The video for “Fatty Boom Boom,” a new, high-octane track by South African group Die Antwoord, is full of shocking stuff. In the quick-cutting video, Lady Gaga gets killed and both members of this male-female group bump and grind in near-nudity throughout. But what has drawn the most attention it not the crotch-grabbing antics of the male member, Ninja. Die Antwoord’s female rapper Yo-Landi Vi$$er bounces in full-body black paint complemented with searing red lips in many shots. It didn’t take long for the American media to take notice and situate this look within the long history of blackface minstrelsy.
There are plenty of scenes in “Fatty Boom Boom” in which the artists wear black paint from head to toe, dance and gesticulate in a manner that resembles tribal dancing. But it is the shots of Yo-Landi Vi$$er — pointing her fingertips in the air like guns, her eyeballs replaced with dollar signs popping from black skin — that harken to a time when stereotypes of African peoples rendered in glaring make-up were generated to entertain the masses. Times of socially-accepted racism that most are trying to forget.
From two white rappers — expressing themselves in a style created by oppressed American minorities, from a country formerly reviled for its racist caste system — this stylistic choice is troubling. It borrows from a backwards time in entertainment history while seeming to mock the precise people and genre the pair extract their ideas from.
Can Die Antwoord’s (which is Afrikaans for “The Answer”) appropriation of rap tropes (guns, dollar signs, gyrating anger) painted in the tar hues of “cooning” just be a coincidence — not meant at all to offend? It is possible. But knowledge of the history of minstrelsy in South Africa makes one question their innocent motivation.
“While the U.S. and South Africa each have quite distinct and complicated histories when it comes to race relations, blackface has been a troubling issue for both countries,” writes Aisha Harris of Slate.com. “The culture of blackface and minstrelsy in South Africa dates to the 1860s, when English settlers arrived. Since that time, a minstrel festival, first known as the Coon Carnival, has been held in Cape Town every year. The Kaapse Klopse, as it is now known, primarily features the working class coloured population of South Africa these days, participating in a subversive act meant to reject white superiority and the images it has thrust upon them.”
Harris questions the naiveté of Die Antwoord in the context of this tradition. “Die Antwoord’s appropriation of blackface here is in line with the—some say false—persona they have carved out for themselves as rebellious, in-your-face provocateurs who are meant to bring a voice to the disenfranchised,” the author writes. Yet, aside from provoking controversy, it is unclear what is gained by culture or society their dredging up such negativity for the sake of entertainment.
Harris believes that, “Die Antwoord fail to bring anything fresh to the subject,” of racism and minstrelsy. “Instead, they borrow loaded imagery for a cheap thrill, and do little with the horrific history behind it.”
Recent days have brought us American white students who used blackface to reenact a horrific instance of celebrity domestic violence. We have also witnessed the fashion house of Dolce & Gabbana causing an international uproar by sending what many saw as “mammy” earrings down their Spring 2013 runway. These examples suggest that there is a continuing fascination with people of African descent in mainstream culture, but that this interest is tinged with an alienating and dehumanizing attitude towards the same black culture that is also inspiring.
People here want to believe that America is becoming “post-racial.” Instances such as these demonstrate that both America, and the world, have a long way to go before this will be the case.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.