Authors: Trevor Noah
Tom had promised he’d get me a beautiful date for the dance, but he hadn’t made any promises about any of her other qualities. Whenever we were together, she was speaking Pedi to Tom, and Tom was speaking English to me. But she didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Pedi. Abel spoke Pedi. He’d learned several South African languages in order to deal with his customers, so he’d spoken with her fluently when they met. But in that moment I realized I’d never actually heard her say anything in English other than: “Yes.” “No.” “Hi.” “Bye.” That’s it: “Yes.” “No.” “Hi.” “Bye.”
Babiki was so shy that she didn’t talk much to begin with, and I was so inept with women that I didn’t know how to talk to her. I’d never had a girlfriend; I didn’t even know what “girlfriend” meant. Someone put a beautiful woman on my arm and said, “She’s your girlfriend.” I’d been mesmerized by her beauty and just the idea of her—I didn’t know I was supposed to talk to her. The naked women on my computer, I’d never had to talk to them, ask them their opinions, ask them about their feelings. And I was afraid I’d open my mouth and ruin the whole thing, so I just nodded and smiled along and let Tom do the talking.
All three of Babiki’s older sisters spoke English, and her younger sister Lerato spoke a little. So whenever we hung out with Babiki and her sisters and their friends, a lot of the conversation was in English. The rest of it was going right by me in Pedi or in Sotho, but that’s completely normal in South Africa so it never bothered me; I got enough of the gist of the conversation from everyone’s English to know what was going on. And the way my mind works with language, even when I’m hearing other languages, they get filtered into English as I’m hearing them. My mind stores them in English. When my grandmother and great-grandmother were hysterically praying to God to destroy the demon that had shit on their kitchen floor, all of that transpired in Xhosa, but it’s stored in English. I remember it as English. So whenever I lay in bed at night dreaming about Babiki and the moments we’d spent together, I
like it had transpired in English because that’s how I remembered it. And Tom had never said anything about what language she spoke or didn’t speak, because why would he care? He just wanted to get his free CDs and get with the sister. Which is how I’d been dating a girl for over a month—the girl I very much believed was my first girlfriend—without ever having had a single conversation with her.
Now the whole night came rushing back and I saw it from her point of view, and it was perfectly obvious to me why she didn’t want to get out of the car. She probably hadn’t wanted to go to the dance with me in the first place; she probably owed Tom a favor, and Tom can talk anyone into anything. Then I’d left her sitting and waiting for me for an hour and she was pissed off. Then she got into the car and it was the first time we had ever been alone, and she realized I couldn’t even hold a conversation with her. I’d driven her around and gotten lost in the dark—a young girl alone in a car in the middle of nowhere with some strange guy, no idea where I was taking her. She was probably terrified. Then we got to the dance and she didn’t speak anyone’s language. She didn’t know anyone. She didn’t even know me.
Bongani and I stood outside the car, staring at each other. I didn’t know what to do. I tried talking to her in every language I knew. Nothing worked. She only spoke Pedi. I got so desperate that I started trying to talk to her using hand signals.
“Please. You. Me. Inside. Dance. Yes?”
“Inside. Dance. Please?”
I asked Bongani if he spoke Pedi. He didn’t. I ran inside to the dance and ran around looking for someone who spoke Pedi to help me to convince her to come in. “Do you speak Pedi? Do you speak Pedi? Do you speak Pedi?” Nobody spoke Pedi.
So I never got to go to my matric dance. Other than the three minutes I spent running through it looking for someone who spoke Pedi, I spent the whole night in the parking lot. When the dance ended, I climbed back into the shitty red Mazda and drove Babiki home. We sat in total awkward silence the whole way.
I pulled up in front of her block of flats in Hillbrow, stopped the car, and sat for a moment as I tried to figure out the polite and gentlemanly way to end the evening. Then, out of nowhere, she leaned over and gave me a kiss. Like, a real kiss, a proper kiss. The kind of kiss that made me forget that the whole disaster had just happened. I was so confused. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. She pulled back and I looked deep into her eyes and thought,
I have no idea how girls work
I got out of the car, walked around to her side, and opened her door. She gathered up her dress and stepped out and headed toward her flat, and as she turned to go I gave her one last little wave.
n Germany, no child finishes high school without learning about the Holocaust. Not just the facts of it but the how and the why and the gravity of it—what it means. As a result, Germans grow up appropriately aware and apologetic. British schools treat colonialism the same way, to an extent. Their children are taught the history of the Empire with a kind of disclaimer hanging over the whole thing. “Well,
was shameful, now wasn’t it?”
In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We weren’t taught judgment or shame. We were taught history the way it’s taught in America. In America, the history of racism is taught like this: “There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.” It was the same for us. “Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. Let’s move on.” Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension. It was as if the teachers, many of whom were white, had been given a mandate. “Whatever you do, don’t make the kids angry.”
When I was in grade nine, three Chinese kids transferred to Sandringham: Bolo, Bruce Lee, and John. They were the only Chinese kids in the school, out of a thousand pupils. Bolo got his nickname because he looked like Bolo Yeung from the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie
. Bruce Lee’s name really was Bruce Lee, which made our lives. Here was this Chinese guy, quiet, good-looking, in great shape, and his name was Bruce Lee. We were like,
This is magic.
Thank you, Jesus, for bringing us Bruce Lee.
John was just John, which was weird because of the other two.
I got to know Bolo because he was one of my tuck-shop clients. Bolo’s parents were professional pirates. They pirated videogames and sold them at flea markets. As the son of pirates, Bolo did the same thing—he started selling bootleg PlayStation games around school. Kids would give him their PlayStation, and he’d bring it back a few days later with a chip in it that enabled them to play pirated games, which he would then sell them. Bolo was friends with this white kid and fellow pirate named Andrew, who traded in bootleg CDs. Andrew was two grades above me and a real computer geek; he even had a CD writer at home, back when nobody had CD writers.
One day on my tuck-shop rounds, I overheard Andrew and Bolo complaining about the black kids at school. They’d realized that they could take Andrew’s and Bolo’s merchandise, say “I’ll pay you later,” and then not pay, because Andrew and Bolo were too scared of black people to go back to ask for the money. I leaned in to their conversation and said, “Listen, you shouldn’t get upset. Black people don’t have any money, so trying to get more stuff for less money is just what we do. But let me help. I’ll be your middleman. You give me the merchandise and I’ll sell it, and then I’ll handle getting the money. In return, you give me a cut of the sale.” They liked the idea right away, and we became partners.
As the tuck-shop guy, I was perfectly positioned. I had my network set up. All I had to do was tap into it. With the money I made selling CDs and videogames, I was able to save up and add new components and more memory to my own computer. Andrew the computer geek showed me how to do it, where to buy the cheapest parts, how to assemble them, how to repair them. He showed me how his business worked, too, how to download music, where to get rewritable CDs in bulk. The only thing I was missing was my own CD writer, because it was the most expensive component. At the time a CD writer cost as much as the rest of the computer, nearly 2,000 rand.
I worked as a middleman for Bolo and Andrew for a year. Then Bolo left school; the rumor was that his parents got arrested. From that point on I worked for Andrew, and then as he was about to matriculate he decided to quit the game. “Trevor,” he told me, “you’ve been a loyal partner.” And, as thanks, he bequeathed unto me his CD writer. At the time, black people barely had access to computers, let’s start there. But a CD writer? That was the stuff of lore. It was mythical. The day Andrew gave it to me, he changed my life. Thanks to him, I now controlled production, sales, distribution—I had everything I needed to lock down the bootleg business.
I was a natural capitalist. I loved selling stuff, and I was selling something that everybody wanted and nobody else could provide. I sold my discs for 30 rand, around $3. A regular CD in the store cost 100 to 150 rand. Once people started buying from me, they wouldn’t buy real CDs ever again—the deal was too good.
I had an instinct for business, but at the time I knew nothing about music, which was odd for someone running a music-pirating business. The only music I knew, still, was Christian music from church, the only music allowed in my mother’s house. The CD writer Andrew gave me was a 1x CD writer, which meant it copied at the speed it played. Every day I’d leave school, go to my room, and sit for five to six hours, copying CDs. I had my own surround-sound system built with old car speakers I’d salvaged from the junkers Abel kept in the yard, and I strung them up around the room. Even though I had to sit there while each CD played, for a long time I didn’t really listen to them. I knew it was against the dealer’s code: Never get high on your own supply.
Thanks to the Internet, I could get anyone anything. I never judged anyone’s taste in music. You wanted the new Nirvana, I got you the new Nirvana. You wanted the new DMX, I got you the new DMX. Local South African music was big, but black American music was what people were desperate for, hip-hop and R&B. Jagged Edge was huge. 112 was huge. I sold a lot of Montell Jordan. So much Montell Jordan.
When I started, I had a dial-up connection and a 24k modem. It would take a day to download an album. But technology kept evolving, and I kept reinvesting in the business. I upgraded to a 56k modem. I got faster CD writers, multiple CD writers. I started downloading more, copying more, selling more. That’s when I got two middlemen of my own, my friend Tom, who went to Northview, and my friend Bongani, who lived in Alex.
One day Bongani came to me and said, “You know what would make a lot of money? Instead of copying whole albums, why don’t you put the best tracks of different albums onto one CD, because people only wanna hear the songs they like.” That sounded like a great idea, so I started making mix CDs. Those sold well. Then a few weeks later Bongani came back and said, “Can you make the tracks fade into one another so the music moves from track one to track two without a break and the beat carries on? It’ll be like a DJ playing a complete set the whole night.” That sounded like a great idea, too. I downloaded a program called BPM, “beats per minute.” It had a graphical interface that looked like two vinyl records side by side, and I could mix and fade between songs, basically everything a DJ can do live. I started making party CDs, and those started selling like hotcakes, too.
Business was booming. By matric I was balling, making 500 rand a week. To put that in perspective, there are maids in South Africa who still earn less than that today. It’s a shit salary if you’re trying to support a family, but as a sixteen-year-old living at home with no real expenses, I was living the dream.
For the first time in my life I had money, and it was the most liberating thing in the world. The first thing I learned about having money was that it gives you choices. People don’t want to be rich. They want to be able to choose. The richer you are, the more choices you have. That is the freedom of money.
With money, I experienced freedom on a whole new level: I went to McDonald’s. People in America don’t understand, but when an American chain opens in a third-world country, people go crazy. That’s true to this day. A Burger King opened for the first time in South Africa last year, and there was a queue around the block. It was an event. Everyone was going around saying, “I have to eat at Burger King. Have you heard?
It’s from America.
” The funny thing was that the queue was actually just white people. White people went bat-shit crazy for Burger King. Black people were like,
Black people didn’t need Burger King. Our hearts were with KFC and McDonald’s. The crazy thing about McDonald’s is that we knew about it long before it came, probably from movies. We never even dreamed we would ever get one in South Africa; McDonald’s seemed to us like one of those American things that is exclusively American and can’t go anywhere else. Even before we ever tasted McDonald’s, we knew we’d love it, and we did. At one point South Africa was opening more McDonald’s than any other country in the world. With Mandela came freedom—and with freedom came McDonald’s. A McDonald’s had opened up just two blocks from our house not long after we moved to Highlands North, but my mom would never pay for us to eat there. With my own money I was like,
Let’s do this.
I went all in. They didn’t have “supersize” at the time; “large” was the biggest. So I walked up to the counter, feeling very impressed with myself, and I put down my money and said, “I’ll have a large number one.”
I fell in love with McDonald’s. McDonald’s, to me, tasted like America. McDonald’s
America. You see it advertised and it looks amazing. You crave it. You buy it. You take your first bite, and it blows your mind. It’s even better than you imagined. Then, halfway through, you realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. A few bites later you’re like,
Hmm, there’s a lot wrong with this
. Then you’re done, you miss it like crazy, and you go back for more.
Once I’d had a taste of America, I never ate at home. I only ate McDonald’s. McDonald’s, McDonald’s, McDonald’s, McDonald’s. Every night my mother would try to cook me dinner.
“Tonight we’re having chicken livers.”
“No, I’m gonna have McDonald’s.”
“Tonight we’re having dog bones.”
“I think I’m gonna go with McDonald’s again.”
“Tonight we’re having chicken feet.”
“Hmmmmm…Okay, I’m in. But tomorrow I’m eating McDonald’s.”
The money kept rolling in and I was balling out of control. This is how balling I was: I bought a cordless telephone. This was before everyone had a cellphone. The range on this cordless phone was strong enough that I could put the base outside my window, walk the two blocks to McDonald’s, order my large number one, walk back home, go up to my room, and fire up my computer, carrying on a conversation the whole time. I was that dude walking down the street holding a giant phone to my ear with the aerial fully extended, talking to my friend. “Yeah, I’m just goin’ down to McDonald’s…”
Life was good, and none of it would have happened without Andrew. Without him, I would never have mastered the world of music piracy and lived a life of endless McDonald’s. What he did, on a small scale, showed me how important it is to empower the dispossessed and the disenfranchised in the wake of oppression. Andrew was white. His family had access to education, resources, computers. For generations, while his people were preparing to go to university, my people were crowded into thatched huts singing,
“Two times two is four. Three times two is six. La la la la la.”
My family had been denied the things his family had taken for granted. I had a natural talent for selling to people, but without knowledge and resources, where was that going to get me? People always lecture the poor: “Take responsibility for yourself! Make something of yourself!” But with what raw materials are the poor to make something of themselves?
People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing. Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, “Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.” Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer. People say, “Oh, that’s a handout.” No. I still have to work to profit by it. But I don’t stand a chance without it.
One afternoon I was in my room making a CD when Bongani came over to pick up his inventory. He saw me mixing songs on my computer.
“This is insane,” he said. “Are you doing this live?”
“Trevor, I don’t think you understand; you’re sitting on a gold mine. We need to do this for a crowd. You need to come to the township and start DJ’ing gigs. No one has ever seen a DJ playing on a computer before.”
Bongani lived in Alexandra. Where Soweto is a sprawling, government-planned ghetto, Alexandra is a tiny, dense pocket of a shantytown, left over from the pre-apartheid days. Rows and rows of cinder-block and corrugated-iron shacks, practically stacked on top of one another. Its nickname is Gomorrah because it has the wildest parties and the worst crimes.
Street parties are the best thing about Alexandra. You get a tent, put it up in the middle of the road, take over the street, and you’ve got a party. There’s no formal invitations or guest list. You just tell a few people, word of mouth travels, and a crowd appears. There are no permits, nothing like that. If you own a tent, you have the right to throw a party in your street. Cars creep up to the intersection and the driver will see the party blocking their way and shrug and make a U-turn. Nobody gets upset. The only rule is that if you throw a party in front of somebody’s house, they get to come and share your alcohol. The parties don’t end until someone gets shot or a bottle gets broken on someone’s face. That’s how it has to end; otherwise, it wasn’t a party.