae scattered throughout hip-hop history.

But if you’re farther away in the world, this is exactly where a lot of their appeal lies — in the not-really-knowing. In the being mystified and surprised. In the complexities that come out when a thin joke gets translated to a place where it just seems fascinating and alien. The Internet, as you’ve probably noticed, is really, really full of weird information, and that fact forces us to make weird choices. Does all that information mean you now have the tools to always figure out what you’re looking at, and where it’s coming from? (It’s because of the Internet, after all, that people got tipped off to Ninja and Yo-Landi’s previous projects.) Or is that just a form of endlessly banging your head into a wall for nothing? There’s always the alternative, one that seems to come more naturally with every passing year — give up, declare that the author is dead, and take whatever you want from this music. Steal it, gawk at it, think about it, refashion it, hate on it, use it for your own purposes. I have a hard time thinking people like Die Antwoord would object to that.

Photo: Brook Bobbins