Die Antwoord's Profane Performance Art

South African Trio excite at the Paradise Rock Club

The sinister smiley faces that decorated the intimate stage, with dripping black circles for eyes and mouths, heralded an impending perversity as a rowdy crowd awaited Die Antwoord at the Paradise Rock Club. The South African trio has garnered international acclaim since the music video for the hit single “Enter the Ninja” became an online sensation. The group’s widespread exposure has partly resulted from its blatant shock value—its lyrics are so singularly focused on violence and moral corruption that its sophomore effort, “Ten$Ion,” was deemed too outrageous to be released on Interscope Records. But while the group’s brazenness has offended some, it has won them many ardent followers; after Die Antwoord’s particularly raucous and hysterical set Friday night, many concertgoers left relishing the group’s rebellious spirit and refusal to conform with the music industry and stale social convention.

The concert began on an unexpectedly fragile note. As the lights dimmed, the ominous faces were joined by a projection of South African painter and DJ Leon Botha, which illuminated the empty stage as the ominous transition music faded to a tense quiet. Botha, who died last June, was one of the world’s oldest survivors of a rare genetic disease called progeria, which causes early symptoms of aging. Botha in his last years was an icon of South African creativity and perseverance as well as a close friend of the members of Die Antwoord, and it seemed odd to start a sold out hip-hop show with such a mournful tribute. But as the concert progressed, this opener helped to symbolize Die Antwoord’s bizarre modus operandi: exposing sensitivity through anger and empathy through aggression. The trio represents Zef, a lower-class South African counterculture movement, and the rappers seek to embody the anger felt by counterparts all over the world.

The somberness quickly gave way to Die Antwoord’s typical outlandishness. DJ Hi-Tek, Die Antwoord’s beat-master extraordinaire, arrived onstage first in a bright orange sweat suit and a grotesquely deformed dog mask. Shortly thereafter, rappers Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er joined him in the same garish outfits; Yo-Landi Vi$$er sported black contacts accentuated with white eyeliner and a space-age mullet haircut. Their style can be best described by a quote from their website: “fre$h, futuristik, flame-throw-flow-freeking.” After the fresh and fiery opener “Wat Kyk Jy?” Ninja addressed the audience with his eyes bulging: “Yo Boston, what’s pumpin’ in this bitch!?” The fervent crowd, intoxicated with excitement and who knows what else, responded by shrieking and moshing.

For the next 75 high-energy minutes, Die Antwoord, which translates to “the answer” in Afrikaans, was “pumpin’” harder than anyone else in Boston. Ninja launched himself into the throng several times, thrashing among his adoring fans. One vivacious female fan spent several songs, including “U Make a Ninja Wanna Fuck,” on stage, grinding maniacally with Ninja as he stripped down to his boxers and violently thrust his hips. Another crowd member, wearing only a bright gold thong, joined Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er on stage for the infectious techno-inspired track, “I Fink U Freeky.” Those new to Die Antwoord were shocked by its profane performance art, while the older fans were shockingly accustomed to the shtick. As one Harvard concertgoer—who prefered to go unidentified—remarked as he grooved to the intensely frantic beat of “Baby’s On Fire,” “They may be the creepiest human beings I’ve ever seen.” Through profoundly disturbing and perplexing craft, Die Antwoord got the crowd moving on a visceral level.

The trio’s encore was final evidence of the group’s innovation and art. Its biggest hit, “Enter the Ninja,” transformed into a defiant manifesto as Ninja rapped “We not like the rest / My style is UFO / Totally unknown.” At the beginning of the dubstep-infused final act, “Never Le Nkemise 2,” Ninja again addressed the crowd: “Boston 2012! We in da future now … Fok da system; we have our own system! We make our own rules. We don’t answer to no one.” And as they left the stage, the projection of Leon Botha appeared once again. There is something undeniably “futuristik” about their particular strain of enraged sensitivity—it is a testament to their forward-thinking sensibility that they have collaborated with high-culture innovators like filmmaker Harmony Korine and fashion designer Alexander Wang. Given their vulgarity and the specificity of their social concerns, Die Antwoord would seem likely to remain in semi-obscurity. But the brute force of their convictions is understood on an instinctive level. Their music provides a refreshing and distinctively new “antwoord” to social tensions that can never fully be resolved.