My love for Fokofpolisiekar is a bit like the conundrum of the chicken and the egg. I don’t know which came first: my love for their rock ‘n’ roll or my love for their lyrics. In the beginning, though, there was no love. In fact, I did not like Fokofpolisiekar at all.
There were two reasons why. Firstly, they were an Afrikaans band. Having been exposed to one too many sokkie treffers in my childhood, I refused to listen to Afrikaans music. Secondly, I got caught in a mosh pit at one of their gigs and spent the next morning washing beer out my hair and staring woefully at my bruised feet. I can’t remember the exact moment the turning point occurred, but it had something to do with my growing love for rock and the resonance of their powerful lyrics, once I took the time to listen to them properly. It spun off into a love that holds many memories: buying my first Afrikaans CD; playing Monoloog in Stereo on repeat; sitting in my garden, singing along to their songs, and the nervous excitement of a wild party that captured the musicians in Pretoria whenever Fokofpolisiekar was in town.
En Nou’s Dit [Tien] Jaar Later
Fokofpolisiekar (comprised of Francois van Coke, Hunter Kennedy, Johnny de Ridder, Wynand Myburgh and Jaco Venter) has a reputation which precedes them. It is not only their music, but their live act – imbued with wild antics, explosive verve and mad passion – for which they are renowned. Needless to say, I was on tenterhooks about meeting them. I have never gone into an interview with so little idea of what to expect; and meeting Jaco and Hunter, I was struck by how sincere and modest they are.
Nevertheless, this is a band who had people up in arms and on their toes. The effect may not have been intentional, but there is no denying their purpose and place in South African music history, as they provided catharsis to a displaced youth. After ten turbulent years, I ask them what difference they hope to have made. “What we tried to do was kind of propel the youth, the Afrikaans youth, into a global village,” Hunter explains “You know, so that it’s not that bound by traditional, Afrikaner boundaries…and if we have done anything I hope that we kind of opened up people’s mind-sets to appreciate the fact that there are a lot of different cultures or, at least, a lot of different ways to think and act in your own society. You don’t necessarily have to follow the paradigms of your parents.”
“And also not follow whatever we do and say, that’s also just our opinions,” Jaco adds. “Obviously Fokofpolisiekar has changed over the years. Every time a new album comes out,there’s different stuff. Hunter was really good at getting across what we were talking about, and issues that we raised, and he found a way of writing it into the lyrics…I don’t think there’s any one specific thing we’d like to be remembered by, it’s just actually good enough to be remembered.”
Music has played an important role in South Africa’s history and many cultures. So what is its place today? What was it ten years ago and how has it changed? “That’s a pretty tough one,” Hunter says, “because…Weeping is a major political song and it was big the world over. I actually think it played a large role in getting the international community to notice the situation in South Africa at that stage. So I think over the years a lot of local music has played a role…there was a stage where [people] had no love for local bands and now it’s different.”
“More people are listening to South African music,” Jaco adds. “Now there’s actually a lot of stuff out there that I think is really cool.” Hunter adds another point “I think for the amount of people that are actually listening to alternative rock music in our countries, there’s a lot of bands. I would actually bet on it that 50% of the people in the crowd are probably in a band. Which might be different than what it used to be.”
Although it has grown, a continued ignorance towards local musicians persists – with the crowning insult being people’s attitude, upon hearing local music, that “it’s so good I thought it was from overseas.” It’s a mentality that is changing, but still riddled with disregard. “A lot of people are saying the fact that MK closed has kinda made it harder for newer bands” Hunter says, “so in that sense I would think that one big aggregator of alternative music would be a key thing, you know like MK used to be. But other than that, I don’t really know to be honest. I mean MK didn’t exist when we started and we got in a van and toured the country.”
“I still think that’s the only way,” Jaco emphasises. “Even with MK and all that, if you check the bands coming out, the ones that really start pulling a following and bite the bullet, are the ones getting into a van and just touring for the first couple of years. There’s actually no way around it. People have to see you perform…you have to go play your stuff to them and then they’ll come back.”
“I also think a big thing that could be said for younger bands now is that they shouldn’t focus on one particular scene,” Hunter adds. “There are a lot of scenes that are big, it’s not necessarily the ones that they want to play…the kind of commercial Afrikaans scene is probably the most successful in terms of sales, then there’s the house scene, the dance scene, there’s a lot of scenes…” He breaks off and asks whether I’m seeking advice for younger bands, which is not my intent. Rather, I’m searching for a way to encourage more South Africans to attend local gigs. “Are those local acts good enough though?” Hunter asks. “We kind of have this thing that you can’t keep a good song down. If a band writes a great song it will get on radio and people will go and see the band, because they like the song…It’s just a situation I guess that we’re sitting with. Something that’s very niche will not draw a big crowd, because there simply isn’t enough people to justify a niche market.”
“There’s no guidelines. It’s right place, right time,” Jaco adds, before Hunter continues. “I haven’t dealt with really young bands in a long while, but it used to be like: fuck the people. If they don’t like our music, fuck them. And that’s not necessarily the way to approach it. Incidentally, it’s the way that we approached ours…but it’s just about connecting to the audience and that’s how you get people to your shows.” Although there is certainly credence to what they say, especially when I see the turnout to their gig at Assembly that night, I still believe it’s a two-way street and that our attitude towards local music, although improving, still needs a lot of work.
As they have proved with their own music though, finding a connection with the audience goes a long way. Coupled with a search for identity, the language played a vital role in reaffirming a cultural link. But besides any cultural implications, what advantage or pleasure do they find in writing and making music in Afrikaans? “[It] was just easier for us to actually voice ourselves earnestly,” Hunter says. “All of us played in English bands before this and we’re playing in English acts right now, but just in terms of us, Francois, myself, kinda the people responsible for the lyrics and the vocals…our English stuff sucked. The other kind of bonus with doing Afrikaans, which we only realised quite later, is that it is a captive market…as soon as you sing in English you’re competing against every other international act out there. When you sing in Afrikaans you immediately separate yourself, from that specifically.”
“Not that we started out like that,” Jaco says. “It’s completely a thing we noticed over the years. People feel the need to support it more, because it only happens here.” Hunter adds, “There’s specific things to the language that cannot be said the same way. We tried translating our lyrics, it just doesn’t really have the same effect. It’s something that we didn’t think about, at all. We just did Afrikaans, because we thought it was the best way to actually achieve what we wanted to achieve, which is reach our friends and like-minded people.”
Tuisgemaakte Sosiale Wapen
In spite of the localised content and niche market, they attracted attention further afield. “We’ve been overseas, there hasn’t been a major response though,” Hunter counters. “Not like Die Antwoord or Jack Parow. It was never like that. There was a tiny interest, because of the political implication of a white Afrikaans act…We played in Germanic countries so the language is very similar to ours, so I think they could understand the gist of it, if they sat down and read the lyrics.”
At this point, Wynand joins the conversation and as soon as you look into his face, you feel like someone just announced that every day is a holiday. He is charged with so much energy he could put Eskom out of business, if they weren’t already doing such a good job of it themselves. “Are you asking how we did internationally?”
“Why foreigners responded to Fokofpolisiekar,” Hunter explains “Actually it was because in the beginning days there wasn’t a social network,” Wynand rushes to explain. “I mean we used e-mail. So we’ll get random e-mails. Funny people saying they heard people covering our song at…where was it again?…Sweden did some like festival. We’ll hear random stuff. But today that’s not even weird. ‘Cause with Facebook and stuff you get people commenting on your music from other countries all the time. Or they’re more exposed to it. At that stage it was special for us. People would send us, even locally, VHS tapes of them jumping around to our songs or acting like it was a music video, you know that kind of kak. On our first tour, a guy in Bloemfontein, brought us a DVD of him skydiving to one of the songs. You know weird shit like that. And that was amazing, because that was the only interaction. But nowadays that happens every day.”
“The people were either kind of intellectuals,” Hunter puts in, “latching on to the socio-political meaning of the group in terms of post-Apartheid; or otherwise hard-core punk bands that looked for music that no one else listens to…Everywhere that we played there was a large ex-pat community present. They basically rounded up their friends that they made there…There weren’t massive crowds.” As they trip down memory lane, they launch into anecdotes that sound like they wouldn’t be out of place in a William Burroughs novel, encountering people with too many house plants and others who would invite them to their homes to “play…something..from an “extinct” tribe in South Africa,” Hunter tells me, “and he puts on the LP and it’s the Kaapse Klopse.”
“But the reason why I’m telling you this,” Wynand continues, “is that’s the kind of people that caught onto Fokofpolisiekar over there, you know what I mean? It wasn’t the mainstream level at all. It was really the weirdoes, people that were looking for different stuff. Like die Kaapse Klopse. Ok, I’m going to fuck off, ‘cause I’ve got so much kak to organise. You can write that in there as well.”
In the ten years that they’ve been blazing their trail, an inevitable cloud of controversy followed. This culminated in the incident when “fok God” was written on a fan’s wallet. I remember hearing about it, but confess I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time; thus, I was taken aback to learn that the response was so aggressive, it resulted in death threats. “I guess it kind of comes with the fear that the Afrikaners have,” Hunter explains, “and the fact that kind of the whole nation of Afrikaners is supposed to be built on pride and God and Vaderland; and when Wynand wrote ‘fok God’ on the wallet…they printed those two words on lampposts…like F. Star. K. There’s no other word it can be. And it was everywhere, so I think the Afrikaners were just like: what is going on?”
“All the people, all the Afrikaners, who didn’t know about us before that, knew about us then,” Jaco says, and he points out the irony that “now, people that are famous can stay stuff like that.” Hunter carries on, “To them, those people that sent those death threats, I think they did it because they felt like they were protecting their identity. And we were obviously there to change it. But it was scary though; I flipped out completely…[but] I know for a fact that if we had to meet those people under any other circumstances that we’d probably get along. We’ve been touring so long and met so many people, that differences don’t really matter.”
Gelukkig Skuin die Son
Despite the hurdles, their unequivocal determination to speak their minds has kept them going, cemented their place in music history and won them many fans. “It’s been a massive dialogue and that would not have happened if our fans weren’t our fans,” Hunter says. “Most of our fans definitely really get it and that’s amazing.” Jaco further illustrates the point with their gig for that night, “People that don’t really go out to shows and stuff anymore, they’re coming tonight. That kind of tells you something…I think every year we tell ourselves: are we gonna call it quits when it stops being fun? I think the being fun part isn’t a problem. When it becomes more of a mission to do this stuff, then we’re probably gonna call it quits, and all of us are quite busy with our other bands and stuff as well.” Hunter grins, “We always joked about it that we’ve tried to quit Fokof. It didn’t work.”
“Fokof doesn’t want to quit us.”
There’s not much I can write, that they haven’t said themselves, but a quote from Fight Club continually comes to mind, namely when Tyler Durden professes “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great Depression is our lives.” I was struck by the veracity of these words, the first time I came across them; but while Fight Club revealed the dilemma, it offered no real solution. Fokofpolisiekar, through expression and defiance, created a purpose and a place, becoming the rock stars they were told they couldn’t be.