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On stage with Bangs, a YouTube jester of rap

Friday 6th June 2014

Since Bangs’ poorly-produced track and video ‘Take U To Da Movies’ went viral in 2010, he has enjoyed a surprisingly long stint in  the online limelight, accumulating several hits on YouTube and four albums.

Bangs performing at Puppies.

Photo: Elise Munden

They are comically, uniformly bad, with his rudimentary raps – about his romantic date ideas, and his life as a Sudanese migrant living in Australia – drawing inspiration from his idol Soulja Boy, just without Soulja’s polish, production skill, or charm. But Bangs is most definitely in on the joke.

The 22-year-old can’t be faulted for turning this one-time viral hit into a low-key successful “rap” career: after all, he’s making money from a B-grade romantic comedy of a music video. He knows his role as a YouTube jester of rap and plays up to it excellently, as evidenced at his recent show at Wellington’s Puppies bar, at which he bared himself to haters and led the crowd through an awkward narrative of a day in his life.

Yes, they’re bad songs. Yes, it was a great performance, and yes, it was very knowing.

I was asked to DJ for Bangs about five hours before he took the stage, when the rookie promoters realised they needed someone to play his backing tracks. The job itself was simple – I’d just be pressing the play button and while I might not be the best DJ on a technical level, that’s an area where I can definitely crush it. Plus I'd be paid for my services.

I agreed, but moral crisis set in as soon as I ended the call.

My main concern was the crowd, which I assumed would be predominately white people, heading along to the show on the strength of ‘Take U To Da Movies’, hoping for a spectacle to laugh with, or laugh at. The promoters had never put on a show before and didn’t know what to expect, the whole operation smacked of novelty value.

There’s a tendency – especially amongst us insecure twenty-somethings – to mask enjoyment of a film or artist behind a “so-bad-it’s-good” mentality

I am sure there are many people who genuinely enjoy Bangs’ music, and listen to his songs outside of a pissing contest of viral videos. I’m not one of them, and I doubt that many of those who attended the show were, either. I think the driving force behind a lot was straight cruelty – a desire to see him perform, simply because it was going to be terrible.

But Bangs’ performance itself was great. He was aloof enough to keep the audience wanting it as he rapped. Between songs he engaged with punters using quips and finish-the-sentence riddles as to what song he would play next. He knew the crowd was there for ‘Take U To Da Movies’ and capitalised on it for his teasing segues into ‘Take U 4 A Dinner’ and ‘Meet Me On Facebook’. If a song wasn’t going down well with the audience, he’d gesture for me to cut it short, sometimes only 60 seconds in. His rapping was well-timed, as was the removal of his shirt. He kept it tight and fast and it worked.

As the DJ, I was self-conscious, absorbed by concerns with whether or not I would be enabling mockery of Bangs or being a buzzkill however I reacted to his songs. So conflicted, I settled on a style of white boy dancing that could only be described as “respectfully HAM”.

My main problem with the show was the sense of entitlement that came with so much of the audience. As was to be expected, the majority were only familiar with ‘Take U To Da  Movies’, and demanded it every time he turned to me to cut a song short. The back-patting and laughing as Bangs performed ‘My Life Is Hard’, one of the songs to touch on his bid to move on from struggles from his past, made me particularly uncomfortable.

Worse were the people who spent the entire set trying to steal his clothes. Bangs was particularly concerned about his bucket hat, plucked from him by the thirstiest audience members mid-set, and hunting it down became my final task for the evening (I was much more successful at pressing play).

As soon as he finished, the rapper turned to me, visibly exhausted, and asked me to get his laptop and take him straight to the green room. This 30-metre walk took the better part of 10 minutes as the crowd swamped him, clamouring for his attention. People crowded into the frame for a selfie with Bangs, and walked away sniggering at what they’d achieved, and there were incredibly condescending calls of “You’re my boy, Bangs” as ASOS-draped arms linked around him for the next wave of iPhone snaps.

James Beavis: “As soon as he finished, the rapper turned to me, visibly exhausted, and asked me to get his laptop and take him straight to the green room”.

I found it all pretty disconcerting, and hard to separate from the nature of Bangs’ success, where he used the internet as his stepladder to fame. The “we made you” audience attitude that’s often the price of being a YouTube sensation (take Rebecca Black) manifested itself quite uncomfortably here as a crowd of white people mobbed someone of colour for their own piece of the action. I saw far more demand for a souvenir, and inflated self-importance on the parts of the audience members, than I did appreciation of a good show, or pleasure to have seen Bangs play.

There’s a tendency – especially amongst us insecure twenty-somethings – to mask enjoyment of a film or artist behind a “so-bad-it’s-good” mentality, generally stemming from insecurity about being judged for having bad taste. I do it, everyone does it; this irony curtain blankets our entire generation. But DJing for Bangs threw another aspect of this defence mechanism into sharp relief: We use irony to mask cruel intentions.

It’s OK to laugh with Bangs’ music, obviously – so much of it is designed for exactly that, but this was something else. This was people not giving Bangs credit where it was due to him, convinced that they were operating on a higher level than he was, and refusing to see that his performance was deliberate and self-aware. It’s a conflation of Bangs the artist and Bangs the person and I feel it does him a disservice.

Bangs intimated to me before the show that he was just taking up these opportunities while he still could, and it’s fairly formidable that he’s able to draw a crowd five years on from his initial explosion of fame – especially one as fickle and fleeting as internet virality.

I’m definitely guilty of having Bangs pique my curiosity for the wrong reasons. Even if I was paid for my services, I still agreed to do the show out of curiosity. But the experience prompted me to reflect on the reasons why someone might go to a show like Bangs’. The assumption that he owes his audience more than any other performer is dangerous; we don’t own any part of Bangs’ career, no matter how many hats we steal or selfies we take. Even if his music doesn’t demand respect, he does, simply for the brazen career he’s ground out for himself – we can’t take credit for his viral success.

This content was brought to you with funding from New Zealand On Air.

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