Music holds an incredible power to move and influence the listener, taking control of the mind and body to initiate a beautiful reaction within us all, but as Die Antwoord taught me recently the input and output aren’t always beautiful. Performers have been pushing the boundaries of social tolerance and acceptability for generations and with every decade the bar is raised. However, lately a number of musicians from Tyler, The Creator to Justin Bieber have explored these boundaries and encountered varying degrees of consequences, but they raise a greater question: where is the line? Or more accurately, is there a line at all?
When Tyler, The Creator was named to the Sasquatch 2014 lineup I knew that his live performance was a must-see, but not necessarily due to the merits of his music. His performances have a reputation for flirting the line between rowdy and violent, and I needed to see the live product for myself. I made sure to re-familiarize myself with his music, and despite the wave of depression that followed every listen I still managed to make it through Bastard, Goblin, and Wolf a few times each.
The South African trio Die Antwoord landed on the bill with a similar reputation: one of shock and awe visuals paired with a sound that brutalizes listeners into submission. I’m game, I figured. Hell, I once listened to a good chunk of Metal Machine Music just to see what it was like. I can handle it. While I had to wait to see the visual extravaganza, the audible explosion I heard on $O$ and Ten$Ion came as advertised. The beats were heavy, the rap was fast and furious, and the lyrical content was abrasive, rife with the braggadocio that has become so commonplace in rap it transcends cliche. It didn’t strike me as something I would enjoy sober, I figured before I switched to something more soothing after only a few painful songs.
On the opening night of Sasquatch, however, I heard something I had missed on Ten$Ion. DJ Hi-Tek opened the set with the heartwarming banger “DJ Hi-Tek Rulez” which is at best an act of sonic instigation/trolling, and at worst a boastful expression of homophobia and misogyny with a pinch of rape culture tossed in for good measure. The crowd buzzed with the usual excitement a final performance of the night is traditionally welcomed by, however as I listened more closely to the (extremely NSFW) lyrics my blood began pumping for a much different reason as I stood still with my arms crossed.
In law, hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group.
I couldn’t be the only one in the crowd irked by the man asserting he would rape me until I conceded, I thought to myself, and yet everyone in sight continued to bounce along with the beat as the show stomped through it’s opening track. I knew Die Antwoord were out to offend, so I had my guard up, but the more I thought about it the more I realized the sole purpose of “DJ Hi-Tek Rulez” is to offend and instigate, justified only by a thin element of musicality. Sure, there’s a beat, but we all know what is going on here. A group like Die Antwoord are calculated in what they do, and it is no coincidence that “DJ Hi-Tek Rules” is the opener for their sets.
This struck me as especially strange to hear at Sasquatch of all music festivals, where only a year previous Macklemore had closed out the opening night with a set that featured “Same Love” the pro-LGBT ballad that took over the music world last summer. While standing in front of the Bigfoot stage in 2014 I wondered how Mary Lambert, the (lesbian) vocalist featured on “Same Love” would feel about opening the festival on the same day DJ Hi-Tek was to close with hate speech layered over a beat. I wondered how any of the other LGBT performers would feel sharing a bill with Die Antwoord. But most of all I wondered how the LGBT listeners would feel as DJ Hi-Tek’s voice spat acid-rain over the dark, pulsing throng.
During the long walk back to the campsite I contemplated the ramifications of playing such vile music to thousands of people. I wasn’t personally offended, so I tried to move past it, but I found the performance had burrowed a hole into my brain (as was surely intended) and I couldn’t let go. It didn’t help that Yolandi Visser was more obnoxious in person than she manages to be on Die Antwoord’s recordings, but I digress.
So where is the line between artistic expression and hate speech? What differentiates Donad Sterling’s hateful and moronic rant from one pumped through speakers to a crowd of eager (and often impressionable) listeners? Creative works are given certain freedom of interpretation and can’t be accepted as literal testimony (despite this insanity) however the boundaries are vague and often completely ambiguous, relative only to society’s level of tolerance at the time. I for one appreciate the testing of these boundaries of tolerance when it comes to harmless things like profanity, however homophobic and racist musical content can have serious implications down the line.
Just as musicians move the crowd at their performances the content of their songs can influence minds and shape the worldviews of listeners. It’s no surprise there are still ignorant assholes wearing headdresses around at festivals like it’s a fucking fashion statement while we have musicians like Lana Del Rey and Pharrell Williams appropriating culture in the spotlight. Both artists received some well-deserved criticism for their transgressions, however the greater issue is that with every step an artist takes in the wrong direction another wave of impressionable consumers are marching along behind them.
Luckily for listeners we can pick and choose the art we consume, and needless to say Die Antwoord is no longer a part of my playlist, but should musical curators and taste-makers like radio DJs, editors, and festival organizers hold art to a higher standard while selecting content for the masses? As with the music itself this choice ultimately comes down to the individual curators behind each endeavor, but I can’t help but wonder if it is time we all start holding musicians and other artists responsible for their content as if it was encountered in everyday life.
Is this music hateful towards a certain race, gender, or sexual orientation? Would I still be listening to this song if those slurs were about me? Do I want this musician influencing my life? These are the questions to think about the next time you catch yourself doing a Mike Tyson impersonation along to DJ Hi-Tek or any other musician inciting hate with their music.