No, I’m not talking about sex. Get your heads out of the gutter. We good? Good.
In North America, we seem a bit obsessed with being sure we understand something before we accept it. Well, not everything–gay rights, for instance, are almost universally accepted by my generation, despite some people still asking gay men if they’ve ever had a boyfriend. The answer is yes, of course. No, no, we have to understand anything from another culture before we can admit to liking it. We have to understand a movie from our own culture before we feel safe liking it. And this has really started to hit home to me in the last few months of my life. I just watched The Killer, a John Woo movie from 1989 starring Chow Yun-Fat. The Blu-Ray box says it is one of the most legendary and awesome Hong Kong action movies ever made. And, when it comes to the action scenes, I see what they mean and then some. Holy moley is the action in that movie some of the most visceral, stylish and engaging I’ve ever seen. Jeffrey Chow (Chow Yun-Fat) has an unlimited supply of bullets per clip, but I just don’t care.
But why I mention this is that the rest of the movie is a melodrama on par with the worst of North American soap operas. And at first, when I was watching the movie to watch a movie, I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how this movie where half of the sound effects aren’t dubbed and the main character flirts with the love interest with a Western name by staring at her overtop of psychedelic backgrounds set to her karaoke could possibly considered anything but laughable. It was a culture and a movie entirely foreign to me, and I just didn’t get it. I haven’t watched enough Hong Kong action cinema to be anything close to knowledgeable about any of it. I don’t even know what I don’t know–I don’t know if that movie’s legitimately exceptional or if it’s carried by its far above average action scenes. I just don’t get it.
And this has been happening in the rest of my life. Die Antwoord MC Ninja said in one of his first North American interviews that American audiences seemed obsessed with getting it. They couldn’t just like it for what it was. They couldn’t let the beats ride and sing along in Afrikaans. They wanted to know what all of the words meant, what all of the allusions were referring to, what made Ninja and Yo-landi Vi$$er rap like they did. I’m not going to say I was the ideal audience for Die Antwoord off the top. When they came to my attention, my head bugged out. I just didn’t see how any of these people could take themselves seriously. Here they were confusing ninja and samurai–who are, like, entirely different–and bragging about being, and I’m reading from notes: “all up in the interwebs–worldwide–2009–futuristik”. That video came out in 2010. Or at least, that’s when I first saw it.
It was with the release of the (absolutely stunningly amazing) video for “Evil Boy” that I had to make a choice. Here was a statement I couldn’t ignore. I could either embrace this group, whatever they said and whatever they stood for or I could let them go. The video for “Evil Boy” doesn’t invite your comprehension. If you aren’t South African, if you don’t know the culture–they have left you behind without so much as a backward glance. They have a dancing tokolosh, they have an entire verse in Xhosa about the manhood ritual of the MCs backwater village, and–most importantly–they have penises everywhere. There are penises on every surface, men achieving erections, men rapping into their gigantic hose-penises and entire verses about circumcision. And, oddly enough, it was those penises that said “we stand for something and we don’t care if you get it or not”.
For those of you tired about me talking about Die Antwoord, it happened before that too. It happened the first time I listened to Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do by Major Lazer, Switch and Diplo’s Jamaican band. The first time I heard that record, I violently hated it. I listened to every song and all I heard was exactly the same beat for four minutes about fourteen times. It was just horrible torture to listen to. But the funniest thing happened the second time I listened to it: I stopped listening to what I couldn’t recognize and started hearing all of the brand new things I’d never heard before. I heard the differences between the songs, I heard what was used in one place but not another. It was like the moment I knew what it was, I didn’t have to understand it to like it. I didn’t have to know why it was what it was or what exactly was being said. All I needed to know was what it sounded like.
And the truth is, it’s been happening like that for years beforehand. There are movies, there are books, there are albums–there are whole swaths of creation that I can’t get into or can’t anything to because I just don’t know what it is before I get into it. So does that mean I’m the typical North American, demanding to understand everything before I can register an opinion on it? I don’t know. Probably? I feel like it does, but I also feel like it doesn’t. It’s a complex issue this, and I’m probably the person least qualified to assess my own biases and incompetencies. All I know is that I don’t listen to the North American version of $0$ because it has too much English on it–I listen to the free Afrikaans version because it’s far more foreign. And as soon as I downloaded Jack Parow’s first album, which is entirely in Afrikaans, Die Antwoord pretty much went out the window.
When Major Lazer collaborate with white people I recognize, it sounds less like them and more like something I don’t like. And when I saw The Killer tonight, I knew I needed to see it again. But I also felt like it deserved four stars.