By Erin McGroovy
Warning: This post contains some information about sexual assault and may cause distress to some readers.
On first impressions, to look at Zheani Sparkes, certain people may be a little shocked by her somewhat unconventional appearance. She is a stunning blend of classic 80s punk meets the new modern ‘e-girl’ look. With a multitude of piercings, coloured hair and a runic patterned tattoo lining her forehead, it could be said she appears a little intimidating, but why is that? Because she doesn’t match up to the beauty industry’s impossible standards of mainstream magnificence? Zheani’s, much like best friend Grace Neutral’s, avant-garde self expression sends the impelling message to every other girl out there whose aesthetic is quirkier than the norm, to not give a fuck about fitting in, to dare to be different – “[The beauty industry] capitalise on our spoon fed insecurities$. Don’t give in to the bullshit.”
Her music definitely aligns with her look in that it truly transcends genre boundaries, it is a complete sonic standout. Her work is a staunchly DIY electronic abrasion of trap metal, emo and rap with a drum n bass beat, or occasionally a few acoustic guitars which dance perfectly over the melody. Holding the title of Bandcamp’s top selling Trap Metal album of all time and numerous songs with over a million streams, all despite never having been played on Australian Government curated radio, she’s definitely doing something right.
I would love to be able to write this post about Zheani and her music without touching on what happened in 2013/2019, however I ultimately think to do so would be, in a way, to silence her voice and diminish the strength she has built from the situation. Therefore I am going to touch on what happened between Die Antwoord and herself, but that being said, it is important to remember that this was not the most defining point in her career, nor in her as a person, much like no sexual abuse that any one person endures in their lives should be to them. Although it obviously gained her notoriety to be involved with such a big name, every fan she gained was earnt due to her hard work and incredible music.
The Question, (Die Antwoord translates as ‘The Answer’ in Afrikaans,) is a blatant diss track released by Zheani in 2019 pointed at Ninja of Die Antwoord for his incestuous tendencies, the sexual assault she endured from him, as well as at Yolandi Visser who was knowledgeable and complicit in the grooming of Zheani and other fans. Yolandi reached out to the Aussie artist via Instagram in 2013, an interaction which led on to connecting with Ninja – real name Watkin Tudor Jones, via email. She was love-bombed, threatened and trafficked to Cape Town, South Africa where she was coerced into taking magic mushrooms alone in the wilderness with Ninja and then sexually assaulted by him. Not only this but the pair shared unsolicited, explicit images of Zheani dating back to this period of time (2013) when she was aged just 19/20.
“I was in shock. I wouldn’t discuss it. I didn’t know how to address it and I didn’t feel safe to address it.” And it’s no wonder when the group were just breaking out of the underground and catapulting into the height of their fame. Plus Zheani was sent a cease and desist upon eventually mustering the courage to press charges and release her track. Yet she bravely refused to be silenced, instead releasing this exhilaratingly provocative tune unveiling the many ‘receipts’ of the entire ordeal.
The hip hop duo have long since worn out their share of overused victim-blaming diatribes, so in this ‘cancel culture’ of today, make sure you add Die Antwoord to the list of artists to be shunned out of the industry forever.
By coming forth and sharing her story, this allowed Zheani to no longer be enslaved by what she was put through and the feelings of guilt which unduly accompany it from various people having blamed her and from blaming herself – rather, she was set free and left feeling empowered.
Recent release Lulu, “is a manifestation of pure positivity.” Her distinct sound becomes almost bubblegum trap in three minutes and four seconds of unequivocally uplifting and life affirming work. The video, like all her others, Lie and Look in particular, where we see her frolicking through the forest playing with miniature versions of herself, and maintaining the top YouTube comment of, “I had to switch to porn when my parents walked in because it’s easier to explain,” is an eclectic, enchanting performance art piece that allows the viewer to escape reality for the duration of the video. It transports us to a futuristic wonderland fused with kawaii culture that I wish I could live inside.
One lyric in single, Lulu, refers to Marina Abrovomić: performance artist, who specialises in feminist and body art. There are many similarities to be drawn between Abrovomic and Sparkes’ work but one of the most prominent parallels would be between their personal lives. Marina has faced controversy in her past, being called a, “satanist,” among with other sexually derogative slurs due to her patrons being subject of (debunked) ‘pizzagate’ conspiracy. Zheani too has been named a, “satanic prostitute,” a label she took ownership of and awarded to the title of her 2019 EP. Both women reclaimed the hate and slurs thrown at them and carried them forward, using it to keep alight the fire that further fuels their careers and trajectories.
This EP, Satanic Prostitute was written and produced in just 4 days. It is an explosion of intense, iconoclastic anger, reminiscent of Alice Glass, at the society that has repressed, marginalised and censored women, including Zheani Sparkes, for many hundreds of thousands of years – with her EP artworks as one example. “It’s censored not out of my own shame but because of our prudish and frigid societal norms that are informed by the tech monopolies of Silicon Valley.” Many of her social media posts have also been removed or censored by the sites they were uploaded to.
Sex work is yet another field in which Zheani stands tall as a relentless advocate. Belle Delphine is a prominent ‘e-girl’ personality who garnered online fame in 2019 for her risqué aesthetic and actions including selling her bath water, and gets her mention too in Lulu. “I am not ashamed of being labeled as a prostitute. Some of the best people I know are sex workers and I am proud to stand in solidarity with these people and am happy to play my part in destroying the stigma.” Said Zheani, who herself previously had a premium Snapchat account. Generations of women fought for our sexual liberation and this one needs to remain free to carry on their triumph without judgement.
There are few true occultist artists out there but Zheani is definitely one of them. I guess another reason why she was referred to as, “satanic,” but this slur would be a major misunderstanding of the Wiccan religion of which she seemingly identifies. She has spoken openly about witchcraft and psychic abilities online and her esoteric lyrics could definitely be considered incantation like. Her tattoos of runes and talismans have metaphysical meanings, as well as ‘witch’ on one arm, speak her devotion to her beliefs and pride to be a part of a community that is massively underrepresented in society other than when it’s for clout.
“I don’t hear any female voice talking about anything like this,” she says, and I have to agree, “I don’t see my background represented at all and I think it’s probably because it is so hard and painful to do, but at the same time I see how healing it has been to me.” This is in terms of not only her sexual abuse from Die Antwoord, her spirituality, sex work but the tough childhood of growing up in rural Australia in a dysfunctional family unit – a topic she addresses in The Zheani Sparkes EP released yesterday.
“It’s so easy for people to pass judgements when coming from a place of ignorance,” Zheani commented. “But if context is provided, understanding and empathy can hopefully follow. I get a lot of criticism for certain decisions I made as a young adult. I realized that people didn’t know about my childhood and the kinds of experiences and people I was exposed to. They couldn’t know how these things left me primed to be accepting of certain behaviors. For this reason I decided to give context with a flash of memories in a song like DIRTBIKE and further background with my EP. I hope that individuals with comparable pasts can look at me and hopefully be less hard on themselves for their own mistakes, misjudgments and regrets. This ain’t a story, cunt — this is my real life.”
The eight track EP is unforgivingly raw, fearlessly sharing painful anecdotes from her growing up. DIRTBIKE addresses her Mum’s ex boyfriend, ‘Donkey Dick Dave Jollow’ and touches on her Dad’s drug addiction. DIRT ON THE NAME OF STEVEN is a more emotionally tormenting insight into her relationship with her father – a man who was of a more sentimental and gentle nature but his ways forced him to deal with much disparage from the rough environment of macho men surrounding him. The song has an opening line of, “I can’t forgive him or myself,” likely referring, in her part, to the stubbornly unanswered phone call her dad made to her before his death. This statement is made multiple times throughout the song. There are also two separate recordings included on the EP of telephone conversations between her and her father from when she was younger.
Despite these tracks being deeply earnest and morose, there are still a couple of bops that make it to the record. This includes closing track, Yippy Ky Yay, from which you can see why Zheani got her ‘fairy trap’ title. The melody seems to sparkle and it’s hard not to smile while listening to her rap about the person she has become – “new me will never fail.” To finally express so many heavy feelings must feel insanely cathartic.
The EP cover is her 2008 school photo. The choice of this image epitomises the ragged vulnerability and sets the nostalgic tone for the no holes barred storytelling experience of this self titled record. Her healthy cynicism aids her in recounting her dark fairy tale fable of a past, full of witches and goblins but with, like all the best fairy tales, a happy ending.
At 27 years old, Zheani is a trail blazer in the Australian music scene, truly turning them all on their heads with her urgent and pummeling sound that refuses not to be heard. She pushes buttons and absolutely smashes through both boundaries and thresholds, seemingly unstoppable by anyone. She stands for so many people, for survivors of sexual abuse, for sex workers and simply for people who just don’t quite fit in, she is the voice for them all and she will never quiet.
To check out more of Erin’s work, see her blog Scatty Spoutings.