As she prepares to take on Hollywood in Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, the Die Antwoord frontwoman talks about her unpredictable ascent to fame
Taken from the spring 2015 issue of Dazed. Read our interview with Ninja here
Yo-landi Visser appears in the piano bar of an old-school west Hollywood hotel, looking like an albino gangster from another dimension. Wearing a sweater bearing the legend ‘BO$$’ in large green letters across the front, the Die Antwoord frontwoman perches on a leather armchair and orders coffee and fresh fruit. Guests sneak glances at her, no doubt wondering where this fragile-yet-formidable life form with a silvery white mullet, corresponding eyebrows and little girl voice sprang from. “I roll with bodyguards when I go back home to South Africa,” she says, looking around the room. “Like, full on. People want to fucking assassinate me.” It’s hard to imagine this five-foot tall mother of two should pose such a threat to the self-proclaimed torchbearers of decency and good taste in society. But that’s what happens when misfits succeed. Feathers get ruffled.
Visser, real name Anri du Toit, has fast become an unlikely pop-culture icon. Flipping between Lolita songbird vocals and thugged-out raps delivered in a blend of English and Afrikaans, she has broken every approved music industry convention en route to success with her bandmates, rapper Ninja and DJ Hi-Tek. Since exploding on the scene in 2010 with their viral video “Enter the Ninja”, Die Antwoord have compromised their vision for nobody, aiming to remain as “punk and fresh and kind of psycho” as possible. At the end of last year they confirmed their A-list clout with the cameoheavy video for “Ugly Boy”, with appearances by Jack Black, Marilyn Manson, Flea, the ATL Twins, an almost topless Dita Von Teese, and supermodel Cara Delevingne. Cheered on by the obsessive freaks and geeks that have claimed Die Antwoord as their own, they have become one of the world’s most visceral live acts, with crowds proclaiming their allegiance by chanting “zef, zef, zef” – an homage to the downwardly mobile South African street culture that inspired their favourite band’s trashy aesthetic.
Visser rarely grants interviews, and never solo interviews – until now. She prefers to remain an enigma; an elfin rave avatar whose life story remains relatively undiscussed. “I got irritated with people asking us the same questions,” she says. “Like, ‘Are you a real band?’ Journalists wanted to slay us, tried to cut us down, and I just started caring less and less about doing interviews. With Facebook and Instagram, you kind of don’t need to anyway. But now and again we’ll do something when there’s new information to share. Like now.”
After amassing more than 200 million views on their YouTube channels, the group will make the leap on to the big screen next month when Visser and Ninja star alongside Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman in Chappie, a family sci-fi drama by District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. In the film, they play a pair of musicians-turned-gangsters who adopt a newborn artificial intelligence in the shape of a robot, Chappie. “There’s something about Yo-landi and Ninja, they both have very unusual magnetism,” says Blomkamp over the phone during a break from editing the film. “Whether you love them or you don’t, you’re drawn to them. Yo-landi has something that is hard to put into words. There’s some unknown factor about her that just makes you interested. She has this split personality – the dichotomy between the imagery you see and the lyrics she is singing is fascinating. That, coupled with the fact that she is actually very smart, makes people identify with her in a different way to anyone else.”
Born on March 3, 1984 in Port Alfred, a small town on South Africa’s east coast, Visser was adopted by a priest and his wife and struggled to feel like she belonged anywhere. Growing up, she describes herself as “a little punk” who was always getting into fistfights. “Which is weird, because actually I am quite soft and caring.” She considered herself goth in spirit (“me and my best friend even dyed our underwear black in the bath”) and obsessed over Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Nine Inch Nails, Cypress Hill, Eminem, Marilyn Manson and Aphex Twin. “I loved dark shit. When the Chris Cunningham video for (Aphex Twin’s) ‘Come to Daddy’ came out, that was like a fucking religion.” It’s an influence that’s plainly felt in the dark yet wry, blood-splattered video for “Ugly Boy”, which features Visser as a cute but terrifying alien being with eyes as black as night. Fittingly, the song is actually a refix of Aphex’s 1992 track, “Ageispolis”.
At 16, Visser was sent to a boarding school nine hours’ drive from her family home, where, surrounded by other creative kids, she finally blossomed. “The school was very artistic and open-minded for South Africa,” she says. “I was fucking happy. For the first time in my life, I connected with people who were artistic.” She has never met her birth parents, and she doesn’t want to now. She doesn’t know too much about them, except that her mother was white. Recently, a portrait artist specialising in identifying genetic history told Visser she has the facial structure of a ‘coloured’ (in South Africa, ‘coloured’ is the commonly used term for mixed race). At first, Visser was confused. “I said, ‘No, I’m white.’ She kept asking about my family and then I started thinking maybe I am coloured.” Visser now thinks her father may have been black. She was born during apartheid, and believes her white mother’s parents may have forced her to give her baby up for adoption, after getting pregnant by a black guy. It’s a theory.
Another determining factor in Visser’s identity has been Ninja, father of her daughter, and her sparring partner in Die Antwoord. “We’re bound by life and music. One doesn’t work without the other.” Ninja, real name Watkin Tudor Jones, 40, had been on the South African hip hop scene since age 13. He grew up in Johannesburg and frequented black nightclubs where he cut his teeth as a rapper. “You had to be good to do that shit,” says Visser. “The fact that he was white meant he had to be really good.” Visser met Ninja outside a Cape Town club around 2003. He was sporting a similar suited-and-booted attire to slick hip hop duo Handsome Boy Modeling School. “She was like, ‘What the fuck’s up with this dude?’” recalls Ninja. “‘Why are you dressed like that? Don’t speak to me.’ She was a little goth kid who looked about 13. I was scared of her.”
After reconnecting at one of his own shows, Ninja asked the gothy Visser to lend vocals to a track by his horrorcore act, The Constructus Corporation. “I just wanted her to go ‘yeah motherfucker’ with an American accent,” he says. “We went into the studio and she did it with this attitude and her voice. I was just like, ‘ARGH!’” Visser told him she didn’t know anything about rap, and he promised to teach her. They became romantically involved for a period, and in 2006, she got pregnant by Ninja.
“I was young,” she says. “I was like, ‘Fuck, my life is over,’ because all my friends were out smoking weed and hanging out and hoodratting, and I was at home with the baby. But I was psycho about it. No smoking and drinking. I wanted to be a cool mom. It was hectic. I felt very isolated for a long time but in the end it was cool, because it helped me and Ninja stick together. If we hadn’t, we would have maybe drifted.” Though they are no longer a couple (Ninja is now married), many fans continue to assume they’re an item. “A lot of people still see us as a couple,” says Visser. “I understand – we have such a unique companionship, it’s really weird that we’re not. But it’s hard being in a group together and having a kid.”
“I love dark shit. When the video for Aphex Twin’s ‘Come to Daddy’ came out, that was like a fucking religion” – Yo-landi Visser
Ninja and Visser’s daughter, Sixteen Jones, is currently in a band with Flea’s daughter, Sunny, called The Boy With the Rainbow Face. “Sunny is the lead and Sixteen is the backup and writer,” says Visser, who’s lived in LA for the past few years. “She’s really good.” In keeping with rebellious-kid tradition, Sixteen is the opposite of her parents in that she can’t stand foul language.
Visser is also a parent to Tokkie, a street kid she adopted four years ago. He was nine years old at the time, from a rough neighbourhood in Jo’burg. His family was poor, so Visser offered to take care of him at weekends, and then full-time. “I’ve always had that maternal thing; that connection with street kids and people who are misfits,” says Visser. “I saw so much potential in Tokkie but I knew there was no hope for him on the street. No one’s gonna give a shit. Now he’s blossomed and become this enchanting boy.”
In 2007, Visser suggested the idea of starting a group to Ninja, and the seeds of Die Antwoord were sown. While working on new tracks, they met Hi-Tek, their third member and DJ. “Something just happened,” she says. “A triangle. But we wanted to have a real look. Not just go in the studio and make some songs. We wanted to have a whole style.” This is where the hair comes in.
Visser swears it wasn’t until she started sporting her brutal, cyber-punky peroxide mullet that Die Antwoord really found its visual direction. It was 2009, and they were shooting a video. The director wanted her to be all little-girl and cutesy. “My hair was long with a fringe and people would make jokes, calling me Britney and Lady Gaga. I told Ninja I needed to go in a different fucking direction. I wanted to have an edge that was more like me on the inside. Ninja said we should just cut the sides off, and I said, ‘Fuck, let’s do it.’ And it was just, BAM – there’s Yo-landi. It affected the music, it affected the way I acted and how I felt. For me it was like a birth or something.” Visser’s haircut and bleached eyebrows represent more than a fashion quirk or a cry for attention. They are a statement of her outsider pride; an unmissable declaration of who she is and what she stands for. Ninja still cuts her hair to this day. No one else is allowed to touch it.
Cool hair or not, no-one gave a shit about Die Antwoord. They had two songs out, and an album, $O$. They’d made a video for “Enter the Ninja” that featured Visser as a cyberpunk schoolgirl heroine, wearing underwear with marker-emblazoned dollar signs, and a rat crawling over her. Her image flipped the Lolita archetype on its head, with body language that screamed, “Look, but don’t fucking touch.” She may have been dressed like a schoolgirl, but unlike Britney and her entreaties to “hit me baby one more time”, Visser’s attire was more a method of visual torture, double-daring the viewer to underestimate her strength.
Visser remembers the night everything changed as if it was yesterday. It was February 3, 2010, and the band had been booked to play a show in Johannesburg. “It was raining, and I was saying to Ninja, ‘Fuck, no one’s coming because of the rain. We drove around the corner and saw kids queuing around the block. And as we walked up, people started screaming. I remember rapping that night; the mics were fucked and the crowd rapped all our lyrics. I remember going home and wondering what the fuck had just happened. It was like something aligned. All the kids connected with this thing that we were feeling.”
That night, their video got 10,000 new hits. Their email address was still on their website and the fan messages started pouring in. The following morning, their video was featured on US television, and a day or two after that, someone from Interscope got hold of their phone number. They flew to the States for a meeting with legendary label head Jimmy Iovine at Interscope HQ. “We walked into the offices and saw NWA, Slim Shady and Tupac on the wall. I was like, ‘Fuck, this is the best label.’ We were like these wild animals from South Africa in a meeting with Jimmy Iovine. He said, ‘We love you guys, we don’t want you to change a thing.’” So after a couple months’ thinking time, they signed with the label and got ready for their first US show, at Coachella. It became the most buzzed-about performance of the festival.
“Interscope wired us $1 million, so we wired it back. We didn’t want the money” – Yo-landi Visser
Soon enough, Hollywood came knocking. In 2010, David Fincher reached out to Visser about playing the lead in his adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. “Ari (Emanuel, Visser’s agent) was calling me saying, ‘You have to take this role or your career is over,’” she says. “But I said no. For me with music, there is no half-stepping. This is my calling.” Visser felt that, if she stepped away from music for a year or two to make a movie, Die Antwoord would lose focus. Fincher kept asking to meet with her, and she kept refusing. “I always make a decision, even if it’s the wrong one. I hate being confused. I’m like, ‘Fuck it, I am going in this direction, and I am going hard.’”
At the same time, Ninja was considering a film offer from Neill Blomkamp to star in Elysium. “I told him, ‘No, I don’t think it’s right,’ and we had a big fight,” says Visser. “Ninja is super-ambitious, more than I am. He’s like, ‘Let’s do everything.’ But I felt like if his attention was distracted for a year, we’d be fucked. I said, ‘Let’s wait.’” The role went to Matt Damon, and the pair went back to South Africa to work on their second album with DJ Hi-Tek.
They delivered the record, Ten$ion, to Interscope and waited to hear back. “It was like fucking school,” says Visser. “They said, ‘Well, it’s good, but it needs more rave.’ We were like, ‘How much more rave do you want?’” The label told them they needed to write three more songs, including a collaboration with a commercial artist. “We were like, ‘Fuck you! Why should we collaborate?’ We should only do that if we really dig someone, like when you’re hanging tough and it just works. There was this weird pressure. So we called our lawyer and said, ‘Can you make Interscope go away?’”
Their lawyer wasn’t sure how easy it would be. “It was like a fucking bible, the contract we had signed with them.” Luckily for the group, Interscope let Die Antwoord go without much of a fight. “I think they were scared of Ninja, to be honest. They had wired us $1 million, so we wired it back. We didn’t want the money. It was more important to us to make something we believed in. Everyone was saying, ‘They are a fucking joke band, they are fake.’ I was like, ‘No, we really wanna get better and prove that we didn’t just get lucky like Vanilla Ice.’ We wanted to prove that we are going to make music until we die.” In 2012, the following year, the band released Ten$ion on their own label, Zef Recordz, and declined an offer from Lady Gaga to open up on the South African leg of her tour.
Currently, they’re working on a fourth album with DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill after meeting him at a quinceañera, a traditional Mexican birthday party, in the heavily Latino neighbourhood of East LA. “Me and Ninja roll up and it was like the fucking Godfather, low-riders and suits and wives and I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ A friend introduced us to Muggs. We had always loved that dark shit. Cypress had those beats that were so warm and cosy and dark and hard. Instantly we clicked and Ninja said that night, ‘We have to do it with him.’” So far they have eight songs, recorded at Muggs’ studio and another place owned by Flea, both in LA. The tracks, says Visser, are “fucking insane and dark and epic and moody and just phat. I always joke with Muggs that he is the same breed as us. We dig the same things and for me, that’s what I meant about collaborations feeling right.”
Their collaboration with Blomkamp for Chappie felt similarly organic. Rather than trying to shape them to fit his vision, the South African director used the pair’s existing personas as the springboard for his script. He wanted them to play themselves in a world of his creation. “I look around and I see a lot of artists every day, and not many of them are actually doing what their heart is telling them to do,” says Blomkamp. “The artists we are exposed to in mass media tend to be very watered-down and predictable. Yo-landi and Ninja are not influenced by the external forces that derail most artists and make them put out very benign, boring work. I think that is by far the most interesting and refreshing thing about them.” Despite initially doubting whether a global audience would understand the pair’s accents, the executives financing the movie sided with Blomkamp’s insistence that it was impossible to make the project with anyone else.
While filming Chappie, some of the movie’s producers finally recognised Visser and Ninja’s on-screen magnetism, and said they wanted to make a TV show about them – scripted or reality, whatever they wanted. At the time, Visser and Ninja had already started work on a film in South Africa documenting their life story, but they decided a TV show would afford them more latitude to tell their story. “We wanted to do it about the real shit that happened” says Visser. “How we signed to Interscope. About the night we blew up. About our kid. About the wild-wild-west adventures we have had. You can’t make shit like that up – it’s almost supernatural. There’s never a dull moment. It’s always fucking something.” They plan to call the show ZEF. In fact, Visser says they are even considering changing the band’s name to Zef. “Fucking Die Antwoord… I mean, it’s cool because it sounds hard and German and has this cool meaning that is like the essence for us. ‘The answer’. I have a tenderness for it. But Zef is just, like, easy. Ninja’s fucking easy. Yo-landi’s fucking easy. And Zef is fucking easy. Let’s see, eh?”
Like this? Then you'll love our 2010 feature on Die Antwoord too – read it here
Chappie is released in the UK on March 6. Die Antwoord's latest album, Donker Mag, is out now
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