Feature Interview

Bittereinder: Afrikaans Rap’s Unlikely Army

Bittereinder are a bit of a roll, letting no grass grow under their feet and releasing their fourth studio album just 10 months after “Skerm” which spawned fan favourites ‘Skerm’ and ‘The Ones’. Their latest offering “Dans Tot Die Dood” furthers many of the themes they introduced in “Skerm”, and as always, the album’s social commentary is sharp and thought-provoking, and the beats are hard and groove-inducing.

I had a quick chat to Jaco Van Der Merwe, lyricist and rapper and one third of this dynamic trio ahead of the album’s release, and found that the thing he is most famous for is something that he used to hate and run from.

The first release off the album is called ‘Hartseer Gangster’ and as always comes with an incredibly funny, and well produced music video which was released a couple of weeks ago. According to Van Der Merwe it’s a, “Post-modern spoof of white suburban boys in a globalised world.”

The track features an undeniably recognizable but inverted phrase “tattoos van tette op my slang”. Are they throwing shade at Jack Parow? Van Der Merwe quickly sets me straight. “Every time we’re in an interview someone compares us to Jack Parow,” Jaco laughs. “And I mean you can’t really blame the media, what else do they really have to go on? How many other white suburban Afrikaans rappers have there been? We’ve always kind of been in his shadow, and on the first album we collabed with him. We dig the guy and we like his music so it’s more a little tribute, it’s definitely not a diss. I would definitely lose a dissing match with that guy ’cause he knows like 43 million more swear words than us. I’d be eaten alive.”

The rest of the album isn’t quite as satirical. Van Der Merwe describes it as “the usual dark social commentary” we’ve grown to know and love Bittereinder for. That relationship is something I have always admired, and to nail the balance between silly and serious, or satire and thoughtfulness takes true skill.

As a poet, Van Der Merwe is one of the leading lyricist in this area. “Everything we do has this sort-of post-modern irony. We’re well aware of the context we find ourselves in but we’re always kind of poking fun and never taking it too seriously. There are always these comic layers. We’ve done a number of comic tracks, but always with someone else… like we did a song with The Kiffness which is actually still coming out called ‘127 Boets Per Minute’. We’ve done all these comedy type songs before but we’ve never done one as our own song,” Van Der Merwe admits.

Bittereinder (and Van Der Merwe specifically) is famed for its Afrikaans raps, and each album has brought a different ratio and relationship in the way it utilizes and marries Afrikaans and English. Their first album was mostly Afrikaans, but the English influence and prevalence has slowly increased with every release. “It’s something that for me, is natural. I speak English better than I speak Afrikaans, and I still kind of dream, and count and imagine things in English. I married an Afrikaans girl so that really helped to flesh out my Afrikaans vocabulary,” Van Der Merwe grins.

His relationship with the language has been a rocky one though, and he admits that for many years growing up, he hated and ran from his heritage and mother tongue. “Even my Afrikaans friends in high school, we used to speak English to each other ’cause Afrikaans was this like forbidden zone,” Van Der Merwe admits. But it was a love affair bound to happen, and one I am particularly thankful did. It all started with his love for hip hop. “I’ve been listening to rap since I was like 12 years old, and I’ve also been writing my own rhymes since I was like 15. The first 9 years of my rap career I was just writing English rhymes and I was also playing in metal bands and punk bands, so I was always rebelling against Afrikaner culture, ’cause being Afrikaans was really lame. It never ever entered my mind that I could write in Afrikaans,” Van Der Merwe says adding, “I really hated Afrikaans for the first 25 years of my life.”

Thanks to one rap collective from the Cape though, that all changed for him. “The only Afrikaans rap we knew was Brasse [Vannie Kaap], and they came and played at Jool and some other festivals up here that I saw. But we weren’t even aware of the Cape Hip Hop scene. So literally, when I wrote the first songs for ”n Ware Verhaal’ I would sit with an English to Afrikaans dictionary and figuring it out as I went along. I knew how Hip Hop works, I knew how rhythm and rhyme works over a beat but there was no like Afrikaans Hip Hop lingo. Something as simple as “yo yo yo” in English, there’s no equivalent in Afrikaans, so I just had to make it up,” he reminisces.

Seven years later and Bittereinder have produced three massively successful albums, with the fourth dropping today. They play at every major festival every year, and are at the front lines of the scene, constantly reinventing themselves and staying way ahead of the game, yet never losing the initial spark that made them so great. As an audio-visual act they are challenging the paradigms of music culture by incorporating more than just sound in everything they do, and their contributions to the Afrikaans music scene are nothing short of monumental.

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Buy ‘Dans Tot Die Dood’ on iTunes.