Okay, what’s the deal? Is Yolandi even naked on the internet? Because I can’t find any pics anywhere. What’s up with those pictures of Ninja when he’s got no teeth on their website? Are those tattoos even real? I heard that they used to be sophisticated! How dare they uh…what exactly are they doing again? Um, oh, right. You guys may not all be familiar with Die Antwoord. I’m gonna give you the real quick version.
This is absolutely the last week that you will be able to live on earth and not hear about Die Antwoord. For the next couple of months, they’re gonna be a gigantic sensation from the clubs where the Situation hangs out all the way to clubs where Vincent Gallo hangs out and everywhere in between. They’re a South African rap group composed of a dude who calls himself Ninja, a hot (but totally fucked up looking) chick named Yolandi and a big fat guy DJ named Hi-Tek. Their music is bizarre and their appearance is even weirder. Ninja is, no two ways about it, a very charismatic and highly talented MC. That’s not really up for debate. Almost everything else surrounding this group, however, is.
Firstly, these guys are, in appearance and dress and attitude and everything are espousing a lifestyle and general image that they call “Zef” which according to my research is a combination of new and outmoded styles that combines to reflect the current street style/sensibility of the poor South African white youth. In that way, it’s not very different than being a hipster. It’s a little bit of Pink Floyd, some Biz Markie, cutting edge, purposefully ugly haircuts mixed with ironic yin-yang shirts, some winkingly bad tattoos, the worship of really cheap ways of getting fucked up (bad weed, malt liquor, etc) and a hardcore insistence that it’s all really legit. Oh, and it’s also notable that about a zillion other people who are doing the exact same thing all point at each other and decry each other for being posers. That’s a huge part of it, as far as I can tell. The difference is that with hipsters, American Hipsters (capital H) there’s been almost nothing interesting being produced by them (vice do’s and don’ts [in the Mcinnes days] being a notable exception), and with Zef, the only people I know of who identify with Zef are in this highly entertaining and polarizing rap group, so well…Zef is cooler. For now.
The BIG thing about Die Antwoord that’s interesting to talk about is that they weren’t always these sort of ghettoized quasi-juggalos with prison tattoos that they are today. In fact, in the last band that Ninja was in, he wore expensive suits and was (in stark contrast to how he looks now) extremely handsome and well put together. He’s clearly into high concept shit, and Die Antwoord is no exception, but there’s this backlash that’s occurring (simultaneously with their meteoric rise, which is exactly the kind of cultural synergy you need to truly get huge) where people are accusing them of being fake, of co-opting a culture that they weren’t born into and so on. “Die Antwoord is just pretending to be gross street rat scrubs that think Yin Yang tattoos are cool. Really, they’re sophisticated marketers and this is just the latest ploy to peddle their music” is something along the lines of how the criticism goes.
But I think that’s not only entirely retarded, it’s also missing the point so completely that it’s not just missing the point about Ninja, Yolandi and Hi-Tek, not just about Die Antwoord, or rap, or music, but art in its entirety.
Okay, so art has been completely commodified to the point where it’s essentially like dogfood or pizza these days, right? As soon as something is interesting, the next point is giving it a name and making money off of it, whether it’s painting, poems, books, videos, music, whatever. This strikes people as gauche, especially young people, which is highly unusual, because despite what they’ll have you believe, they’ve (we’ve) never lived in a world where art wasn’t a commodity. Now, of course there’s the internet which is a great Robin Hood that steals from whoever and provides free art to whomever else, be it books or music or movies or video games (which are DEFINITELY art, by the way), but that’s still not addressing the issue (or fallacy) of art as a commodity, that’s merely a way to get around it. If you’ve got a tunnel that goes from your prison cel underground and comes out in the woods half a mile away it doesn’t mean that the building your cel is in is no longer a prison. It just means you’ve found a sneaky way to get what you want in the face of competing interests. Get it? No? Whatever. Trust me. Art is commerce and anyone who tells you otherwise is A) a self righteous and highly delusional dipshit B) a smug asshole that thinks they’re better than you or C) an idealistic teen that’s probably no small parts A) and B). Oh, and there’s hippies too, but fuck them entirely.
Now, if we can accept that all of us have grown up in a world where art is a commodity and always has been, isn’t it just naïve to pretend it isn’t? That doesn’t mean it can no longer inspire, that doesn’t mean it can’t be heartfelt and come from a pure place that’s not influenced by a dollar sign, but to pretend that art is some kind of magical thing that doesn’t rightly exist in the commercial sphere is sort of akin to pretending that horses and steam engines are still the best way to travel or that leeches are the number one remedy for headaches. It’s just no longer true, no matter what you pretend, and more to the point, it’s NEVER BEEN TRUE AS LONG AS YOU’VE BEEN ALIVE, SO WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU EVEN GETTING THIS FROM? (rock and roll, it bears mentioning, has ALWAYS been a commodity, same with rap. There literally wasn’t a time when these art forms existed that they weren’t being actively peddled. NEVER. Just sayin.)
And so there’s a marketability factor that CAN play into something, especially something as transparently commercial as rap music: the most popular music with young people worldwide. Now, I’m not suggesting that you must mold and shape your marketability and persona (I mean, lord knows I never have…I’m really me, y’all) but lots of artists like to control every aspect of how a project comes together, from inception to construction to follow through, and there’s nothing wrong with molding and shaping an aspect of your art that’s gonna be there whether you like it or not. It’s like not wiping your ass because you’d rather pretend you don’t shit. You can do that, and maybe things will go just how you want them to, but you can also take control of that situation and make sure that you do your best to get things to go your way.
Which brings me back to Die Antwoord and the notion that maybe they’re pretenders. Who cares? Did Melville have to live on a whaler to write Moby Dick? Did Freddy Mercury REALLY have to love fat bottom girls (because, uh…), did Dostoyevsky have to kill someone and live with the guilt? Fuck no. It’s art. These people are artists and can create whatever they want to. “Legitimate art” is a completely subjective and stupid notion. No, actually. It’s not subjective. It’s just stupid.
If you think something sucks, that’s fine. But to deny the merits of something based on your own armchair quarterback notions of if the person who created it has a right to have created it….uh, fuck you. THEY created it. That makes it totally theirs. Sorry, critic. Sorry, bitter shithead who didn’t think of doing it first. No one gets pissed because Tom Cruise isn’t really a secret agent or that Eminem isn’t really raping his mother or that ICP isn’t really white and black, but god forbid you pretend to be poor or marginalized, or weird. Then you’re “Co-opting a unique culture” or “exploiting those who don’t have a voice” or some such other white guilt bullshit. It’s ridiculous.
If Zef style is what Ninja likes, then he’s allowed to be Zef. Period. Oh, he’s not allowed? Why? Because he has too much money? He brags about having too much money, so what’s your point? He can afford nicer clothes/tattoos/haircuts? Well, I’m wearing jeans that cost me 2 bucks because I like them. I can afford nicer jeans. I cut my hair myself, but I could potentially go to a barber. I’ve got tattoos that my friends have given me for free that look totally crappy. Does any of that make me phony? Of course not. Living within your means and enjoying things that you can afford or that are a bargain don’t make you an asshole. Sorry.
Hey, how about this! I listen to and make punk rock music even though I didn’t grow up in the suburbs and was never really disenfranchised and bored by design. I was no more disenfranchised and bored than any of my friends who wound up being lawyers (actually, I talk to my brother and he’s vastly more disenfranchised and bored than I’ve ever been, and he’s a lawyer AND his favorite artist is Mystikal or some such nonsense. Is that disingenuous? Should he be a punk just because he grew up in a suburbian dystopia and is smart enough to be frustrated with the way the world works even if he doesn’t like punk music? Does Ninja need to always wear a suit because he wore one once? Is an artist allowed to change and reinvent themselves? Can a person play a character that’s got less advantages than the person they were born as? Is Sasha Baron Cohen an asshole or a genius? OR both? Is he even allowed to do Ali G? Is there a difference between Rush singing about space and Ninja rapping about being a psycho? No. It’s all creative process/output and to put anymore importance on it than that is just to be a total asshole.)
It’s not your place, or my place to decide if someone is allowed to do their art. It’s our place to decide if it sucks or not. Period. And I like Die Antwoord. So there.