February 10, 2011

Die Antwoord Is The Answer

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When my mom was fresh out of college she worked at the now obsolete department store Garfinkel’s, just outside of Washington, D.C. She and a friend made the most of their young adult salaries, sharing a relatively nice two-bedroom apartment and carpooling to work every day. Like most college graduates, these two women had their priorities straight; fun and style were not to be sacrificed on the altar of youthful poverty. So my mother put her employee discount to good use, stocking her wardrobe with designer pieces that were now only slightly too expensive, as well as joining the store’s “crystal club.” This allowed members to purchase a different piece of discounted crystal glassware each month. My family still uses much of the crystal collection she amassed, and a couple of the fabulous 1980s blazers have been passed down to my closet, shoulder pads and all. Clearly these were important investments. So what if young Mom and her roommate drew from a hat to determine which few bills they would actually pay each month? What college student can’t relate to having more condiments than actual food? At least when they did eat it was off of beautiful plates. They may have been poor, but they were fancy. Though set in the early 1980s, this tale of youthfully exuberant thrift is timeless, something every generation goes through while building their adult lives. We all need the fun side of independence along with the responsibility. The precise details of this fleeting experience have changed since our parents’ time, however. Hip-hop culture, reality TV and the public playground of the Internet have made the common man cool. No longer are expensive clothes and cars the only sought-after status symbols. If you have the swagger and the talent, and maybe a blog or YouTube channel to show them off, you can become just as respected as a lawyer or banker. This modern attitude is exemplified by the South African counter-culture movement known as Zef. An Afrikaans word that roughly translates as “common,” Zef is both a style and a perspective towards culture and the hierarchy of society. The movement is currently being popularized by the hip-hop duo Die Antwoord, a fascinatingly trashy married couple who rap in a combination of English and Afrikaans. Yolandi Vi$$er, sprightly and slightly creepy sidekick to her front-man husband, Ninja, describes Zef in an interview on YouTube as “associated with people who soup their cars up and rock gold and shit. Zef is you’re poor but you’re fancy. You’re poor but you’re sexy, you’ve got style.” It’s a distinctly twenty-first century glorification of trashiness and the resurrection of outdated, eighties-esque style. Most of all, Zef is about being an individual — having your own style that does not necessarily aspire to the traditional picture of success and high culture. Just be true to yourself and your origins, and throw on some well-placed bling, and you can be fabulous. It’s an inspiration that many young people have adopted, regardless of their lack of affiliation with (or even knowledge of) Zef or South Africa.  The idea of being poor but fancy resonates with young people in their, hopefully temporary, state of limited resources. I’m sure we have all seen our peers in such fashion staples as early-nineties Nickelodeon memorabilia and Salvation Army holiday sweaters. Resurrecting forgotten cultural elements is something hipsters have latched on to, and is a great way to craft individual style without spending too much money. Personally, I rock gold chains that were once my grandmother’s on a disturbingly regular basis. I mean gangsta style chains. (Yes, she is still fierce at 78-years-old). Formerly lower-class symbols have infiltrated all elements of the mainstream, even our language. Youth from across socio-economic, racial and geographic boundaries have adopted the vernacular of the hustler, yo. Pop-stars like Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj perpetuate the idea that it’s OK to be a little dirty and a little wild, as long as you’re confident and original. The world of the twenty-something has been Zef-ified. These observations are not intended to comment on true destitution or the profound exclusion and inequality that are still present in our society. Rather, we can see through the example of Zef culture how much of what was once considered trashy, or on the fringes of society, is now an exalted cultural form. Many tenets of the counter-culture that Yolandi and Ninja rap about are more mainstream than perhaps its participants even realize. For recent recipients of parentless freedom, it’s exciting to embrace an attitude of almost arrogant individualism. Zef is about being proud of whatever situation you’re in economically and socially, and celebrating it. As college students we all come from diverse backgrounds, disparate means and assorted cultures, yet living the student life can be a great leveler. Together we drink cheap wine out of plastic cups, dress up in sparkly Forever 21 party dresses, dance to music older generations object to and embrace life on a budget. We may not have every luxury, but you’d better believe we’re fabulous anyway.

Kenyon Cory is a senior in the college of Industrial and Labor Relations and can be reached at kcory@cornellsun.com. Rabbit Hole appears alternate Fridays this semeter.

Original Author: Kenyon Cory