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African Comedian Laughs his Way to Stardom

August 11, 2018

Trevor Noah was born in Johannesburg, South Africa at a time when his birth from a black mother and white father was a crime. Because of this, his mother was jailed shortly after his birth. He grew up poor. He “fled” to America after being threatened by his step father who was arrested for shooting his mother in the back of the head. These are the painful circumstances of Trevor Noah’s early life; the circumstances that made him feel like he had “nothing.” However, there is one thing that Noah always had during these difficult times: humor. As Noah describes it, humor was a “tool,” a tool he would use to fix the brokenness of his early life.

 While in Africa, Noah sought out any outlet in which he could use his tool. No longer just using humor to navigate his everyday life, Noah made humor his profession. At eighteen, Noah landed a role on a South African Soap opera titled Isidingo. Shortly after this he began hosting his own radio show, Noah’s Ark, on a well-known youth radio station. Noah eventually dropped his radio show to focus completely on comedy. As a comedian, he experienced great success. He toured all over Africa and produced three comedy specials, two of which would land him the recognition of being named comic of the year at the South African Comics’ Choice Awards.

 

In 2011, Noah left Johannesburg for Hollywood, Los Angeles because of the circumstances of his youth and his ambition to rise above them. Noah quickly rose on the American comedy scene. After just four years, he was named the host of The Daily Show, a prominent late night talk show. In this position Noah continues to use comedy as a tool. From Monday through Friday nights, he can be seen injecting truth into political conversations in the disguise of humor. Noah specially enjoys making fun of ridiculous and harmful representations of Africa.

In one skit from The Daily Show called “Spot The Africa” Noah puts two images on the screen one of a broken down, flooded highway and the other a newly built, structurally sophisticated high way and ask the audience to spot the Africa. When the audience associates the rundown highway with Africa, Noah quickly and gleefully tells them that the broken-down highway is actually in America. This joke is just one instance of how Noah has used his platform to correct stereotypical representations of Africa.

 

In November 2016, Noah released a book titled Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood. As suggested by its title, the book tells of the difficulties of his life in Africa, but it also speaks of its rich geography, culture, and history. This is an Africa Noah learned of from his mother, who the book pays tribute to. One of his mother’s lessons was using language as a tool for survival. Noah writes, “I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you. I was you.” Noah’s mother also gave him the tool of humor; a tool he would go on to use to fix his life while making people laugh along the way.

Hazim Hardeman is a graduate student at Oxford University, where he will pursue a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Economic and Social History. He is also African Community Learning Program's intern for the #500EmpoweringAfricanStories Project.

 

African Community Learning Program empowers people of African background in West Philadelphia through education.

 

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Email Aminata Sy at aminata@sas.upenn.edu

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