Die Antwoord is Blackface

Die Antwoord is basically blackface. But blackface is also tricky, argues poet and writer Rustum Kozain.

PR for Die Antwoord's album, $O$,

Firstly, I like Die Antwoord, but 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 [Ninja’s government name] and Max Normal [his previous alter ego as a musician], 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 satirizing 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 neighborhoods, 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 or dialects.

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 emphasized. 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 South Africa, but with all its logical conclusions. Doing this, Die Antwoord then happens also onto all sorts of interesting conjunctions.

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