Sunday, October 21, 2012

Is This Blackface? And Is That a Problem?


Yo-Landi Vi$$er of Die Antwoord, in the video for "Fatty Boom Boom" (YouTube).

Yes and yes. 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. 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.

Such continued use of blackface may or may not actually reclaim control of their own images, but at the very least, it attempts to wrestle with the history behind it, unlike some costumes during Halloween or misguided school pep rallys, which are clearly and obviously unacceptable. Likewise, I am reluctant to criticize an artistic use of it if there is an intelligent point to be made, as in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, for instance. “Fatty Boom Boom” is not an example of this. 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. University of Cape Town Professor Adam Haupt has called them out for a very different video, which makes extensive use of Afrikaans and coloured cultural allusions—even though Ninja himself is a “well-resourced white, English-speaking South African.”

At the beginning of “Enter The Ninja,” he declares,

Hundred percent South African culture. In this place, you get a lot of different things. Blacks, whites, coloureds. English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, watookal [whatever]. I'm like all these different things, all these different people, fucked into one person.

This self-proclaimed spokesperson status is something Ninja has in common with Lady Gaga, who he and Yo-Landi Vi$er are so keen to lambast in the video for “Fatty Boom Boom.” (Earlier this year, Gaga asked the group to tour with her; they said no, calling her music “shitty.”) The pop star has dubbed herself "Mother Monster" and her followers "Little Monsters," presenting herself as the voice for many gay young people. (She herself is bisexual.) She has occasionally been criticised for pimping the cause of gay rights for her own commercial benefit. Whatever the worthiness of the cause, to present yourself as the representative and spokesperson for an entire group is a dubious endeavor.

And so Die Antwoord’s attempt to attack the singer as an opportunist is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle, well, black. In the lyrics, Die Antwoord invoke other examples of white musicians appropriating black music to great fanfare—Vanilla Ice and Eminem both get quoted—and suggest that they are the true cultural beacons: “What happened to all the cool rappers from back in the day? / Now all these rappers sound exactly the same / It’s like one big inbred fuck-fest.”

But Die Antwoord fail to bring anything fresh to the subject. Instead, they borrow loaded imagery for a cheap thrill, and do little with the horrific history behind it.

Comment: This article appeared independently around the time of my post but it is not simply a matter of coincidence/timing that the author, Aisha Harris, and I reach the same conclusion.

Die Antwoord should be called out for being two disconnected white artists who have used Blackface and race appropriation for no other reason than to bolster their own narrow interests.

It is a usual story.  And it should be no great surprise that folks, particularly whites, will argue that Blackface was not intended and race appropriation is misguided projection at best.  See a comment under my post entitled "Die Antwoord Disses Lady Gaga" for example. 

I want also to raise the further appropriation of black forms by the manner in which the video uses images of a decidedly shabby South Africa in conjunction with black buffoonery in the guise of black characters to situate the vacuous self-defined race rebel posturing of Die Antwoord.

This 'plot' presupposes that two white zef-rappers can disappear into the racializing that is being presented and reappear as symbols of resistance (this time against Lady Gaga).

It would be one thing if they reappeared as agents for deconstructing race stereotypes.  But they do no such thing.  In fact, if you live here in the delusional rainbow you will know that even the language and accents they use are drawn stereotypically from the Cape Flats.

And this reaffirming of racist stereotypes is what makes the video and overall mindset of Die Antwoord so problematic.

A problem made more so, and in racist terms even more so, with the use of Blackface.

What if anything does Yo-Landi Vi$$er intend by doing Blackface?  As I read it, it is no more than a reflexive nod to a very serious racist practice that still has relevance in its destructive habit of reducing black folks to images, particularly historically distorted ones, in the white mindset.

The black comedians who appear in this video should know better than to lend their talent to such a racist travesty.

So, I will say it again here, Die Antwoord video is a vacuous representation of Blackface and racist appropriation - if you missing it or do not see it then you need some race learning and quick.

And, if you think Blackface is an isolated issue mostly found in professional artistic circles then see this CNN article Angela brought to my attention: "High School Pep Rally's Racist Display" (October 15).

See also this example of what amounts to Blackface blogging: Before and Afro.  This blogger, who describes herself as white, Jewish, with soft blond hair, decided to wear an afro wig and walk around NYC judging what folks on the street might say.

Blackface blogger of Before and Afro infamy
Putting on an afro wig moved this Blackface blogger to adopt a fierce animal posture (savage like).  In another picture she starts throwing signs like you see in gansta rap videos.  See more of this clueless asshole showing off here.

Her touted experiment reminds me of the vacuous and nauseating "Eat Pray and Love" crap author Elizabeth Gilbert unleashed in 2006.

Needless to say she has pissed off a grip of folks, particularly black women.

Why the hell is it necessary for a self-described white woman to play Blackface as a social experiment? 

Truth is too many white folks just don't get the plot do they?  But just because they think it is all in the past does not mean much when the practice continues to denigrate blacks and other folks of color.

No matter the excuse that may be floated, white people have no natural right to live their socio-psychological lives, real or imagined, on the literal backs of blacks and other folks of color.

We did not get here by mistake.

Blackface is a purposeful and continuous practice that seeks to reduce black people to stereotypical and dysfunctional caricatures.

Simply put, Blackface is always racist irrespective of time, place, or intent.


UPDATE (October 23): Yo-Landi Vi$$er has responded to allegations that she is donning a racist Blackface by saying that she does not know what Blackface is and, therefore, it can't be racist.

To betray her ignorance even further she adds the racist essentialism that what she has done is "an African thing they would not understand"!

Who is the they you may be wondering too; on-Africans or folks like me who see her act as Blackface?

And if we don't understand is she then the agent to make Africa less of a puzzle(ment)?  In other words, is self-described white agency also an "African thing"?

Geez hey.

Does this woman not know that racism is a structured reality in which individual ignorance of specific acts is not an excuse?  Her explanation (reflex reaction more likely) only makes the situation worse - more characteristically racist.

And what the hell is an "African thing" really?

Is the entire continent of Africans reducible to one essentialized stereotype.

I am amazed at how dense she is and it just goes to show how transparently phony their entire spiel is.

These are not thoughtful artists deconstructing myths about South Africa or offering counter realities.  Instead they are clueless suburban post-apartheid whites who think that it is OK now to replicate racist apartheid stereotypes because it does not matter any more (to them at least).

How vacuous.  And how can any African, even a white one, not know what Blackface means in 2012?

And we are not free.



Anonymous said...

I managed to reach my 40's without knowing about blackface - pretty ignorant as well, I guess. Or maybe not with my eyes glued to the USA.
We do not need Die Antwoord to import this particular US way of racism - we have enough of our own racist uglyness already.

We also do not need Die Antwoord to make a video of killing an Afrikaner omie - that happens enough already too. It is a pity no-one in Anglophile SA seemed to find that offensive. (I'm reffering to the Umshini Wam video)

Ridwan said...

Thanks for your comment Alleman.

I agree that we do not need to glorify killing in SA. I have not seen the video you mention - my experience with Die Antwoord is limited to the Fatty Boom Boom video which they also claim does not make fun of Lady Gaga's weight.

I am stumped at many levels. What is their spiel?

Blackface is not alien to SA as you know. The so called Coon Carnival is an adaptation of Blackface and modeled on the US experience except it is intended to deconstruct its racism.

In other words turning it around to protest racism - with its roots in slavery.

I will look to find the video you mention but on principle absolutely concur with your position on the Afrikaner omie.

Killing is not to be made fun of in any context.


Gerhard Venter said...

I don't think it is right to force a US view on what die Kaapse Klopse means. Speakers of Kaaps have their own views on that - let them decide on their own.

See, for example what Robert J Pearce says:

"Oor die Kaapse Klopse (Coons) het jy dit ook mis. Hulle maak mooi musiek, hul kostuums is pragtig en hulle is ’n aanwins vir die Suid-Afrikaanse kultuur – niks negatiefs soos wat jy insinueer nie"