Culture | Ek het die antwoord

South African band Die Antwoord reappropriates Zef culture

Last month, Montreal’s Metropolis theatre hosted South African Zef-rave-rap music trio, Die Antwoord. The group presents an intelligent musical satire of a South African subculture known as Zef. Unfortunately, many of Die Antwoord’s North American fans are unaware of this aspect of the band’s art.

Die Antwoord is comprised of Warkins Tudor Jones (Ninja), Anica (Yolandi Vi$$er), and the elusive DJ Hi-Tek. Their pseudonyms are not just stage names, but whole personas that the trio stick to in every public appearance. Beginning as a YouTube sensation, Die Antword hails from the notoriously poor Cape Flats suburbs of Cape Town. Originally available through an open source, their album $O$ has been distributed by Interscope Records since this past summer, launching the band’s international promotional tour.

In terms of sound, Die Antwoord combines Europop vocals with punchline-filled rap performed in both Afrikaans and English. It is, whatever the description will lead one to believe, quite catchy. Ninja’s rhymes are entertaining and smooth; Vi$$er’s vocals range from pixie to harpy; and Hi-Tek rounds out the sound with simple beats and booming base. A mixture of nineties synth and Afrikaans rap treading somewhere between Weird Al and Eminem, Die Antwoord’s sound is unconventional but totally palatable.

Prior to his Ninja character, Jones was a locally famous comedian known for self-loathing jokes about Zef culture – the same culture his band now parodies.

The best translation of Zef from Afrikaans is perhaps hick or common, but the term is a bit more nuanced. “Zef” is derived from the apartheid era Ford Zephyr, an inexpensive car available to white South African mine workers and farmers. In modern South Africa, Zef connotes poor Afrikaners from the Cape who wear last decade’s Puma catalogue, drive 1980’s GMs, drink cheap lager, and loudly enjoy electronic music on their lawn. In essence, Zef refers to South Africa’s “white trash.”

Though Die Antwoord is mainly known for satirizing Zef culture, the band also uses it as a way to reclaim Afrikaner identity in post-apartheid South Africa. By poking fun at the culture in which they were raised, Die Antwoord rejects the stigma that has been placed on working class Afrikaners since the end of apartheid. Outside of South Africa, however, this message often goes unnoticed.

Die Antwoord’s latest single, “Evil Boy,” for example, draws in international audiences through the video’s outrageous phallic imagery, though the message of the song goes deeper. “Evil Boy” not only mocks circumcision in Xhosa and Catholic culture, but also takes a shot at South African President, Jacob Zuma – who was accused of raping an HIV positive woman without a condom. The chorus goes as follows: Yooo! Evil Boy!/Why is your incanca (trans: penis in Xhosa) so big?/All the better to love you with!/No glove, no love!/If you don’t believe me/Take your dirty hands off my umthondo wisizwe! (trans: spear of the nation or people in Zulu).

“No Glove, no Love” is the post-Mandela HIV awareness slogan. Umthondo Wisizwe was the African National Congress militia under apartheid that had Zuma among its ranks. The whole chorus is a direct and pun-filled reference to Zuma’s 2005 rape charge. Die Antwoord also lampooned recently-deceased white supremacist, Eugene Terre’Blanche, in their song “Super Evil,” and joked about Afrikaner stereotypes in their single “Wat Pomp”.

Even if you don’t get the topical humour and political message of Die Antwoord’s music, it’s worth a listen. A few Wikipedia searches will provide you with enough context to understand the band’s references. Just remember that the woman on stage rocking a mullet and gold spandex is as witty and informative to South Africans as Jon Stewart is to Americans.