Ninja is the new James Phillips – just bigger

The guy that started the popular Afrikaans music explosion of the last 20 years or so name was James Phillips.

James was a Ingelsman – an English white South African. But not a Soutpiel – the derogatory word for English whites that were obsessed with thier mother country. (Literally salt penis. Someone with one foot in England, the other in South Africa and the male member dangling in the Atlantic.)

He had grown up on the East Rand. The industrial side of Johannesburg’s white community was mostly Afrikaans, because Afrikaners tended to form the white working class.

David Goldblatt
Afternoon tea being served to two men repairing a car on a pavement in Fairview, Johannesburg, Transvaal (Gauteng), 1965.

To be sure there was actually one artist before Phillips that launched popular Afrikaans music, namely Koos du Plessis. He too came from the East Rand and a town called Springs (Originally named Fonteine but renamed Springs by Imperial English South Africa.) But while du Plessis’s music was beautiful, it was profoundly melancholic. Phillips put the pop and the fun into Afrikaans.

But Phillips did not intend to. He was a music student at Wits, and English language University and quite unconcerned with politics. Most of the music he wrote before and after his sojourn in Afrikaans was in English. Wie is Bernoldus Niemand -his most famous album was an university project. But it sparked a revolution in Afrikaans music and the so called Voelvry beweging. Phillips was bemused by the fame bestowed upon him by the Afrikaans community. English white South Africa did not make much notice of that album at first, but it was later taken up by the End Conscription Campaign as a political tool to end white conscription to the apartheid army. To many Afrikaans speakers he is still affectionately known as Bernoldus Niemand.

It is also no small coincidence that District 9′s Neil Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley come form the East Rand. (Word has it that Blomkamp has contacted Yolandi to tell them how much he likes Die Antwoord.) Blomkamp and Copley attended English schools but were surrounded by Afrikaans culture.

The vehicle for their narrative was Wikus van der Merwe (also featured in some of Die Antwoord song – Super Evil ) described best by Andries du Toit:

The whole point of Wikus, of course, is that he is such a prat. He is thick as a plank. He is awful. He is as unlike a Bruce Willis or a Samuel Jackson as it is possible to be – and this is at least partly because he is Afrikaans. He is not just Afrikaans, he is a rockspider. He is a doos, a chop, a moegoe. He mangles English with hilarious ineptness. He is cringe-makingly uncool: cheesily in love with his ‘angel’ wife, dorkily clumsy in front of the camera, cravenly obedient to authority, crudely bullying to the aliens that he deals with, and horrifyingly inept in his dealings with his Black underlings, whom he patronizes with cheery ignorance. At the same time, in his earnestness, in his desire to be liked, in his bright-eyed and bushy-tailed eagerness to make a success of this impossible, chaotic, disaster of a job, one cannot but like him.

Like Phillips, Blomkamp and Copely expressing themselves through Afrikaans culture has been the recipe of their success. How so?

Because of its authenticity. Because of Afrikaans culture’s groundedness in South Africa, and because of Afrikaners manic support for all things South Africa. Middle and upper class English South Africa aspired for generations to all things England. Their suburbs and towns were called after places in the UK. The books they read were from authors in the UK. The football teams they supported were Man U long before the current global craze for that. As Po, a well known South African blogger noted recently on my blog:

I don’t want to play the “poor little white girl” card, but I have felt like an alien in SA for many years. My European ancestry (including 1820 English settlers) marks me out as European rather than African for ever more. Also I come across so much bitterness towards colonialism in SA, and fair enough! But I feel like a symbol for that colonialism. Also us English speaking Saffas have absolutely no culture of our own, we are just a hybrid bunch of people who feel a bit like intruders or guests in the place they were born in.

Even today – even if unfashionable amongst the Rondebosch and Sandton set – the best selling popular musicians in South Africa are the likes of Steve Hofmyer and the highest grossing local movies Poena is Koning. Afrikaans culture might be unsophisticated, but it is much more substantial and has a much larger legacy to call on. It also has a fan base. (As an aside the vast majority of local novels sold is Afrikaans as well).

A little background. When in the 1800′s some Afrikaner politicians tried to call the English arrivals Afrikaners it was roundly rejected. They were proud to be called British. Being British was seen as more advanced and not as backward as being from Africa. Much later English white South Africa were up in arms when the Nationalists made the country a republic.

As the editor of Business day recently wrote:

“THE 1970s were a heady time to be a white English-speaking liberal in SA. As a post- Mandela black leadership began to define itself in the form of Steve Biko and other young activists, many white liberals began to see a relevant place for themselves in South African politics — they would be aiders and abetters of the revolution against apartheid.

The truth be told, white liberal English speakers still smarted from the break with Britain and never made much distinction then between apartheid and its creators — nationalist Afrikaners.”

Now Waddy Jones aka Ninja seems to have done what James Phillips have. He has embraced Afrikaans culture which he knows intimately. I don’t know this for a fact yet, but my bet is that Jones comes from either the East Rand or a place like Vereeniging. A white working class Afrikaans area. (Ok apparently not says Grif van Watkykjy, although I’m not sure where from yet. Speculation is that it’s Randburg – middleclass Afrikanerdom). Why do I think I’m right? Well, most English speaking South Africans can’t speak Afrikaans unless they absolutely have to. Yolandi is of course Afrikaans herself.

Die Antwoord and the Wedding DJ’s at the Oppikoppi (On the hill) festival, a festival that grew out of the Voelvry movement

Die Antwoord was written about in Beeld, Die Burger (the two biggest Afrikaans daileys), but up to tonight none of the English language South African press have. Afrikaans is their blind spot. No matter – the UK Guardian, Boing Boing, and World Wide – Die Antwoord is there now.

Jones’ previous projects have been as good in many ways as his output as Die Antwoord. But it was as Die Antwoord that they were nurtured and backed by Wat Kyk Jy, the legendary Zef Afrikaans website and a loyal army of supporters. It was in this community where he found people like The Wedding Dj’s, with their roots themselves in the East Rand and Vereeniging, who organise parties in Cape Town, (You can see them in the back of the Taxi when Yolandi wiggles her naked arse).

Shortly after the Voelvry movement, but quite independently of it, a hip hop movement started in the coloured Afrikaans speaking communities of the Cape flats. Bands like Prophets of the City and Brasse van die Kaap. (A good place to explore coloured SA is at Kakduidelik, Watkykjy’s more respectable cousin once removed.)

The brilliance of Jones, who like the Wedding DJ’s moved down to the Cape, was to incorporate this Hip Hop scene into their act as well. Much of their inspiration is the Gangster Rappers associated to the Numbers gang. See their track Wie Maak Die Jol Vol – the best one in my opinion – featuring Gangster rappers Issac Mutant, Knoffel, Jaak Parl & Scally Wag. And see this documentary on the Numbers gang and you’ll know where some of the inspiration for Ninja’s tatoos come from.

UPDATE: Darn, I see that Sky or whoever it was removed the video. What a pity. Mr. Murdoch – fok jou ook. It was really fascinating :(

I found a replacement, not nearly as good quality – but here it is. Even better quality here. Watch all the parts if you can.

Sky One Ross Kemp on Gangs Cape Town Part 1
by b-cris

Also reflecting on South African language politics, check out Die Antwoord’s My best friend track. (Where the friend ‘does not speak that language’.)

Afrikaans is once again in a struggle for survival.

Also see this video where Jones, as Max Normal intimates about how he is going to change his style and his accent, after an invite to become famous by Duppie, but even so much of Die Antwoord is already there.

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Related deployments:

  1. I’m a Ninja – Die Antwoord
  2. What is Zef?
  3. A NINJA broke my heart
  4. America discovers Die Antwoord
  5. Die Antwoord – is it blackface?

11 Responses

  1. Po says:

    Thanks for the quote! This band is really doing the rounds on the internet, they are quite fascinating.

  2. Dmitri says:

    Can relate, as a rooi nek who grew up in Afrikaans dorpies with English as my home language and mostly working class Afrikaans friends.. If you’re going to express something South African and you have a white upbringing the most African thing you know is likely Afrikaans. Leaving the dorpie and moving to the big dorp Cape Town I could never quite relate to my English only suburban brethren. There was a lot they didn’t seem to get or see about being South African..a lot of dark comedy that passed them by. Being South African of course means I’m automatically conflicted about everything that comes out of the country. Lurking in the background is this jittery feeling about a handful of creative Afrikaner\media savvy South Africans making cool a sometimes hard nosed and intolerant group (we all have our quirks). BUT maybe I should relax, it’s just satirical rap music….right?

  3. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    No problem Po, I put a link to your blog above. She writes much better than me!

  4. Herman says:

    You’ve forgotten about David Kramer – another English-speaking South African who embraced Afrikaans to deliver subtle but incisive political commentary, and was thanked for his trouble by conservative Afrikaners who profoundly misunderstood yet claimed him as their own

  5. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    True, and he was jewish to boot! Just like David Goldblatt who took that cool photo on top.

    And he is still doing it. David Kramer’s latest album still does brilliant commentary on South Africa.

  6. [...] a more academic take on Ninja and co go here – I read Koos Kombuis’s book about Voelvry and James Phillips (odd bloke) so it’s [...]

  7. Steve Funk says:

    Ok Ninja is cool and relevant and funny
    But James Phillips was a Talented Musician who dabbled in Satire ( and felt a bit embarrased and ashamed about it Bernoldus was a joke for him one that got old fast…) where as Waddy (NinJa ) is a talented and unashamed Satirist who dabbles in music and uses every gimmick in the book to make a scene and get noticed which is not a bad thing in itself but there is a difference between These two…

  8. Steve Funk says:

    David Kramer is a very relevant mention , I am very closely related to David and I often used to think a few years back that one should do a modern David Kramer who wore red converse lived in Brookly and smoked Buttons and rocks and spoke like a poor white…it’s certainly culturally relevant

  9. [...] A quick Google search of DIE ANTWOORD produces a butt load of really interesting articles such as this and this and this (say whaaa Yolandi and Ninja are married and have a daughter who’s just [...]

  10. [...] more about them and Die Antwoord [...]

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