Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Cyberclunk of Die Antwoord

The South African group Die Antwoord popularized the word “Zef,” derived from the Ford Zephyr, a car manufactured exclusively in South Africa and the U.K. from a period that extended from the 50s to the 70s. Later models resembled the classic 1960s Ford Fairlane. Like the Fairlane, the car is a muscle car with its long nosed front end, unapologetic in its sheer balls-out flashiness. It’s the car that a blue collar kid buys to show off. This is what the lead vocalists of Die antwoord, Ninja and Yolandi, call "Zef", what they describe as  “full flex"--"flex" in the Hip Hop sense of flash or peacocking.

“Zef,” incorporates the fashion of  Hip-hop, without the conspicuous display of wealth. It's bold, cheap and loud, and though it’s not about money, it’s not about the lack of it, either. It doesn’t carry the same shame of the word “ghetto” or the more colorful, “ghetto fabulous” and the judgment that the term implies. “Ghetto fabulous” is about the necessity for practical improvisation in ghetto life, and may suggest a lack of taste or class. It ostensibly embraces this improvised trashy aesthetic in an ironic way, but underneath this irony lies the shame of poverty. But there’s no shame in Zef. Zef is baroque in its deliberate excess, a celebration of the cheap and the gaudy. There’s a fuck-it-all quality to the excess of something that knows it’s cheap. In an indirect way, it resembles the deliberate crudeness of Punk.

Punk has much in common with Hip hop, this idea that anyone can become a musician, that craft is not something that needs to be taught, or apprenticed, but something you can develop on your own and on your own terms. It’s the idea that you can craft something of quality without relying on traditional formal skill. Punk and Rap have their roots in Folk, Rock, and Blues, but diverge from these roots in the way that they reject the idea that you have to be able to sing melodically, or play instruments with proficiency to make art. It’s the essential idea that nobody can tell me that I can’t because I don’t know how.

And this, too, is the essential idea behind Zef (though the music of Die Antwoord is anything but formally unskilled, with layered mixes by DJ Hi-Tek). It comes from this same attitude in your face, fuck it all, nobody can tell me that I can’t because I don’t know how. No one can tell me what good taste is, or what beauty is. It’s an attitude that’s not simply contrarian, but one that embraces the richness found in Die Antwoord’s own working class environment. Unlike the fashion of punk, it doesn’t wear its rebellion like a uniform. It’s more than dyed hair and Dr. Martens, and even if this wasn’t what punk once was, it’s what punk became--kids from the suburbs emulating the fashions of rebellion established by the working class. Not that Zef doesn’t have its own derivative side—it borrows its fashion heavily from the Rap and Rave culture it embraces, but these cultures are appropriated in a uniquely South African way that is pure Zef.

But Zef, or at least the essential aesthetic and ideas behind Zef aren’t exclusive to South Africa. A similar aesthetic has emerged from Hip hop and R and B in the U.S. as well. You see it in artists like Nicki Minaj who are moving away from ostentatious displays wealth for their own sake and focussing more on generating their own unique look. But Zef still has a decidedly South African flavor, which is what makes it Zef, and which will always distinguish it as unique to South Africa.


The Cyberclunk of Zef

At first this may seem a tangential connection, but I see Zef fitting comfortably under the blanket of Cyberclunk. Zef is a style based firmly in the world of mass-production. Zef repurposes these mass-produced products and puts them in a new context, turns the mundane into the baroque. It’s not a practical repurpose, but an aesthetic one. But all of these repurposed objects are the products of technology, die cast, or sewn or injection-molded by machines and on assembly lines. These cookie cutter products take on a life of their own after they enter the world. The manufacturers of plastic watches or loud pink bras don’t care about Zef. What makes Zef, Cyberclunk in part, is its all inclusiveness. It’s not vintage. It’s not contemporary. It’s anything and everything that fits in with the Zef aesthetic, whether it’s something you've  purchased off the rack yesterday from Wallmart, or a Ford Zephyr. And it’s how these objects are recontextualized that make them Zef.

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