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Richard Poplak Writes on Die Antwoord

Die Antwoord

Ja No ManRichard PoplakSouth Africa-born, Canada-based Richard Poplak, author of Ja, No Man! and The Sheikh’s Batmobile, returns to the SA pop culture beat with this investigation of the of the Die Antwoord phenomenon, presented for his Canadian audience:

Over the course of the past ten days or so, the band have been propelled by the likes of Boing Boing, Twitter, Pitchfork, Reuters, et al into the very maw of Fame 3.0. As lead rapper Waddy, a.k.a. Ninja, puts it: “Look at me now! All over the interweb.” Indeed, only two weeks ago, Ninja and his sidekicks Yo-landi “Rich Bitch” Vi$$er and the flabby DJ Hi-Tek were paying dues; now they’re rolling in nunchaku. For their international fans, Die Antwoord are exotic, furious, and, most importantly, new. But what their lyrics mean — or what they stand for precisely — no one in Brooklyn or Paris or São Paulo can say.

Ninja is, at first glance, your typical white trash rapper. He wears his hoodie low; his rangy body is marked with crude tattoos. It takes a second or two to realize that Run-D.M.C. were playing Applebee’s buffets by the time they were of Ninja’s vintage: he is closer to middle age than middle school. He raps in a scattershot mixture of English and Afrikaans; his accent is unfathomable. His lyrics reference the minutely specific to the hip-hop generic: “If you don’t like funerals, Ninja says don’t kick sand in his face,” recalls a South African peanut-butter commercial from the ’80s; “too hot to handle, to cold to hold,” fist-bumps vintage MC Hammer. The clue to Die Antwoord’s raison d’être hides in the intro of their astonishing debut album $O$, where Ninja informs us that, “I represent South African culture. In this place, you get a lot of different things…Blacks. Whites. Coloureds. English. Afrikans. Xhosa. Zulu. Watookal. I’m like all these different people, fucked into one person.” Then Ms. Vi$$er pipes in, dismissing him with a high-pitched “Whateva, man.”

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Photo courtesy Watkykjy

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    February 19th, 2010 @09:16 #
     
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    Interesting take on the band ("Die Antwoord, who appear to occupy an entirely different universe from Mandela, are the most articulate answer [to the question: Can SA transform?] he could have hoped for"). Equally interesting set of responses in the comments section, which quibble at length with Poplak's sometimes-slippery grip of SA factoids (like which day Freedom Day is, etc).

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    February 19th, 2010 @09:24 #
     
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    Continuing w/the comments: a classic case of territory guarding. Who owns the right to write about SA culture in-depth?

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    February 19th, 2010 @09:51 #
     
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    Gawd, there is just so much that is wrong with the Poplak article, I dunno where to start...

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    February 19th, 2010 @10:13 #
     
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    Try, Rustum. Fail. Try again. Fail better.

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    February 19th, 2010 @10:25 #
     
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    Mahala has the best Die Antwoord articles. Scroll thru, there are quite a few

    http://www.mahala.co.za/

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    February 19th, 2010 @10:26 #
     
  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 19th, 2010 @10:33 #
     
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    I prefer Ben's rap group. Am Proud Member of Die Vra (bad grammar and all).

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    February 19th, 2010 @10:35 #
     
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    Thanks for putting this up, totally made my day :)

    This stuff actually has to be seen to be believed:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_pS46YRMIQ
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wc3f4xU_FfQ

    I put it firmly in the so bad it's good category - it leaves Lady Gaga in the dust. You can't tell whether it's tongue in cheek or serious, has that District 9 feel.

    Kudos to these guys for being South African rather than South Africans trying to be Americans, and for releasing their album free online - they're now going to cash in on live performances rather than engineering a straight sell off to a record label.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    February 19th, 2010 @10:37 #
     
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    Helen, I think we're changing the name to The Ask. It's just edgier.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 19th, 2010 @10:37 #
     
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    Hi Sven! We love you Sven! We miss you Sven! *Now off to decimate bandwidth*

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    February 19th, 2010 @11:31 #
     
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    Rustum, I'm very interested in your take on this. Apart from the factual and spelling erros (which were comprehensively pointed out to him in the comments thread) do you think Poplak has made any serious substative mistakes in his analysis of Die Antwoord as a cultural phenomenon?

    And how do you feel about a couple of whiteys - one English-speaking, one Afrikaans - appropriating the culture of the Cape Flats for their own artistic purposes? If you have the time, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    February 19th, 2010 @11:35 #
     
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    Well done for bringing race into this, Fiona.

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    February 19th, 2010 @11:50 #
     
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    Fiona is the custodian of sacrificing sacred cows

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    February 19th, 2010 @12:02 #
     
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    Poplak brought race into it. ("What, one wonders, is an aging white musician from Johannesburg doing biting coloured style from the flats?") Rustum's response seems to suggest that he found Poplak's piece more seriously flawed than the mere factual errors. I have a great respect for Rustum's opinion and would like to hear it. It's a fascinating discussion.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    February 19th, 2010 @12:10 #
     
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    Yeah, I just don't see why we can't ditch this preoccupation with race and just enjoy a genuine proudly South African moment. Many people had similar proudly South African moments when Mandoza broke through. Sometimes its just about something original and creative rather than about skin tones.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 19th, 2010 @13:38 #
     
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    From the tantalisingly few words he sprinkled, my hunch is that Rustum's problem is with Poplak, not Die Antwoord. Am I wrong? *dangles invitingly*

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    February 19th, 2010 @14:31 #
     
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    Oops, now I feel a bit responsible for leaving bait out there and then disappearing.

    Some opening remarks, then.

    Firstly, I like Die Antwoord, and my problems are with how Die Antwoord is interpreted and framed. Of course, I don't know what its creators have in mind; I don't know enough about Waddy Jones and Max Normal, etc., so I can only talk about reception of Die Antwoord.

    To me, Die Antwoord is basically blackface and blackface is tricky; it exists on a continuum from satire to parody to mimicry to misdirected appropriation, but the points on the continuum are given valency by reception. As Ninja and Yo-landi are personas, I'll take Die Antwoord as satirical.

    But what are they satirising or parodying? The people on which the personas are based? I.e. the 'coloured' gangster or 'gangster' or youth? Or is it white working class youth, the select few who due to new proximities in working class and lower middle class neighbourhoods, are now developing habits and mannerisms that will not raise an eyebrow on the Cape Flats taxi-line?

    This to me is interesting: that Die Antwoord suggests a fusion of white Afrikaans working class and 'coloured' working class identities, expressed in the most eloquent way through dialect/s.

    But it cannot escape parody. Waddy Jones is, after all, not white working class Afrikaans (maybe he has roots there, I don't know; he lives in Higgovale. Although language identity may be slippery here); at the class remove that he inhabits, and Sven, yes, the racial remove too, the adoption of the persona of Ninja treads that difficult and exhausting terrain of South African entertainment culture wherein 'coloured' people almost always figure as coon - delightful language skills (Afrikaans, after all, was born on their tongues) enhanced by gold-capped teeth. Tattoos that mimic the style of prison-garnered 'tjappies' (stamps), but tattoos that KNOW to stay well clear of any other direct references to gangs. For me the depth of the INVENTION is probably the most troublesome, because it reveals an anthropological bent: it is not a persona that has emerged in any organic way, such as our identities change in different environments; rather, it is a persona invented, but clearly based on detailed anthropological study.

    Had Ninja been white working class with actual regular, day-to-day interaction with people on the Cape Flats, then the parodic would have no purchase; nor would accusations of appropriation. Or had Ninja, for instance, rapped in a mixture of white working class English and Afrikaans and Cape Flats English and Afrikaans, without developing the visual embellishments, then the social commentary and satire would have stood out in relief. And it would have been an interesting point about fluid identities emphasised. But the visual embellishments - especially the tattoos that tread gingerly between celebration and disavowal of prison-gang style and the gold teeth - do point to appropriation and Waddy Jones has not suddenly discovered his 'inner coloured'.

    Or is Die Antwoord parodying gangsta hip-hop in the US itself? If rappers there can garner fame and fortune by adopting gangster stances (if they were not Original Gs), what would it mean to do this in South Africa? What would 'gangsta rap' a la mode in South Africa look like? Die Antwoord could be the answer to that question. Imagine, on a whim the musician wonders: Let's take hiphop, what is happening in it now, transport it to SA, but with all its logical conclusions. Doing this, Die Antwoord then happens also onto all sorts of interesting conjunctions.

    Poplak's piece:

    1. The breathless celebration of Die Antwoord making it on Boing Boing etc. and "Die Antwoord are exotic, furious, and, most importantly, new...But what their lyrics mean — or what they stand for precisely — no one in Brooklyn or Paris or São Paulo can say".

    I've been through some comment threads, and while some commentators there are 'international', South Africans swarm to Antwoord threads. Poplak hasn't considered the great South African diaspora, and their children.

    2. 'White trash' - I hate this loaded phrase. It is demeaning and it also signifies, in this instance, exotica, which takes me back to the coon. White or coloured, the working class are not exotic coons.

    3. "his accent is unfathomable" - No it's not. It's a mixture, but the ingredients are recognizable. English spoken with an Afrikaans (Pretoria dialect) influence and Cape Flats English/Afrikaans dialect. Poplak is former South African, he should know about linguistic variation in SA. And give an insight of it to his Canadian audience.

    4. Historical awareness: "recalls a South African peanut-butter commercial from the ’80s", which was cribbed from the Atlas bodybuilding adds in American comics. Petty yes, but it signals the writer's propensity for universalising his own experiences. Die Antwoord are not the first to rap in dialect in SA: Brasse Vannie Kaap were on the original tip - i.e. they used dialect as their preferred medium to mark their authenticity; Prophets of Da City used dialect to comic effect in 'Net 'n Bietjie Liefde' ("When you get out of the texie, you look so sexy, I nearly drop my Getsby").

    Sometimes one would like to see reference to such historical examples so that one can see the 'newness' for what it is. It's like SA critics who gushed over Mzwakhe Mbuli for 'revolutionising' English poetry when they had not heard of toasting and dub-poetry (sorry, old hobby horse). More of this when Poplak insinuates BitterKomix into the same historical moment as Fokofpolisiekar: "Bands like Fokofpolisiekar brought a hardcore punk sensibility to the conversation, and anti-art movements like Bitterkomix undermined Afrikaner nationalism and exceptionalism, viciously lampooning the rugby, barbeque, and lager set."

    5. "Zef-rap, the musical currency Die Antwoord have invented and trade in, is born of the badlands that seethe behind Table Mountain in South Africa’s second-largest city, Cape Town. Centuries before apartheid was institutionalized, the Cape flats were seen as the solution to what successive regimes considered to be the city’s most pressing problem, the so-called “coloured” population. The Cape coloureds are a racial mixture of the Khoisan people, white settlers, Malay slaves brought in by the Dutch, and blacks from other areas of southern Africa; their language reflects this mélange. They have long been considered a bastard race, and banished accordingly. (The most tragic of these instances was the razing of District Six that began in the late 1960s.)

    The flats lie on a swathe of bitter, barren plateau. Its hoods are defined by rows and rows of single-storey brick houses, rusting chain-link fence, and coils of barbed wire. The streets are owned by the walking dead — crystal meth addicts, drunks, AIDS-emaciated wraiths. There is a vibrant gangland culture, a fuming streak of Islamic fundamentalism, and thousands of good families trying to make a go of it in the mayhem. As such, it is an incredibly rich cultural environment. Zef rap was birthed here, an ungodly potpourri of Top 40 hip hop, chintz house, rave music, DIY beat making, and bad techno. And this is where Ninja spent years, mining for meaning among the violence, the misery, the strong familial bonds — developing not just a style, but an entire persona."

    I mean, really. I know it's journalism and not a history textbook, but still. Then, Antwoord invented Zef rap, and yet it was born on the Cape Flats?

    And how about distinguishing 'Zef' as a white Afrikaans adjective that describes 'bad taste': fur on the dashboard, plastic-covered furniture, etc. etc., which most of central and southern Cape Town associate with the northern suburbs, rather than the Cape Flats. While there are commonalities between Cape Flats working class culture and Northern Suburbs working class culture (magwheels anyone? Cortina Big Six, anyone?), 'Zef' needs that distinction in terms of its etymology, especially in the context of those two paragraphs which lack cohesion and leave one with a wrong impression of historical connections.

    And what about 'their language reflects this melange'? Afrikaans and English? One would imagine that Cape Flats speech is not intelligible to the rest of South Africa.

    And, where exactly did Waddy Jones/Ninja spend years picking up the lingo? Durbanville? The Cape Flats itself is a very large area, with wide varieties in class and language. It starts at the M5, but I don't think Durbanville forms part of it. It's the work-in-progess kind of writing of the article that irritates me - where things should have and could have been teased out, it's all just left as is, making one wonder whether the writer was just rushed or whether he believes in this potted history.

    6. "When the Guardian hastily compared Die Antwoord to London white trash garage rap, the paper missed the nuances of Ninja’s brilliant appropriation of Cape flats culture."

    Implying that he has his finger on the pulse, instead.

    7. "No South African community embodies this more than the Cape coloureds"

    The romance continues.

    8. "By moving to the flats and buying wholesale into local gangsta culture, Waddy is reframing South Africanism anew. While Afrikaans punks positioned themselves in opposition to the ultra-conservative, Calvanist ethos of die volk, what Die Antwoord are doing is not an act of rejection, but an act of embracing."

    I wish this was true. As I said before, if this happened without the visual accoutrements, then such a project - if it is Waddy Jones's intention - could have ethical worth; but, I say again, the completeness of the invented persona points to a distance between such putative convictions in this regard and what Poplak reads into it (why can't he distinguish more clearly between artist and persona?). But such distance between artist and persona also opens it up to all sorts of accusations, among them cynical appropriation. Does Waddy Jones believe in this act of embracing? Why then not use his real name? Why displace it onto a persona?

    9. "Ninja has sculpted, both with his flesh and his music, the ultimate South African. He is everything in the country, “fucked into one person.” That he is willing to go so far to embody this idea is thrillingly, gloriously radical. It is also an essential step for the South African generation tasked with healing, so that future generations can answer Mandela’s question — Can we one day unite and govern outside of race? — with a resounding “yes!”"

    No, WADDY JONES has sculpted, in Ninja, a persona of what embracing different cultural identities in SA might mean.

    Or, no, Waddy Jones has sculpted, in Ninja, a persona of what might be if a South African wanted to follow the trend of 'gangsta rap' in the states. If you want to strike a gangsta pose in the Western Cape, this is what you should/would look like.

    The one thing that is certain is that Die Antwoord opens up the space of double-speak, characteristic especially of slave society and known, from my 'coloured' background, as 'kak-praat' or 'gat-krap'. The latter especially points to mischievous lying, something that anthropologists don't get: the informant cannot be trusted because you don't know, can never know, whether the informant is talking the truth or whether they're krapping gat (scratching hole/arse/behind). Which reminds me of Antjie Krog's translation of Khoisan poetry. The Afrikaans title is "Die sterre se tsau" (The stars say tsau). 'Sterre' is an Afrikaans word that Bleek and Lloyd's informants knew and used; 'Sterre' is plural for 'ster', but also the colloquial form of the plural for 'stert'. 'Die Sterte se Tsau' - The arsehole says tsau. Was Bleek's informants krapping gat?

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    February 19th, 2010 @14:44 #
     
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    Mr Grondwerk, take a bow.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 19th, 2010 @14:45 #
     
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    Oh Rustum. I'd rather read you than Edward Said any day. And that's saying something. Why aren't you rich and famous? (Um, don't answer that!)

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    February 19th, 2010 @15:06 #
     
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    Helen, gulp, now that's a way to paralyse me.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    February 19th, 2010 @15:31 #
     
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    Paralysis by analysis. This is what I see - American gangster rap + crap '80s pop/rap synth music marinated in SA culture potjie for a few decades, then seasoned with Cape Flats gang culture and the raw satirical '80s asthetic that worked for District 9 and Corne and Twakkie, finally mirrored back at the world through the web.

    A white guy with a crap hairstyle doing spastic dance moves accompanied by a boeremeisie who rolls her Rs and has an even crapper hairstyle comes across as funny and visceral. I'd bet that no deeper social commentary was intended, Ninja just found a persona that worked for him. Nobody else has done it.

    If some Cape Flats gangsters want to form an indie band, grow fringes, buy cosmetic spectacles, wear fedoras, hang out at the Armchair and speak in hyper-vowelled Southern Suburbs WASP, then I'll personally invest some money in their efforts.

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    February 19th, 2010 @15:50 #
     
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    Yes, Sven. I also see that, and I take it as read. My response was to Poplak, who engaged partly in teh reception of the band and whose article I found inadequate.

    At the same time, your short piece is as much analysis as mine. Your succinctness is a virtue only if you refuse deeper analysis, something which I don't believe you normally do.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    February 19th, 2010 @17:25 #
     
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    Rustum, you have exceeded my expectations. Thank you. I'm sure you didn't really have time for that, but I'm very pleased to have this thoughtful riposte to Poplak's piece, which sat uneasily with me for a number of difficult-to-articulate reasons. You have articulated them perfectly.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    February 19th, 2010 @17:32 #
     
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    Damn, that's comprehensive goodness right there, Rustum. For what it's worth, I just see a trio of talented jokers with bad haircuts who came up with a couple of catchy tunes and a game plan to ride the wave. I bow to the irreverence of any man who gets the world to chime "Jou ma se poes in a fishpaste jar."

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  • <a href="http://sarahlotz.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sarah Lotz</a>
    Sarah Lotz
    February 19th, 2010 @17:49 #
     
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    Rustum, you are a word Ninja of note. Or a brain Ninja. Can't decide.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 19th, 2010 @20:06 #
     
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    Is it just me, or has it been a particularly good day on Book SA? I am proud to know you all. And Rustum -- that was a plum. Next time we meet, I'm buying the whiskey.

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  • <a href="http://lepage.wordpress.com" rel="nofollow">DavidLP</a>
    DavidLP
    February 20th, 2010 @11:35 #
     
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    I so do hope that amidst all this earnest discourse, and I use that word particularly, that you have not all neglected stumbling upon Jack Parow?

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  • <a href="http://craigsmith.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Craig Smith</a>
    Craig Smith
    February 21st, 2010 @15:14 #
     
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    I agree with Sven.
    Just a bunch of people who find a combination of styles no one had seen before.
    Was at a computer lan event the OC over the weekend. There was a celebrity look alike a contest. One guy was dressed up as the "ninja". Most people didn't know he was including myself. Although there was a largish crowd who cheered for him once it was known who he was.

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  • ar
    ar
    February 21st, 2010 @16:04 #
     
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    Not just you Helen. And dammit, I missed it. I have this knack.

    There can only be one Ninja here. Ninja Rustum 4 eva.

    I didn’t even know about Die Antwoord before now. Had to google Jack Parow, too, and found out that “he is in fact the original donker dodgy afrikaans rapper. The rest are just fokken copies.” So that, plus all of the above just goes to show, really, what BookSA is for.

    I heart BookSA.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    February 21st, 2010 @19:04 #
     
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    Aw, AR we're blushing. And to answer your question, David LP, I latched on to Jack Parow from Day One. Ok, maybe day two or three - but long before Die Antwoord crawled on to the scene. I'd never make the mistake of thinking that I was cooler as Parow.

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  • <a href="http://henriettaroseinnes.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Henrietta</a>
    Henrietta
    February 21st, 2010 @22:14 #
     
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    Someone should direct R Poplak / The Walrus to Rustum's response ... ? It's too good not to spread more widely, I think.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    February 21st, 2010 @22:21 #
     
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    Hm, sounds like you've nominated yourself, HRI!

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  • <a href="http://henriettaroseinnes.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Henrietta</a>
    Henrietta
    February 21st, 2010 @23:34 #
     
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    Huh. Guess I have.

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  • <a href="http://henriettaroseinnes.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Henrietta</a>
    Henrietta
    February 21st, 2010 @23:38 #
     
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    Huh. Couple of people got in before me. (go Liesl!)

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    March 21st, 2010 @14:25 #
     
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    Here's a pic of Waddy Jones in Max Normal incarnation at the opening of the Puma store at the Waterfront, Nov 2007:

    http://www.thunda.com/show/3529/2007/1128/3529/48/thundablack

    A recent comment somewhere on a trend-spotting forum made connections between the Puma sponsorship of Die Antwoord and the World Cup (Puma does strips for Italy, Algeria, Germany, a.o.), so perhaps there's going to be an eventual viral reveal? I think Puma also did Max Normal.tv-wear. Mweb could learn something about viral marketing from Die Antwoord.

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