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Authors: Trevor Noah

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BOOK: Born a Crime
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Back then, most DJs could spin for only a few hours; they were limited by the number of vinyls they could buy. Since parties went all night, you might need five or six DJs to keep the dancing going. But I had a massive hard drive stuffed with MP3s, which is why Bongani was excited when he saw me mixing—he saw a way to corner the market.

“How much music do you have?” he asked.

“Winamp says I can play for a week.”

“We’ll make a fortune.”

Our first gig was a New Year’s Eve party the summer we graduated from Sandringham. Bongani and I took my tower, my giant monitor, and all the cables and the keyboard and the mouse. We loaded everything up in a minibus and brought it over to Alex. We took over the street in front of his house, ran the electricity out of his place, set up the computer, set up speakers, and borrowed a tent, and people came. It was explosive. By midnight the whole street was packed from one end to the other. Ours was the biggest New Year’s Eve party in Alexandra that year, and to have the biggest party in Alexandra is no joke. All night, from far and wide, people kept coming. The word spread: “There’s a light-skinned guy who plays music on a computer. You’ve never seen anything like it.” I DJ’d by myself until dawn. By then me and my friends were so drunk and exhausted that we passed out on the lawn outside Bongani’s house. The party was so big it made our reputation in the hood, instantly. Pretty soon we were getting booked all over.

Which was a good thing.

When Bongani and I graduated from high school, we couldn’t get jobs. There were no jobs for us to get. The only ways I had to make money were pirating CDs and DJ’ing parties, and now that I’d left Sandringham, the minibus drivers and corner kids in Alexandra were the single biggest market for my CDs. It was also where I was playing the most gigs, so to keep earning I naturally gravitated that way. Most of the white kids I knew were taking a gap year. “I’m going to take a gap year and go to Europe.” That’s what the white kids were saying. So I said, “I, too, am going to take a gap year. I am going to take a year and go to the township and hang out on the corner.” And that’s what I did.

There was a low brick wall running down the middle of the road in front of Bongani’s house in Alex, and every day Bongani and I and our crew would go sit on the wall. I’d bring my CDs. We’d play music and practice dance moves. We hustled CDs all day and DJ’d parties at night. We started getting booked for gigs in other townships, other hoods.

Thanks to my computer and modem I was getting exclusive tracks few people had access to, but that created a problem for me. Sometimes I’d play the new music at parties and people would stand around going, “What is this? How do you dance to it?” For example, if a DJ plays a song like “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)”—yes, it’s a catchy song, but what is a whip? What is a nae nae? For that song to be popular you have to know how to do the whip and the nae nae; new music works at parties only if people know how to dance to it. Bongani decided we needed a dance crew to show people the steps to the songs we were playing. Because we spent our days doing nothing but listening to CDs and coming up with dance moves, our crew from the corner already knew all the songs, so they became our dancers. And hands down the best, most beautiful, most graceful dancer in the crew was Bongani’s neighbor, Hitler.

Hitler was a great friend of mine, and good Lord could that guy dance. He was mesmerizing to watch. He had a looseness and a fluidity that defied physics—imagine a jellyfish if it could walk on land. Incredibly handsome, too, tall and lithe and muscular, with beautiful, smooth skin, big teeth, and a great smile, always laughing. And all he did was dance. He’d be up in the morning, blasting house music or hip-hop, practicing moves the whole day.

In the hood, everybody knows who the best dancer in the crew is. He’s like your status symbol. When you’re poor you don’t have cars or nice clothes, but the best dancer gets girls, so that’s the guy you want to roll with. Hitler was our guy. There were parties with dance competitions. Kids from every neighborhood would come and bring their best dancers. We’d always bring Hitler, and he almost always won.

When Bongani and I put together a routine for our dance crew, there was no question who was going to be the star attraction. We built the whole set around Hitler. I’d warm the crowd up with a few songs, then the dancers would come out and do a couple of numbers. Once they’d gotten the party started, they’d fan out to form a semicircle around the stage with a gap in the back for Hitler to enter. I’d crank up Redman’s “Let’s Get Dirty” and start whipping the crowd up even more.
“Are you ready?! I can’t hear you! Let me hear you make some noise!”
People would start screaming, and Hitler would jump into the middle of the semicircle and the crowd would lose it. Hitler would do his thing while the guys circled around him, shouting him on.
“Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”
And because this was hip-hop, the crew would do that thing where you shoot your arm out in front of you with your palm flat, bopping it up and down to the beat.
“Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”
We’d have the whole crowd in a frenzy, a thousand people in the street chanting along with their hands in the air.
“Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”


Hitler, although an unusual name, is not unheard-of in South Africa. Part of it has to do with the way a lot of black people pick names. Black people choose their traditional names with great care; those are the names that have deeply personal meanings. But from colonial times through the days of apartheid, black people in South Africa were required to have an English or European name as well—a name that white people could pronounce, basically. So you had your English name, your traditional name, and your last name: Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. Nine times out of ten, your European name was chosen at random, plucked from the Bible or taken from a Hollywood celebrity or a famous politician in the news. I know guys named after Mussolini and Napoleon. And, of course, Hitler.

Westerners are shocked and confused by that, but really it’s a case of the West reaping what it has sown. The colonial powers carved up Africa, put the black man to work, and did not properly educate him. White people don’t talk to black people. So why would black people know what’s going on in the white man’s world? Because of that, many black people in South Africa don’t really know who Hitler was. My own grandfather thought “a hitler” was a kind of army tank that was helping the Germans win the war. Because that’s what he took from what he heard on the news. For many black South Africans, the story of the war was that there was someone called Hitler and he was the reason the Allies were losing the war. This Hitler was so powerful that at some point black people had to go help white people fight against him—and if the white man has to stoop to ask the black man for help fighting someone, that someone must be the toughest guy of all time. So if you want your dog to be tough, you name your dog Hitler. If you want your kid to be tough, you name your kid Hitler. There’s a good chance you’ve got an uncle named Hitler. It’s just a thing.

At Sandringham, we were taught more about World War II than the typical black kids in the townships were, but only in a basic way. We weren’t taught to think critically about Hitler and anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We weren’t taught, for instance, that the architects of apartheid were big fans of Hitler, that the racist policies they put in place were inspired, in part, by the racist policies of the Third Reich. We weren’t taught how to think about how Hitler related to the world we lived in. We weren’t being taught to think, period. All we were taught was that in 1939 Hitler invaded Poland and in 1941 he invaded the Soviet Union and in 1943 he did something else. They’re just facts. Memorize them, write them down for the test, and forget them.

There is also this to consider: The name Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine. Every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West. But if black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s King Leopold would come way before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person, it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson.

I often meet people in the West who insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history, without question. Yes, it was horrific. But I often wonder, with African atrocities like in the Congo, how horrific were they? The thing Africans don’t have that Jewish people do have is documentation. The Nazis kept meticulous records, took pictures, made films. And that’s really what it comes down to. Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them. Six million people killed. We can all look at that number and rightly be horrified. But when you read through the history of atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess. When Portugal and Belgium were plundering Angola and the Congo, they weren’t counting the black people they slaughtered. How many black people died harvesting rubber in the Congo? In the gold and diamond mines of the Transvaal?

So in Europe and America, yes, Hitler is the Greatest Madman in History. In Africa he’s just another strongman from the history books. In all my time hanging out with Hitler, I never once asked myself, “
Why
is his name Hitler?” His name was Hitler because his mom named him Hitler.


Once Bongani and I added the dancers to our DJ sets, we blew up. We called our group the Black and White Boys. The dancers were called the Springbok Boys. We started getting booked everywhere. Successful black families were moving to the suburbs, but their kids still wanted to have block parties and stay connected to the culture of the townships, so they’d book us to play their parties. Word of mouth traveled. Pretty soon we were getting booked more and more in the suburbs, meeting white people, playing for white people.

One kid we knew from the township, his mother was involved in creating cultural programs for schools. In America they’d be called “diversity programs.” They were springing up all over South Africa because we were supposed to be learning about and embracing one another in this post-apartheid era. This kid’s mom asked us if we wanted to play at a cultural day at some school in Linksfield, the wealthy suburb south of Sandringham where my pal Teddy had lived. There was going to be all sorts of different dancing and music, and everyone was going to come together and hang out and be cultural. She offered to pay, so we said sure. She sent us the information with the time and place and the name of the school: the King David School. A Jewish school.

The day of the event, we booked a minibus, loaded it up with our gear, and drove over. Once we arrived we waited in the back of the school’s assembly hall and watched the acts that went onstage before us, different groups took their turns performing, flamenco dancers, Greek dancers, traditional Zulu musicians. Then we were up. We were billed as the Hip Hop Pantsula Dancers—the South African B-Boys. We set up our sound system onstage. I looked out, and the whole hall was nothing but Jewish kids in their yarmulkes, ready to party.

I got on the mic. “Are you ready to rock out?!”

“Yeahhhhhh!”

“Make some noise!”

“Yeahhhhhh!”

I started playing. The bass was bumping, my crew was dancing, and everyone was having a great time. The teachers, the chaperones, the parents, hundreds of kids—they were all dancing like crazy. Our set was scheduled for fifteen minutes, and at the ten-minute mark came the moment for me to play “Let’s Get Dirty,” bring out my star dancer, and shut shit down.

I started the song, the dancers fanned out in their semicircle, and I got on the mic.

“Are you guys ready?!”

“Yeahhhhhh!”

“You guys are not ready! Are you
ready
?!”

“Yeeeaaahhhhhhhh!”

“All right! Give it up and make some noise for
HIIIIIITTTTLLLLEERRRRR­RRRRR­
!!!”

Hitler jumped out to the middle of the circle and started killing it. The guys around him were all chanting,
“Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”
They had their arms out in front of them, bouncing to the rhythm.
“Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”
And I was right there on the mic leading them along.
“Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”

The whole room stopped. No one was dancing. The teachers, the chaperones, the parents, the hundreds of Jewish kids in their yarmulkes—they froze and stared aghast at us up on the stage. I was oblivious. So was Hitler. We kept going. For a good thirty seconds the only sound in the room was the beat of the music and me on the mic yelling,
“Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Put your hands in the air for Hitler, yo!”

A teacher ran up behind me and yanked the plug for my system out of the wall. The hall went dead silent, and she turned on me and she was livid. “How
dare
you?! This is disgusting! You horrible, disgusting vile creature! How
dare
you?!”

My mind was racing, trying to figure out what she was talking about. Then it clicked. Hitler had a special dance move called
o spana va.
It means “where you work” and it was very sexual: His hips would gyrate and thrust, like he was fucking the air. That was the move he was doing at the moment the teacher ran out, so clearly the dance was the thing she found so disgusting. But this was a move that African people do all the time. It’s a part of our culture. Here we were sharing our culture for a cultural day, and this woman was calling us disgusting. She was offended, and I was offended by her taking offense.

“Lady,” I said, “I think you need to calm down.”

“I will
not
calm down! How dare you come here and insult us?!”

“This is not insulting anyone. This is who we are!”

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