NEW YORK, New York – The South African hip-hop shock rave duo known as Die Antwoord (“The Answer,” pronounced DEE AHNT-vuhr’d) has kicked off its U.S. tour, and played to a packed, sold-out Terminal 5 on Tuesday evening in Manhattan. The performance, a burst of profane energy from start to finish, brought to life the group’s zany YouTube videos and–more remarkably–had an American crowd singing along in Afrikaans.
It is hard to underestimate how bizarre–and significant–an achievement that really is. For all its sensational profanity, Die Antwoord has popularized and globalized a language that was shunned, even detested twenty-five years ago, seen by foreign audiences as the official language of the apartheid regime. Now, thanks to songs about sex, drugs, and South African prison culture, Die Antwoord has brought Afrikaans into unlikely vogue.
In reality, there are more black than white speakers of the Dutch-derived language, which combines a variety of influences, including Arabic. Afrikaans–and especially its local Cape Town dialect, kaapse taal (“Cape tongue”)–is the basis of South African street slang, and absorbs other languages easily.
For Die Antwoord, Afrikaans is a window onto “poor white” and gang culture in South Africa, as well as a vehicle for American hip-hop riffs. Add some creative videography and bold forays into viral marketing and independent production, and you have Americans nodding along to songs like “Cookie Thumper,” in which a white schoolgirl describes her crush on a drug dealer from one of South Africa’s notorious “numbers” gangs, who insists on anal sex when he is freed from prison. (There were a couple of South African flags unfurled on Tuesday, but locals outnumbered expats.)
There simply has never been a pop act quite like Die Antwoord to come out of South Africa. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has popularized South Africa’s traditional, gospel-inflected choral tradition ever since Paul Simon’s Graceland; Johnny Clegg combined Zulu guitar with progressive rock; the Springbok Nude Girls led a wave of alternative rock bands in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But nothing has been as disruptive as Die Antwoord.
Lead singers/rappers Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er have taken the perverse joy of swearing in Afrikaans–there is no other language whose profanity is quite so evocative or ecumenical–and brought that dubious treat to global audiences (try to imagine a New York crowd cheering the word “faggot” in any other setting). It is not clear if overseas fans absorb the multiple entendres of a line like “sny-sny jou snoekie cookie,” but it’s clearly fun for all.
What is even more amusing is how Die Antwoord have popularized not only Afrikaans slang, but bad Afrikaans accents in English. One of their first major international hits, “I Fink You Freeky,” plays off–and embraces–stereotypical Afrikaans mispronunciation.
There is an element of self-parody in what Die Antwoord does, but also an element of pride, a swaggering self-confidence that no one else could be quite as marginal as this.
In that way, Die Antwoord is a voice for one of the world’s most isolated and misunderstood minorities–as if to say that as long as Afrikaans is relegated to the cultural fringe, it may as well embrace that.
They are definitely worth catching as they visit their fans and provoke beefs with their enemies–if you can brave a spectacle that includes an inflatable Casper the Friendly Ghost with a huge erection. They are crazy, but they’re also lekker.