Hunter Kennedy: 40 and content?


Hunter Kennedy: 40 and content?

Twenty years since his protest lyrics started forcing Afrikaners out of their comfort zone, he is still questioning the establishment — but says the old Fokof is gone for good. The songwriter spoke to ANELIA HEESE in Amsterdam.


THE dimly lit café bar where I meet Hunter Kennedy provides temporary respite from Amsterdam's oppressive heat.

“They don't do summers that well here," he laughs as he appears in the entrance. The rock star has given in to the heat and exchanged the worn black jeans considered to be Fokofpolisiekar's unofficial uniform for practical shorts.

Fokofpolisiekar are on their “20 Jaar van Fokof” tour and the lyrics writer is due for a sound check at Melkweg shortly. The city centre  venue will be packed to capacity with fans tonight. Some of them will be sporting plakkies and a Springbok jersey. 

‘I feel pretty safe’

“You write about violence in South Africa in a special way, especially about the way it plays out in intimate spaces," I begin.

Hunter hesitates in response: “Uhm, it probably depends on what you're referring to, but I'll go with it." The groupie in me pops out shamelessly as I recite a string of lyrics from Hierdie is Nie Liefde Nie and Vasbeslote Korporasie Deel II:

Inboorling of indringer spesie / ek vertrou nie mense nie / ek druk my kardeur knoppie af / as ek voor die verkeerslig wag

Hunter laughs as he mimics the scenario: he raises his elbow to lock a car door as inconspicuously as possible in a sly motion. “It's so classic, that's why I have to write about it." He then asks cautiously: “You didn't really ask a question, did you?"

We laugh and I ask: “Do you feel safe in South Africa?”

The hesitation is back, the empathy audible: “Uhm, I think it's complex. There's always that chance, you know? I don't feel as safe when I'm high, because then you start to dwell on it too much.

The stats are quite high, but I feel pretty safe. I think it's much more unsafe in the…" He interrupts himself: “What do you even call those things? Shacks? It's always funny to me how people complain about how unsafe it is, but it's actually more unsafe for everyone else. I think nobody's going to kill me because I'm white, but they might want my car. I've been wondering if it's not something in the ground, some fucking primal spirit hiding there…"

He dismisses his musing as futile by saying: “I don't know where I was going with that, but anyway."

Back in the suburbs

What makes Hunter's lyrics so special is that you never know where they're going. They consist of flashes of familiar phrases, but combined so that they outdo established symbolism.

Antjie Krog may have given Fokofpolisiekar's lyricist a nod when, in answer to the question, “Where and who are the new young poets" at a lecture at the Rand Afrikaans University in 2004, she answered: “In my time everyone wanted to be poets, today everyone wants to be a rock star."

Does he see himself as a poet? “I feel like I don't deserve the title," he laughs shyly. Songsmith, travelling dealer in phrases perhaps? “I'm just a songwriter. The impostor syndrome is bad. It feels like someone is going to bust me soon and say, ‘you can't fucking write'."

But 40 has been good to him. “The existential angst is still there but the questions have changed. Being 40, becoming a father, it's been good for me. I thought it would make me more anxious but it had the opposite effect."

He sounds satisfied, unlike the younger Hunter who questioned daydreams in suburbia:

Mikrogolfoondmense marsjeer / wanbegrip, wanbalans, wanbeheer / weggedraai met die son op hul rûe / ek verkies die son op my gesig / ek sal nooit weer teruggaan nie

About his return to Bellville, he says mockingly: “At least I'm not a microwave person yet. But I do have an air fryer.”

Yearning for the old Fokof

But people are looking for the old Fokof, he complains. “In the beginning we wanted to have a conversation with the country. I wanted Afrikaners to wake up, to become part of South Africa. Instead of building walls around themselves.”

Then the non-poet mentions: “I wrote a poem called Stilte in which I say, ‘Afrikaans is Afrikaans, / maak nie saak waar in die wêreld jy dit praat nie.' (Afrikaans is Afrikaans, no matter where in the world you speak it.) Then people will tell me, ‘Thank you for your Afrikaner heart'. I don't know if I can accept the compliment, probably because I associate a Nazi type with Afrikaners. I feel more like a South African."

What are his first memories of being white, of being South African in this “donker Afrika wat net donker is vir dié met oogklappe aan" (Africa that is only dark for those wearing blinkers)?

“My mother and I moved to Durban and I remember the queues in 1994: the scene when we drove past and all the black faces staring at us. I remember feeling white then. I was quite attached to my coloured nanny, Rachel, but I can't imagine that I thought of her as coloured and myself as white. I do remember the injustice I felt towards domestic workers. I felt people were crap towards them and I couldn't understand it."

Kerkorrel and Kramer

Our conversation turns to two artists who were able to express the discomfort of being Afrikaners in their music. Johannes Kerkorrel and David Kramer are considered by Breyten Breytenbach to be “the music makers of our time who went the furthest and the deepest".

Will we ever hear something like Kerkorrel's political satire in his work, perhaps in the new album Fokof is working on? “What else can I say about politics that will make someone realise something? I don't like to say the same thing more than once." Sceptical, but stimulated nevertheless, he then says: “I can't promise anything, but I will remember it."

And what about that Southern African sound, the ghoema and mbira, the West Coast sound, which Kramer made accessible to white audiences? No, he says. “I have a few questions about cultural appropriation there, I dunno. I'm just an outsider, because it's not my story. Skateboarding and punk rock changed my life — that's where my loyalty lies. It's sad that that sound is American."

Free from church and ‘cult crap’ 

Twenty years ago, Fokofpolisiekar dared to do punk rock in Afrikaans. You hear a compassion for himself when Hunter shakes his head and tells how they can now laugh at those first Fokof songs, with lyrics that he describes as a “documentation of the emotions of that time".

That time? Hunter is a member of a special club of rock stars who lost their mothers as fragile teenagers: Bono, John Lennon, Bob Geldof… “It was sad. Obviously fucking sad, but bittersweet, because it set the wheels in motion for me to come back to the Cape where I met Frannie and all the other guys with whom I still make music today."

He met Francois van Coke in a charismatic church, but later detached himself from “that cult crap".

Does he miss church, now that he has a child himself? “No, I feel a freedom. I feel guilty that I don't get her in nature more, because I think God actually lives in the fucking trees." In nice people as well, he later adds.

Is there still such a thing as sin? “Transgressions against yourself, maybe."

He leans forward, asks me a question: “What do you think about destiny?" It's my turn to hesitate: “I don't believe there's a plan. We're just playing the cards we've been dealt," I answer.

He leans back, folding his arms: “I'm not sure, but I like the idea."


- The Too-Muchness of Bono

- Murray La Vita, Gesprekke met Merkwaardige Mense (Breyten Breytenbach), 2011

♦ VWB ♦

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