Comedian Trevor Noah writes about many misunderstandings in his memoir Born a Crime, but perhaps none are as cringeworthy as the story about his friend Hitler’s dance performance at a Jewish community center. Even as they leave the center, Trevor Noah, Hitler, and their dance troupe fail to understand the gravity of the misunderstanding.
Learn how their education in South Africa completely failed to impress upon them the extent of the historical Hitler’s crimes and his impact on the Jewish community, and see how this resulted in a humorous, though disastrous, misunderstanding.
Trevor Noah Becomes a DJ
Before we look at how Hitler’s dance performance caused a sensation (and not in a good way), let’s take a step back and look at Noah’s career at the time–he was a DJ.
After graduating from high school, Trevor Noah had moved with friends to the township of Alexandra. Alexandra was home to amazing street parties. All one had to do was put up a tent in the street, and the party was on. Most of the parties went late into the night and only ended after violence erupted.
These parties would always have a DJ. Because most DJs were spinning vinyl, they had a limited supply of music, which translated into a finite amount of time to play. But Noah had several hours of downloaded music on his computer. The mixing software he used for his party CDs created the effect of a DJ spinning. Noah’s friend Bongani convinced Noah to become a live DJ.
His first performance as a DJ was New Year’s Eve the summer after high school. Noah had moved into his own apartment in Highland North, and he and Bongani carted his whole computer system, tower and all, on a minibus to Alexandra. They set it up outside Bongani’s house, and word spread fast about the mixed guy DJing from a computer. The party was legendary, and the duo started booking more gigs.
DJing wasn’t just fun, it was something to do and a way to make money. During apartheid, all the jobs were low-paying slave labor jobs. Post-apartheid, employees were required to be paid minimum wage, and all that close-to-free labor went away. People were laid off because employers couldn’t afford the cost of labor. There were no jobs in South Africa for blacks, and no one would hire blacks from the hood. Unemployment, especially for young black men, increased by approximately 50%.
Trevor Noah, Hitler, and the Dance Troupe
Noah discovered a chink in the chain of his business: He had access to so much music that other people couldn’t get. The problem was, sometimes, people wouldn’t know the songs he played. If they didn’t know the songs, they didn’t know how to dance to them. So Noah turned Bongani’s crew into a dance troupe. When Noah would DJ, the dance crew would put on a show, demonstrating the latest moves to the latest tracks. Of these dancers, the best one was a kid named Hitler.
Dancing was a big deal in the townships. Crews from other hoods would bring their best dancers to compete with each other. It was a cultural phenomenon. Hitler almost always won his competitions
Trevor Noah, Hitler, and their crew started building routines that showcased Hitler’s moves. The other guys would get the crowd going, then Hitler would jump in the middle and break it down. Everyone would circle around and shout “Go Hitler, Go Hitler” while bumping the beat with their arms in the air, palms down.
With the dance crew, Noah’s popularity soared. They were getting hired for all sorts of events, even in the suburbs and by white people.
Trevor Noah, Hitler, and the Misunderstanding
Trevor Noah, Hitler, and their crew were invited to perform as part of a cultural appreciation day organized by the mother of a friend. The event was held at a Jewish school in a wealthy suburb and was meant to bring different cultures together. There was a variety of cultures represented through song and dance.
When it was time for Noah’s crew, called the Hip Hop Pantsula Dancers–the South African B-Boys, Noah set up his system in front of an audience of almost all Jewish children in yarmulkes. He got the audience warmed up, and everyone started to cheer. As usual, the crew came out and started dancing. The audience loved it, and everyone started dancing, including the adults. Then it was time for Hitler’s spotlight.
Noah shouted out Hitler’s name, and Hitler jumped into the middle and started getting down. The rest of the crew circled around him and did what they always did; they started chanting “Go Hitler” with their hands pumping the air. In an instant, the whole room stopped dancing and stared with gaping mouths. Noah and the crew didn’t know what was going on, so they kept chanting.
Why Weren’t Trevor Noah and Hitler Aware of the Problem?
The problem was that Trevor Noah, Hitler and their crew didn’t know the extent of who Hitler’s namesake was or what he’d done. The name itself is not uncommon in South Africa, which stems from the process used by black people when choosing their children’s names.
Most black people had a traditional name from their tribe, one that is meaningful and hopefully prophetic. But blacks were also required by law to have an English or European name. These names were usually random selections from popular names heard in the news or from the Bible or the name of a celebrity.
To confound the issue was the lack of education blacks received during apartheid. The nursery rhymes of the Bantu schools didn’t cover much ground. Further, whites didn’t communicate with the black community, so blacks had no understanding of what was happening in the white world.
For many blacks in South Africa, what they heard on the news was all they knew of the war. From what they could tell, WWII involved a powerful man named Hitler who was responsible for the fighting. Even in Noah’s school, which had a higher standard than most, the facts of the war were taught with a similar level of superficiality as the facts of apartheid.
Apartheid is taught much like slavery is in America: surface-level, at best. Slavery happened, then Jim Crow, then MLK Jr., now it’s over. Likewise, South African students learn that apartheid was bad, Nelson Mandela was released, and now it’s over. All anyone learned about WWII in school was Hitler invaded countries and people fought. End of story.
Noah suspects the appalling aspects of Hitler’s regime hit too close to home. Not wanting to draw any attention to the injustice of apartheid, South African curriculum glossed over both.
What black South Africans did understand was that, at some point, blacks were recruited to fight alongside the whites to defeat Hitler. To blacks, the fact that the white people were desperate enough to ask black people for help said a lot about how powerful Hitler was. if you want a powerful child, give him a powerful name, or the name of someone powerful. This was the origin of the name “Hitler” in South Africa.
A Misunderstanding for the Ages
Because of this lack of knowledge, Trevor Noah, Hitler, and their crew were perplexed when a teacher from the Jewish school disconnected their system. She admonished them severely for their behavior. Noah thought she was upset about an erotic dance move popular in African culture. He took offense and fought back.
The miscommunication continued, and in response to Noah’s defense, she called Noah and his crew disgusting. Noah assumed she was racist and told her black people were free now and had the right to live as they wanted. All he saw was a white person telling them black culture was disgusting. All she saw was a group of anti-semites saying they were free to do what they wanted.
When Noah’s crew left the venue, they didn’t walk out. They danced out. They made a defiant exit, pumping their fists and shouting “Go Hitler!” as a show of solidarity and pride.
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- Why Trevor Noah's birth was an illegal crime
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