For partisans of punk there’s only one topic of conversation more redundant than the ongoing nonsensical notion that rock is dead – when nescient cynics declare punk deceased. Rock music is doing just fine, obviously. It’s far too vast, varied and vital a genre to risk coming under real threat any time soon. It is nevertheless a specific style of music, and therefore confined to a certain set of stylistic guidelines – it’s centred around the construct of a band playing electric guitars, bass and drums.
Punk, on the other hand, can be used to describe everything from electronic duos such as Suicide and Sleaford Mods, to performance poets like John Cooper Clarke, solo singer songwriters like Billy Bragg, and contemporary acoustic acts such as Dave Hause and Billy The Kid. Punk isn’t a genre at all, therefore, but an ethos that exists today in a plethora of guises and disguises all over the world. South African rap-rave outfit Die Antwoord might not fit the traditionalist mould of what constitutes a punk band, but breaking the mould is exactly what punk is all about.
Punk has always been about absolute musical freedom, creativity, individuality, and rebellion. It’s about standing up for what you believe in and saying this is who I am, whether you like it or not. From becoming a viral phenomenon “all up in the interweb” off the back of the video to their debut single Enter The Ninja, to signing with Interscope Records and leaving that label to set up their own independent Zef Recordz, Die Antwoord have always done whatever Die Antwoord wanted to do. According to vocalist Yo-Landi Visser, “You can’t try and make something you think someone else will like. You can only make what you like…If you try to make songs that other people like, your band will always be shit”
Regardless of how it sounds, if music is countercultural, revolutionary and an honest and positive response to the social, cultural and economic conditions of its surroundings, then it’s punk. By that definition, Little Richard was a punk. John Lennon and Bob Marley were punks. Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine and The Prodigy were punk. Public Enemy and NWA were also punk. And so are Die Antwoord.
To denounce something as “not punk” because it doesn’t adhere to your formulaic view of what punk should be is not only infuriatingly ignorant, but also goes against everything punk set out to achieve in the first place – new forms of musical expression. In their incendiary call to arms 1977, The Clash proclaimed “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones” because they felt those artists no longer represented the working class youth of Britain. Back in 1977 that was a punk statement to make. But do those lyrics speak directly with the youth of post-apartheid South Africa in the 21st century? Arguably not.
That’s not to say The Clash aren’t still culturally relevant the world over. Far from it. They’ll always be one of the greatest punk bands of all time, and Joe Strummer will always be at the centre of any discussion on punk because he stood for the very essence of what punk is about - musical freedom, integrity and fresh ideas. But if The Clash were indeed a punk band, so too are Die Antwoord. They’re taking that same template and applying it when writing the soundtrack to their own zef revolution. For those unfamiliar with the term, zef is a South African counter-cultural movement, which according to Yo-Landi means “you don’t give a fuck and you have your own flavour and you’re on your own mission.” Sound familiar?
On the surface Die Antwoord’s outrageous rap-rave aesthetic might seem like a world away from the incendiary primitive rock of the Sex Pistols, but when he’s not rapping in an arresting Afrikaan/English hybrid, Die Antwoord’s Ninja bears more resemblance to the sneering Johnny Rotten of old than the majority of today’s more conventional punk singers. That’s because he’s the real deal. They both are. They’re also the full package, and the combination of the songs, the music videos, and the live shows (all of which are totally fucking bonkers) make them one of the most agitative and polemical bands on the planet. As Yo-Landi points out, when Die Antwoord first exploded from out of nowhere back in 2009, “all these conservative Afrikaners thought we’d sprung from Satan’s dark pit.” Which is exactly the same reaction as the British music press had to the “filth and the fury” of the Sex Pistols, who’s arrival symbolised the birth of punk as we know it back in 1977.
Your personal taste might dictate that you don’t like their music, but there’s still no denying the consecrated punk rock credentials of an act like Die Antwoord. And if you want to try, they’ve already prepared their response: “Jou mae se poes in a fishpaste jar”. We’ll let you Google that, if you’re not familiar with Afrikaans.
Die Antwoord are on tour now. Their album, Donker Mag, is out via Zef Records.