Post written for University of Auckland course FTVMS 323: Popular Music on Screen
I don’t like Chappie (2015)- there, I said it. While I’m at it, I may as well get several more things out of the way: I don’t like most of Neill Blomkamp’s work. I walked out of District 9 when it was first released, a film which is widely considered his magnum opus (for the record, I later finished it and admit that I was wrong for giving up so soon).
As far as Chappie is concerned, I found the story bland and generally disturbing, was rather bored with the one-dimensional characters, and couldn’t help but giggle at Hugh Jackman’s ridiculous mullet. However, one element that stood out to me were the songs used in the film. They were unlike anything that I had ever heard before, yet somehow there was something about each song’s sound that seemed rather familiar…
It wasn’t until the credits began to roll (and I was able to finally breathe a sigh of relief that two full hours of disappointment had finally come to an end) that I realized that two of the lead characters in the film, Ninja and Yo-Landi, were played by Ninja and Yo-Landi of Die Antwoord, the South African rap-rave zef group who provided eight of their songs to the Chappie soundtrack.
It was Die Antwoord that quickly became the most memorable thing about the movie for me, and has stayed with me for over a year since the film’s release. Their unique sound and stylistic elements prompted me to do further research on the band, which therein led to me to discover the zef music genre. “Zef” is a counterculture movement that has increased in popularity since the 1990’s in South Africa, wherein Afrikaners (mostly white, lower-class South Africans) exaggerate traits of being cheap, ill-bred, and vulgar (Krueger, 400). In regards of Chappie, the use of the zef music genre reveals much about South African culture and works well with the styles and themes of the film, but the frequency of its use takes focus away from the film’s narraive and places it on the music.
Chappie centers around the world of Johannesburg, South Africa in the not-too-distant future, where artificial intelligence is prominent and crime is filtered by police officer robots. The scientist responsible for these robots makes another significant technological advancement when he manages to import artificial intelligence into the body of a discarded robot. This robot is captured by three gangsters, two of which are exaggerated versions of Ninja and Yo-Landi. They name the robot “Chappie,” and teach him what it is to be human, as well as use him for their own criminal activities.
Anton Krueger’s artcile in Safundi; The Journal of South African and American Studies, entitled, “Zef/Poor White Kitsch Chique: Die Antwoord’s Comedy of Degredation,” not only provides context into the historical connotation of zef culture in South Africa, but also specifically outlines how zef developed into a genre that was made popular by Die Antwoord. Krueger argues that whereas in the 1950’s and 60’s, the term, “zef” was used to describe what would be known today as “rednecks,” it has now become a word associated with an authentic lifestyle. Die Antwoord embodies this authenticity in their appearance, language, and music, says Krueger:
“The band members deliberately position themselves as a part of a poor white lineage. For example, in the YouTube clip, ‘Zef side,’ they talk about their supposed origins as poor and unsophisticated. […] The clip is shot in a poor suburb of Cape Town and in this way, the personas they have created align themselves with an underclass” (403).
Above is the video that Krueger describes in his journal. While the way that the band speaks, dresses, looks, and lives indicates the “zef” persona, this persona can also be seen in the characters that Yo-Landi and Ninja play in Chappie: They live in a graffiti-ridden junkyard in an abandoned part of Johannesburg, and generally look quite similar in the film to all of their other appearances in media. In this way, Die Antwoord’s outward aesthetic and their music seem to inform one another in terms of the zef genre they market.
As zef is an increasing part of South African culture, it is intrguing that Blomkamp chose to reflect it so prominently in Chappie in both character and soundtrack. In full, eight of Die Antwoord’s songs were featured on the soundtrack, all of which shared very similar stylistic traits. Hits like “Cookie Thumper!” and “Enter the Ninja,” feature heavy rhythmic, synthetic beats. This computer-generated sound therefore evokes a technology-dominated atmosphere that can easily be applied to the technology-dominated setting of Chappie. Both Yo-Landi and Ninja’s raps feature very elaborate and changing rhythms, their voices remaining relatively montonous and synchronous; rather machine-like, if you will. Yo-Landi’s voice in particular is unique. The tones of her voice are soft and high-pitched already, but when combined with the resonant rave beats and the rap pacing, the overall effect is almost otherworldly: her sound becomes less of a voice and more of an instrument, giving further dimension to the already unusual sound of Die Antwoord. While they might be the most popular band of the zef music genre, Jack Parow and other South African hip hop artists share similar traits with Die Antwoord, specifically in their computer-generated beats and rhymic raps. All of these traits combined renders zef music very complementary to the tone and style of Chappie.
Whereas both the culture and style seem to fit in with the narrative of Chappie quite well, there were some rather confusing decisions that were made concerning how Die Antwoord was featured in the movie that seemed to contradict the overall effectiveness of the music choice. Although the film as a whole was widely criticized by film critics as being predictable, full of plot holes, and unappealing, the majority of critics were confused by Blomkamp’s casting of Ninja and Yo-Landi. Particularly critics of Time, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Los Angeles Times questioned their casting, but perhaps Justin Chang of Variety said it best:
“By far the most curious casting choice is that of South African hip-hop artists Ninja and [Yo-Landi] Visser, who have always playfully blurred the line between their onstage and offstage personae. Here, projecting a (somewhat) exaggerated version of their already outlandish identities, they seem more or less of a piece with the scattershot proceedings, and their performances do improve after their shouty, gun-waving histrionics early on. Lending the picture an occasional burst of anarchic energy are Die Antwoord’s numerous contributions to the soundtrack, of which the infernally catchy ‘Enter the Ninja’ is merely the most recognizable.”
Others considered the use of eight Die Antwood songs to underscore key scenes in the film as merely a massive plug for the band, instead of a means by which song and story could be complementary and subtle. Said Andre-Pierre du Plessis of Memeburn, a website that focuses digital media, in his article, “Chappie is an Elaborate Feature-Length Music Video for Die Antwoord:”
“Clearly the movie was conceived at a time when Die Antwoord was at the height of its international acclaim. Some critics have asked whether this was done intentionally as a sort of South African inside joke, and after seeing the movie with a group of non-South Africans, it certainly feels that way.”
Sadly, du Plessis isn’t wrong in this assumption. Director Neill Blomkamp himself confirmed in an interview with Rolling Stone that his reasons for using Die Antwoord were more informed by commercial factors above any other:
“Years later, while I was writing Elysium, I was listening to Die Antwoord while I was writing very late at night — and suddenly this thought just came to me out of nowhere: What if this band were to raise one of Elysium‘s artificially intelligent robots, but with a clean slate? And they tried to make it do all the illicit sh*t they do? What kind of f*cked-up movie would that be?!? […] It was conceived with the idea that they’d not only be in it ,but play a version of themselves. The music thing didn’t work out, so now they’re running around South Africa and committing crimes…they seemed OK with that idea for some reason.”
In the interview, Blomkamp goes on to say that Chappie originally took place in Los Angeles, and that he changed the setting to Johannesburg for the sole purposes of accomodating the casting of Ninja and Yo-Landi.
However, just because these intentions weren’t initially a part of the design of the film does not mean that the overall effect that the zef music genre had on the film as a whole wasn’t impactful to the style, tone, and narrative of Chappie. While the inclusion of this very particular genre itself is indicative of South African culture, the specifics surrounding Die Antwoord overall cheapens elements of the narrative and lessens the cultural impact. The impact could have been greater had Blomkamp taken the focus off of Die Antwoord and instead used a compilation score of other zef artists to elevate the genre, rather than merely just one particular music group. Despite this, however, the fact that a counterculture group received so much attention as to be featured as both actors and musicians in a film that was released in many international markets is indicative of just how impactful this rather niche genre truly is.
Academic Article Utilized:
Anton Krueger (2012) Part II: Zef/Poor White Kitsch Chique: Die Antwoord’s Comedy of Degradation, Safundi, 13:3-4, 399-408, DOI: 10.1080/17533171.2012.715484
Header image from freeimages.com, Gif from giphy