Trevor Noah: "I’ll Never Be Considered Black in South Africa"

The South African comedian talks race and politics in his first interview with BET.com.

Posted: 05/29/2013 12:15 PM EDT
Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah knows that any comedian hoping for longevity should be able to accomplish two things: make an audience laugh and provoke thought — no matter how uncomfortable. The South Africa-native accomplished this and more in his one-man show, Born a Crime, where he cleverly talks about Apartheid and his experience with the segregated south. The show delivers edgy satire on race with one solution that could bring us all together — good comedy.

Do you think audiences in South Africa laugh more about Apartheid than audiences in the U.S. laugh about slavery or the Jim Crow era?
I do think so. Yes. I think we’ve tackled it more head-on in the comedic sphere. It’s something that we really have been adamant about and it’s been good. I guess there is a lot more sensitivity towards slavery and those things when you are traveling to the U.S. Not everyone is as quick to joke about it or find it funny.

Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. Maybe if you look at South Africa, we’ve done a lot to try to rectify the past. A Black president runs the country; it’s run by a Black political party. Black people are moving up in society, slowly but surely. I guess to a certain extent people feel like they can joke about it because it’s being fixed. In America, people are still very sensitive about slavery because maybe Black people are still not at the forefront or given similar opportunities. It really depends on where you are. At the end of the day, you can never be offensive, somebody just decides to take offense to what you’ve said. So people can laugh at anything and some are way more sensitive.

Is there any subject matter you stay away from? In your show you even joke about Hitler.
No, I don’t think there is any subject matter I won’t joke about. Everybody can laugh at everything. You just have to find what that thing is. Some people find the best way to get over pain is to laugh. Sometimes after funerals people are laughing about the fun times they’ve had with the person who has died. Because I work in the realm of laughter, I think anything can be laughed at. As long as you find the right angle and the thing that is truly funny about it.

You talk about coming to the U.S. and becoming a part of "the Black community" and finding your blackness here in a way that you just can’t in South Africa.  Aren't you considered Black in South Africa yet?
In terms of race, I’ll never be considered Black. That’s just the way racial boundaries are set up even after the Apartheid. Every skin color has a name for it, it’s as simple as that — yet I grew up Black. I genuinely consider myself to be a Black person because that’s all I know; that’s the only world I’ve lived in. As much as I joke about it, I know who I am and I know where I’d like to see myself. But I don’t feel limited by that. I don’t feel that being Black means you have to live within the stereotype of blackness, but rather take pride in your base instead.

In terms of race and healing, do you think South Africa and the United States can exchange notes on getting beyond racism?
To be honest, I don’t think so because we are in very similar boats. South Africa and the U.S. have a very similar history in terms of a past marred by racism and the effective forms of slavery and segregation. Even post-civil rights there are still remnants of racism that pop up on a weekly basis and are used in a social atmosphere. So I don’t think neither of us are in a position to give each other advice. All we can do is try and learn from each other’s mistakes.

In your show, you refer to Black figures in media, from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Mr. T, being cultural ambassadors and giving a positive portrayal of the community to the rest of the world. Did that perception change when you came to the U.S.?
No, we were proud to see those people in those positions in the fictional world, which was great and fine. I guess it’s the same way we were proud of President Barack Obama — almost like he was one of our own as Africans. When I got here, nothing really changed. You can see a more real picture — I guess I just didn’t hold them on a pedestal anymore.

How are you handling the success of your show Born a Crime?

Handling? [Laughs] Wow, handling is a strong word. I’m not handling anything, per se. I’m having a good time. I’m only lucky if people come to a show. I never take that for granted. I just enjoy it and having people there who are willing to have a good time with me. I just enjoy that.

Born a Crime will run at The Culture Project in New York City through June 29th.

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 (Photo:  Dominic Barnardt/Gallo Images/Getty Images for MTV)

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