Who the hell is Jack Parow, eintlik?
Rosa Lyster went to find the unholy spirit of Afrikaans rap, and found the answer in a Jagermeister with wors
Jack Parow is launching his biography at the Book Lounge, and I'm going. I have one Australian with me, and two South Africans. I've told the Australian that the whole event is going to be in Afrikaans, and therefore inscrutable to him. He says he doesn't mind - being free from the burden of listening will allow him to soak up the overall vibes in full. Great, I say. I'll listen to everything, and you'll gauge audience reactions. See if you can get a look at his mom and stuff. The Australian is happy to help. He is a dutiful tourist, willing to participate in a variety of South African cultural experiences.
"Do you even know who he is?" I ask. Jack Parow is huge in Belgium and the Netherlands, apparently, but it seems doubtful that he's made it to Sydney. Australians have their own types of weird celebrities, anyway. They have their own confusing rapper - Iggy Azalea. What need have they for Jack Parow?
It turns out, though, that the Australian does know who he is, or at least he thinks he does.
"Tell me," I say. This is not a test - I am desperate for someone to define Jack Parow for me. It would be lovely if they could just walk me through his significance within a broader national context. How much of it is a joke? Is he incredibly smart, or only medium smart? Is he really enemies with Steve Hofmeyr, or is that just pretending? I have many questions. The Australian, being an outsider and able to take the long view, is potentially the man to answer them.
"Well," he begins, "he has a hat on."
"And?" I say.
"He's very famous."
"Anything else?" I ask.
"That's it," he says. "That's all I know."
The South Africans weigh in. He's a rapper, Sarah says. Well no, Ben says, he's like a satirist. Like a joke man, I say. A persona. A parodist, Sarah says.
What actually is a parodist? I ask. No one knows. I suppress the urge to start talking about the South African Eminem and white rappers as a species - it will just confuse us further. You should also know, I say, that Jack Parow isn't his real name - it's Zander Tyler. The book is called Die Ou Met die Snor by die Bar, which just means "the guy at the bar with a moustache", but it's way funnier in Afrikaans. Most things, I say, are funnier in Afrikaans. The Australian is wearing an expression called None The Wiser, but that's OK. He is here to learn. We all are.
Before we go in, the Australian asks what Jack Parow looks like, actually. Hat, we all say. We gesture vaguely around our heads to indicate peaks, to emphasise the degree to which the man is a hat with legs. A famous person with a hat on.
Inside the Book Lounge, there are all kinds of hats on the go. No doubt as part of a promotional deal with Penguin, the book's publishers and the shop staff are wearing the trademark long peaks. Other than that, there are two different men wearing little fedoras with feathers in. Lots of dreamy girls with long hair and floppy wide brims. Some beanies, some snapbacks. A bucket hat with a cool drawing of a shark.
Like Parow, these people understand the power of a hat. They appreciate it as a way of telling the world a whole lot of stuff about yourself without opening your mouth. Never mind that it isn't always exactly what you meant to say.
It seems significant, then, in the midst of this sea of hats, that the man we are here to see wears no hat at all. He's just standing there, no hat, waiting for the event to start. His girlfriend, a model, is nearby.
It's impossible to overstate how beautiful the girlfriend is, how little she resembles everyone else in the room. Much taller, obviously, but also just better. Made of finer materials, and wearing superior clothes. She makes the rest of us look like trolls. I mention the girlfriend because everybody else does; there are few articles or interviews with him that don't at least make passing reference to what an incredible babe she is. It's part of the Jack Parow story, along with the hat and the Jagermeister sponsorship.
The book he is here to launch is a memoir, as told by his alter ego. This makes sense until you start to think about it: Zander Tyler's memoir, as told by Jack Parow, written by Theunis Engelbrecht in the first person. Engelbrecht and his subject will be in conversation with Anne Hirsch tonight. The three of them have a complicated conversation on their hands: a persona as the subject of a not-really-biography, written by someone else. Try get your head around that. I cannot.
It confuses me to the extent that it's difficult to know what to call him, here. Jack Parow is wrong, but so is Zander Tyler. Parow/Tyler looks dumb and overly sincere. I don't know, though. "The Artist." Him on the stage up there. He who must not be named. The guy at the bar with the moustache. I can't decide. I'm taking this too seriously, which runs counter to the Jack Parow spirit. Earnestness is to be avoided at all costs. Lighten up. Smile, for fuck's sake. Here, for you: a Jagermeister. Some wors.
The event begins. One of Hirsch's first questions is: where does Zander end and Jack begin? Some version of this gets asked about five times over the course of the evening, and the answer is always different. Zander or Jack, he's a great speaker. Completely unselfconscious and at ease. He answers the phone in the middle of the discussion, in front of everyone. It sounds like one of his pals. Call me later, he says. I'm fucken busy. It's hard to tell whether this was planned or not, but the point is it seems like it wasn't. The audience loves it, laughs at most of what he says. It is not a tough crowd, clearly peopled by friends and fans, but he has it in him to win over most audiences.
He's deadpan in the way that very funny people can be, with a good face for jokes as well, sort of jowly and mournful looking. Big bags under the eyes. It's a face that wants to make you laugh. The cartoon animal he most strongly resembles is Goofy, but if Goofy was extremely hungover, or else just tired. His laugh, also, leans strongly in the Goofy direction. It's nice.
He says "fuck" constantly, using the word as punctuation, a place to pause and gather his thoughts. "Like" gets used to similar effect. He has an excellent turn of phrase. I take notes during the discussion, and see afterwards that I've written "fokken strange" and "fokken amazing" all up and down the margins. "Moerse weird." "Amazing fucken stories hey." He seems determined in his refusal to take himself, or anyone else, seriously.
This aggressively chilled approach has been met with mixed results. Lots of people love it, but there have been some notable exceptions. See, for instance, what happened in Newcastle. It was a few years ago, now, but the story is worth retelling.
It takes place at the Vodacom Winter Festival, highlights of which include the crowning of Miss Vodacom Newcastle Winter Festival, and the Uproar freestyle motocross team. Picture the scene on a Friday night. Steve Hofmeyr has just exited stage left, to probably deafening cheers. Probably there are women in the audience crying like it's the Beatles. This is how I like to imagine it. The cheering dies down after a while, and Jack Parow is introduced. It goes really well at first; he is an excellent performer, good at connecting with an audience.
And then he does his song called Dans Dans Dans, and it all starts to get a little rocky. A certain hostile muttering starts up. There's swearing, see, in Dans Dans Dans (watch the music video below), and swearing is not looked upon with kindness at the Vodacom Newcastle Winter Festival. People in the 15,000 strong crowd start to yell. They begin to cover the ears of their small children. It's just as well that those little ears are shielded, because next come the threats of physical violence.
Reports are slightly confused as to what happened after this, but there exists a truly fine photograph of Parow on stage, sweating and smoking and trying to ignore the small, fat man who is doing his best to wrest the mic away. They are both very red in the face. After this photograph is taken, Parow is led off stage. Picture this strange and uncomfortable scene.
In the days afterward, agitated concertgoers took to the internet with force. Some strong words were thrown around. Such as: "Artist of Satan." Such as: "The hidden SIGN of the 666 within the SUBLIMINAL MESSAGE sent to subdue and soften the public of Newcastle with the introduction of their PUPPETS." And: "Devil Snake."
So that was the thing in Newcastle. There have been others of this nature. See, for instance, the time that Juanita du Plessis and her management tried to get him banned from Skouspel, the Afrikaans musical extravaganza (this is the way it is always described). See the message Parow posted on his Facebook page in response:
"Juanita Du Plessis.hahaha.wat n judgmental doos.fok.dis belaglik.al hierdie afrikaanse 'sterre' kan kinders molisteer en hulle vrouens en mans verneuk en al die kak.ma as ek vloek is ek die Antichrist.julle klomp self-righteous doose."
As well as the most vivid example I have ever seen of something being funnier in Afrikaans, this status update provides a neat insight into the Jack Parow universe. For someone who is inhabiting a persona, playing a character, he is surprisingly fixated on being "real". He is greatly exercised about hypocrisy and self-righteousness, about people pretending to be something they are not. He has no time for all the fakers out there, no love for the haters.
He talks about it all the time, being "real", hanging out with "real people". Like Ninja from Die Antwoord, he talks a lot about not giving a fuck what people think. A lot. At the Book Lounge, he says, "I just want to be myself so I don't have to be fake," and "at the end of the day, I can only be myself". He, Zander Tyler being Jack Parow promoting his memoir written by someone else in the first person, apparently sees no contradiction in this.
And maybe there isn't. He certainly seems real up there on the platform, answering Anne Hirsch's questions with affability, turning to Theunis Engelbrecht to solicit his opinion. Everyone I have spoken to about Jack Parow says one of two things: either an observation about the hat and its role in his personal brand, or about what a nice guy he is. It comes up again and again: super nice guy, everyone says, and so real. So down to earth. So genuine.
The persona, in other words, is not so easily distinguishable from the person. He is obviously keenly aware of this, and is at pains to make the gap between the two even smaller. He is often asked, in interviews, to address rumours about himself, misconceptions he would like cleared up. What he brings up most is the fact that people often believe that he's English, that he went to a "fancy school". He did not! He will tell you that for free! Repeatedly, in interviews, he stresses that Zander Tyler and Jack Parow are almost the same person.
One way to look at this is that Jack Parow is a kind of hyperreal version of himself. Zander likes partying, and hanging out with his bros, but Jack Parow loves it. Zander has little time for bullshit, but Jack Parow has none. Zander gets drunk a lot, but Jack Parow gets wasted like every fucken day. Zander drinks beer, Jack Parow downs the first of 12 brandy and Cokes. Jack Parow begins when Zander Tyler puts on the hat.
Another way to understand this is to compare him to other highly successful artists from this country, and think about how many of them are also inhabiting a persona.
There's Pieter Dirk Uys, of course, and the mighty Evita Bezuidenhout. There's Watkin Tudor Jones, and there's Ninja from Die Antwoord. There's Julia Anastasopoulos, and there's Suzelle DIY. Is this a particularly South African thing? Does playing a character give these artists the freedom to say and do stuff that they would feel inhibited from doing otherwise, given that South Africa is a complicated place, given that freedom of speech is a minefield and that we are all on the verge of being mortally offended like every minute? Maybe. It's worth thinking about, at least.
One person who is not thinking about it is the artist himself. He seems to be a man free of angst, untroubled by boring questions of this type. Don't worry about it so much, nerd. Here, for you: a Jagermeister. Some wors. He is a purveyor of good vibes, despite what the people at the Vodacom Newcastle Winter Festival will tell you.
The launch is drawing to a close. A man stands up during the Q and A, and asks if Parow could please write us a book about a braai. It's unclear who he means by "us". It's unclear what he means at all, really. Jack Parow, devil snake, answers with total good cheer. Ja, he says. Awesome.
After it's finished, the Australian and I compare notes. The girlfriend really is extraordinarily pretty, he confirms. He didn't get a proper look at the mom, but she seems like a nice lady. The girl sitting next to us was writing in an extremely glittery notebook about how much she loves Jack Parow, he says, and tweeting about it as well. She seemed to be really enjoying herself. Everyone, he says, seemed to be having a pretty great time, and Jack Parow most of all.