One South African band’s explosive success and how they defined what’s cool.
“Zef is f—ing cool. But even more than f—ing cool…Zef’s the ultimate style, basically.”
—Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones)
Die Antwoord was a hugely successful South African band from 2009 to 2017. Their first release, “Enter the Ninja” (2009) was an instant international hit—by the next year, they were already touring around Europe. On top of being an eclectic and more-than-a-little vulgar hiphop outfit, for many who have never been in South Africa, the band was their first taste of anything even remotely South African. Die Antwoord loved to use Kaaps in their lyrics (a “low-brow” mishmash of Afrikaans—a remnant of Dutch, German, and French from a history of colonization—and English.) Ninja, the male vocalist, also copied styles and tattoos from the gangs of Cape Town while being neither colored nor working-class himself. Die Antwoord have been heavily criticized for cultural appropriation, using their privileged outsider status to imitate a less privileged culture. Needless to note, they weren’t received very well by fellow South Africans.
Die Antwoord’s music likes to mix different categories, including hip hop, electronic, and punk rock. Altogether, they like to call their style “Zef.” Zef was originally slang that loosely meant “cheap” or “trashy” in 1960s-70s South Africa. At first, it was associated with the car Ford Zephyr, which was a common vehicle owned by working- and lower-class South Africans. The word has a strong “debris”-like impression, in which one absorbs the remnants of Western culture and brands, incorporating them as much as they can into their self-image. Die Antwoord’s Ninja chooses to describe Zef as, “the debris of American culture that we get in dribbles…We tape it together and try to be American.”
Funnily, Die Antwoord’s take on Zef is very positive. “Zef is f—ing cool. But even more than f—ing cool…Zef’s the ultimate style, basically,” says Ninja. The ultimate style is a clear statement that in their minds, Zef had overcome the original, mainly American culture it had imitated. While before, it was a derogatory term for the poor who desired to look fancy to the best of their abilities, Die Antwoord turned this supposed desire on its heel: “Zef is, you’re poor but you’re fancy. You’re poor but you’re sexy, you got style.” In Beat Boy, one of Die Antwoord’s earliest and most successful hits, they push explicit, sexual imagery to a backdrop of Western fanciness: “You in a trench coat, it’s French, you look stylish”. A “chick chilling against the wall” flashes herself naked with a “nice big painting above her head (Expensive!)” All in all, Zef is a funny, self-aware statement of, I know I’m poor, but I can look rich and feel rich.
This kind of self-awareness is a pattern we see throughout Die Antwoord’s work. In Fatty Boom Boom (released 2012,) we see a vividly dressed, Lady Gaga-like character touring South Africa on a van. The van is on a “Big 5 Tour,” which in African tourism, represents the five most popular animals seen on safaris. Instead of in the savannas, Lady Gaga witnesses these animals on the streets, cohabitating with humans: hyenas nosing at the garbage bags, a homeless man petting a black panther. The van is stopped by a gang at gunpoint, and Lady Gaga runs away, playing to the African stereotype of derelict cities infested with wild animals. After a cheerful, cartoony affair by Ninja and Yolandi, the music ends and Lady Gaga is mauled by a lion. While the locals have almost pet-like relationships with the “Big 5,” Lady Gaga’s misfortune speaks to the uncool ignorance of tourists and wealthy Westerners in general.
The conversation around Die Antwoord is still steeped in controversy. But the question of cultural appropriation is only one side of the story; the other side is, why did so many people like this kind of content, anyway? What, in current years, is the appeal of overtly racist imagery or the slang of the under-privileged? Die Antwoord’s answer would be, once again, Zef.
Zef takes what’s “low” and turns it “high.” What was previously uncool becomes the highest form of cool. It speaks to a worldwide audience that is increasingly resentful of American influence, Hollywood’s big money and its inaccessibility. Without Zef, one was always a consumer, confined to merely watch the scenes; with Zef, you get behind the scenes, create whatever you want, call it art, and call it cool. At least, that’s the idea.
Zef is hardly a groundbreaking concept. In many ways it is just another word for “alternative.” Artists love to be alternative. Indie music, modern art, freeform poetry, all constantly experiment with more ways to be “different” than the stuff that came before. It seems that we, as self-defining individuals, have an insatiable desire to go against the grain. The release of “Fatty Boom Boom” came after Lady Gaga (the actual one) asked Die Antwoord to join her on her opening act. Not only had they refused, but they also publicly criticized her haircut.
“We like making pop music, but we like making hardcore music at the same time, mixing them, but they’ve got like, soul. It’s not like weak, superﬁcial sh-t”, said Die Antwoord (2012), implying that Lady Gaga’s music was weak and superficial. At around the same time, the band split up with their label, Interscope, because they tried to “make sound like everyone else out there at the moment.”
Die Antwoord relied on shock factor as much as they did on the content of their message when they turned down a huge international name like Lady Gaga. In the next year, however, they’d agreed to be the opening act for Red Hot Chili Peppers—a pretty “mainstream,” well-loved, and definitely Western band, but one that preferred to present themselves as alternative, an idea easily associated with genres like rock and metal. In a similar way, being associated with Red Hot Chili Peppers gave Die Antwoord the impression of rebellion, as well. But that was only an impression. Die Antwoord used “class privilege, social capital and networks” to succeed just as much as the band next door. At the end of the day, being white and mainstream helped a lot with their commercial success, and it’s a wonder that they didn’t let it taint their image.
Members of Die Antwoord have previously been accused of sexual assault, homophobic attacks, child abuse, and the use of egregious racist tropes in their music videos such as blackface in “Fatty Boom Boom.” This article is not an endorsement of any of Die Antwoord’s work, actions, or comments.