برو هیتلر!کتاب: زادهی جرم / فصل 19
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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 Bloodsport. 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, whatever. 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 is 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.
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?!”
“Make some noise!”
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?!”
“You guys are not ready! Are you ready?!”
“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!”
“Get out of here! You people are disgusting.”
And there it was. You people. Now I saw what the deal was: This lady was racist. She couldn’t see black men dancing suggestively and not get pissed off. As I started packing up my gear, we kept arguing.
“Listen, lady. We’re free now. We’re gonna do what we’re gonna do. You can’t stop us.”
“I’ll have you know that my people stopped people like you before, and we can stop you again.”
She was talking, of course, about stopping the Nazis in World War II, but that’s not what I was hearing. Jews in South Africa are just white people. All I was hearing was some white lady shouting about how white people beat us before and they’ll beat us again. I said, “You will never stop us again, lady”—and here’s where I played the trump card—“You’ll never stop us, because now we have Nelson Mandela on our side! And he told us we can do this!” “What?!”
She was so confused. I’d had it. I started cussing her out. “Fuck you, lady. Fuck your program. Fuck your school. Fuck your whole people. Let’s go, guys! We’re out!”
We didn’t walk out of that school. We danced out. We danced down the street pumping our fists in the air. “Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!” Because Hitler had shut shit down. Hitler had the most gangster dance moves ever, and those white people didn’t know what hit them.
Alexandra was a farm originally named for the wife of the white man who owned it. Like Sophiatown and other black spots populating white areas before apartheid, Alex started out as a squatter settlement where blacks gathered and lived when coming to Johannesburg to find work. What was unique about Alex is that this farmer sold plots of land to some of the black tenants in the time before it was illegal for blacks to own property. So while Sophiatown and other black ghettos were razed and rebuilt as white suburbs, Alex fought and held on and asserted its right to exist. Wealthy white suburbs like Sandton grew around it, but Alex remained. More squatters came and more squatters came, putting up makeshift shacks and shanties. They look like the slums in Mumbai or the favelas in Brazil. The first time I saw the favelas in Rio I said, “Yeah, that’s Alexandra, but on a hill.” Soweto was beautiful because, after democracy, you watched Soweto grow. Soweto has become a proper city unto itself. People went from three-room houses to five-room houses to three-bedroom houses with garages. There was room to grow because the piece of land from the government gave you something to build on. Alexandra can’t do that. Alex can’t get any bigger, because it’s pinned in on all sides, and it can’t build up, because it’s mostly shacks.
When democracy came, people flooded into Alex from the homelands, building new shacks in the backyards of other shacks with still more shacks attached to the backside of those shacks, growing more dense and more compressed, leaving close to 200,000 people living in a few square kilometers. Even if you go back today, Alex hasn’t changed. It can’t change. It’s physically impossible for it to change. It can only be what it is.
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