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Now it's time for HARDtalk.
Welcome to HARDtalk with me, Zeinab Badawi.
My guest is comedian and satirist Trevor Noah,
who presents one of the most influential programmes on American
TV, the Daily Show.
Born a crime to a black mother and white father in apartheid
South Africa, he has navigated his way through the explosive issue
of race and identity.
With critics claiming that Donald Trump's victory has
encouraged intolerant rhetoric, does he fear that the space
for liberal satire such as his is shrinking?
Trevor Noah, welcome to HARDtalk.
Thank you, Zeinab.
You were born in 1984, six years before Nelson Mandela was released.
Your father is a white Swiss man, your mother was black,
a union punishable by five years in prison.
How did it feel to be born a crime?
Well, the truth is for me it didn't feel any different to being born
I guess any differently, because I was really lucky in that
I was insulated as a child, so I grew up under apartheid
but I was spared from a lot of the ills of apartheid.
My parents were in a world where they were the ones who faced
the ills, that's what I talk about in the book, I don't make it
seem like it was my struggle, it's a struggle I didn't even know
I was part of, essentially, and by the time I became aware
of it I was lucky enough South Africa abolished apartheid
laws and then we very rapidly moved into democracy.
You just published your book called Born a Crime: Stories
from a South African Childhood.
You've just said now that you were insulated from
that but at the beginning your mother actually hid you from view,
kept you at home, you didn't lead a normal early childhood in that
respect, how did you amuse yourself, did you live in your
head or something?
That's the great thing about books.
I lived in a world where I could be anywhere.
Thanks to books I travelled the world.
I've been to France and to space.
I've been to Charlie's Chocolate Factory with Willie Wonka,
I've been everywhere.
That's what I try to explain, I never tried to make it seem
like I was one who was suffering.
My family and people were suffering but because I was a child I only
knew this world, you know?
I watched a beautiful movie called Room.
It's a fascinating story about a woman who's trapped
in a bunker with her child, and the child doesn't know
that the world exists beyond this room because the mother has done
such a great job of insulating him, and that's what happened to us.
We were in a tough world where my mum couldn't be seen
to be my mother, she couldn't be with my father, she couldn't
sometimes be with me in public yet she still made that seemed
like a normal world, which is a testament
to her parenting.
She really did, as you describe, take on a great deal on your behalf.
You saw your father once a week and you say how basically,
if I can paraphrase it, you were basically too white
for your black mother and too black for your white father.
So what happened when you did go out in public with your mother
or when you saw your father in public?
Well, we very seldom went out together because that
would cause commotion.
My parents were always trying to obscure the fact
that they were a couple.
As much as the country on the face of the laws was changing,
you know, anyone who knows about apartheid tells you that
what the government said to the international community
was not what was happening on the streets, they were trying
to paint a facade of a country that wasn't bad, they were trying
to create a world that didn't seem like it was oppressive
but it really was.
So sometimes my mum and I would go out with my dad.
For instance, my mum would often times dress as a maid
to navigate this world.
As a black person you didn't have the freedoms a white person had
in South Africa.
She'd go out with a coloured friend pushing you in the pushchair
because you look coloured.
There were three ways she would do it.
If my mum was with me, she would dress like a maid and act
like she was looking after the child of someone.
If she couldn't do that, she would get her friend who looked
like me, who was my skin tone, to act like she was my mother
and my mother would walk with us, that is how we could
navigate more freely.
I have pictures of me as a child with my mum in the background photo
bombing the pictures.
If we went with my dad...
I remember one day I went to the park with them and I only
remember it as a story of me going to the park with my parents.
My mum tells me of how we went to the park and I started
chasing my dad and screaming, "Daddy," and he ran away from me
and I chased him.
You thought it was a game?
And my mum started chasing me.
Even when you see kids today, they don't think anything
is happening beyond them playing.
You were running after your father saying "Daddy, daddy."
You thought it was a game when he was running away but it's
because he didn't want to acknowledge you in public, tough?
It was completely a game for me, so tough for them but really
exciting for me.
Your black grandparents lived in Soweto and you would visit them
obviously, but you say you were treated differently
from your cousins and other members of the family,
they treated you as an honorary white.
That was one of the vestiges of apartheid.
My grandfather called me master my entire life.
Sometimes I could feel it was an exaggeration
but it was definitely implicitly speaking to the country
that we lived in.
He didn't treat me any differently but he always referred
to me as master.
My grandmother didn't do that but she never administered
beatings for instance.
My grandmother oftentimes would be the one who disciplined all the kids
because we would stay together and our mums would all be at work,
and I was the one that was never hit.
She used to tell my mum she was afraid of hitting me
because she didn't know how to hit a "white" child.
The bruises were blue and green and red and she says black children
she understood because it's all the same, but with me
she was so afraid of committing the crime the government
told her she would be committing.
Then things got tough at home, your mother married a violent
alcoholic man, Abel, your stepfather, a mechanic.
You turned to pawn broking and also dealing in stolen goods.
You spent a week in a cell.
Your life could have gone down a different path?
I think that's a story all too familiar for anyone who grows up
in a place where there is poverty and in a place
where there is oppression.
If opportunities are not afforded to communities,
they afford themselves the opportunities.
I always say one thing that I admire about crime is that it has
a fantastic outreach programme.
Crime doesn't discriminate.
Crime doesn't stop seeking out new opportunities for people.
If you have ever lived in an informal community
you will know that the lines of crime are very blurred.
We call it crime now and we do know it as crime,
the law, yes, but informally people trade and people are swapping things
and trying to make ends meet.
I definitely could have ended up in a different place in my life,
which is a story that happens all too often.
But it didn't to you, you got out and you launched
yourself into a career of comedy and so on and became fantastically
successful in South Africa before you moved to the United States.
You say in your book you were mixed but not coloured,
coloured by complexion but not by culture.
Do you feel now we ascribe to much of an identity to people based
on their colour?
Because you're black you have to behave in this way,
because you're coloured you have to behave in this way,
white and so on and forth.
I don't think we can deny the colour has become linked to something.
So let's go with this, basically race is a construct
but that construct has been used in a lot of ways to define cultures.
So now the two have almost become linked.
So if you have black skin it is likely you grew up in a black
or African culture and now if you have an African culture
you're going to give birth to more children,
those children will be black and so now black people have African
cultures, African people are black, it becomes, you know,
a self-perpetuating cycle, it's never going to end,
it's a feedback loop.
So we have prescribed too much to it, I think we have
created that world.
You do see it in some countries where language is more unifying,
where themes go across.
You know, I've talked to people from places
like the Dominican Republic where they go, race
is not really something.
Other things may define your identity.
People in Brazil have the same ideals.
Nevertheless, racial observations have formed in the early stages
the backbone of your stand-up comedy career.
Do you now regret some of the jokes you made?
Let me give you an example, you said my mother, black
South African, was saying, "Get me a white guy.
Well, my father was white Swiss, of course he liked chocolate."
That sounds funny to me even when you say it!
That sounded really funny.
Why would I regret that?
Why would you regret that?
Because some people say that's not very funny.
But the people laugh.
Everyone can say something is not really funny.
Just like the way some people don't like Indian food.
Let me give you an example.
We have a well-established black comedian in Britain called
Lenny Henry, he has said he regrets doing that kind of joke
where he said he would wipe his sweating brow and say,
"Huh, I'm leaking chocolate."
But that is different.
It's not, it's using chocolate.
That is different.
The Swiss love chocolate is not a pejorative term.
You're referring to your mother's skin colour as chocolate.
Yes, because my mother is proud to be dark, beautiful chocolate.
That's what she's saying.
I talk about this in the book as well, I saw people
and race as chocolate.
I wouldn't use that, I'm that colour and I wouldn't say that.
When I grew up I believed that all people were chocolates.
My mum was dark chocolate, my dad was white chocolate
and I was milk chocolate.
So I see all people as chocolates.
You see that as funny but do you not realise that some people
might not like that?
Lenny Henry went on to say, that joke about how he was leaking
chocolate, he says, "I knew there had to be a better way
of trying to put the message over, putting your jokes over
without having to pick on people because of their colour
or their race."
His view is different from yours.
Because he's Lenny Henry and I'm Trevor Noah.
But also he's black.
He's talking about leaking chocolate, implying his skin colour
was not something that belonged to him.
That's a different idea.
He is trying to say his skin colour is chocolate,
you're splitting hairs here.
That's exactly what we should be doing.
I'm not sure I would say what you said.
You're creating racial jokes...
You're creating monoliths of jokes and that's not fair to do.
Every single joke has a context, every single joke comes
from a place.
The most important thing with comedy is context.
Without context, no conversation is complete.
Without context, no communication can truly appreciate...
If you take that out of context, so I'm putting it to you,
given what Lenny Henry has said, are you not guilty in some
of your routines with a joke like that of reinforcing prejudices
and promoting stereotypes in the minds of people who may be
inclined to think like that and then they'll think,
"Oh, Trevor Noah says his mother's s chocolate, I'm going to say that
to my black friends," and they might take offence.
You could be reinforcing prejudice.
You could be doing anything if you're not doing the opposite.
How your action is implied does not define what you were doing.
Let's look at another aspect of race.
A few years ago you moved to the United States.
Your routine as a comedian often mimicked Africans and also
African Americans, and about African Americans
you have said this.
"You are not African but we play along.
It's a very loose term, African American, because half
the time you use it for people who aren't even African.
As long as you're black they say African American."
I didn't deliver it like that, you're not doing my jokes justice.
All right, yeah.
I'm not Trevor Noah and I'm not a comedian, satirist.
I'm just asking, are they not African American?
Here's what you're missing.
What you're doing right now is the equivalent of me saying,
"Now it's raining more than ever, I'll be here with you forever.
You can always be my friend, standing under my umbrella.
'Ella, 'ella, 'ella, 'ella, 'ella, 'ella,
'ella, 'ella, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, 'ella, 'ella,
'ella, ay ay ..."
I seem like a mad person right now because I'm not doing everything
that was within the context of the song Umbrella by Rihanna.
When you're doing comedy merely by words, I spoke it,
my eyes, my voice, my connection with an audience
is completely different.
People can see when you're being playful.
People can see when you're saying something you don't believe.
You were being playful about that?
That is what satire is, you're poking holes.
So you don't believe what you said?
No, no, no.
What you're leaving out in that whole joke is what I was talking
about was how in America, in America, Anglo-Saxons had
successfully removed Americanisms from minorities so every single
group in America had an identity attached to their Americanness
except white Americans.
So it's African American, Asian American, Hispanic American,
Latin American, Native American.
I don't know, you have Irish Americans, they're white.
You have Polish Americans.
No, no, that didn't become on a box.
And this is a joke for Americans, understand that.
So as an American, they understand this.
On the boxes there is no Irish American, there is only white,
but there is African American, and there is Asian American,
do you get what I'm saying?
So that's the whole point of the joke.
The point I was trying to make is there was a shift amongst
the black American community to start calling themselves African
They didn't want a definition by default, ie you were not white,
so therefore you were black.
They wanted to have a hyphenated identity that linked them
with the continent of their ancestors, and therefore
when you say, "Oh, they're not really African, they're playing
along," you cannot disconnect what you say from this debate that's
really, you know, captured the imagination of the African
American, black American community.
And also, the point I want to make to you, when you say that it now
feeds into a debate that's current in the United States.
Kwame Kwei-Armah, the black Briton theatre director
in the United States says he has conversations with African Americans
now who say we want to go back to being called black American
because we don't have anything in common with these recently
arrived African Americans, be they Somalis, Nigerians,
South Africans such as you, they have different language
and so on.
So what you say feeds into that debate and it sounds like you're
saying there is a difference between African Americans and black
There definitely is a difference.
But these are differences that can be celebrated or used
to separate people.
Noting differences does not implicitly make it a bad thing.
When you are noticing differences, you can note them for good reasons,
the same reason we notice different colours or flowers.
That can be a good thing, if you're using it to celebrate.
You can use it the same way apartheid used it
to separate people.
When you talk about African-Americans, the one
conversation that I was talking about is I was travelling America
and I was going to a lot of universities and I came
to realise, in many universities in America,
the conversation you are having now, they had.
They had an African-American student body and very quickly they noticed
a shift because they could not lump black people into a monolith.
Because there were people from the Caribbean who said,
we are not African-American.
There were people from Africa who were like, these
are not our views, we are Africans in America.
There's a difference.
So what people themselves did was said, you can't just lump us
into this group.
And does that difference mean that it doesn't act
as a cohesive form?
I'm thinking, in 2014, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,
the celebrated Nigerian author, she said that
when she visited the US she felt that her African-American classmate
was annoyed with her because she didn't share their anger
and she said that she was not burdened, herself, by America's
terrible racial history.
That difference, does it result in the African-Americans who have
arrived recently in the US, such as yourself, acting differently
or having a different psyche from the black Americans
who are the descendants of slaves and have lived for many,
many years, obviously, in the US?
I will say this, I will be careful not to comment on the experience
of every single person because I am only myself and can only experience
the people who are around me.
What I do know is this.
In terms of our racial histories, South Africa
and America are very similar.
When I talk to a black American person, there are many stories
that we share as human beings, there are many oppressions
that we have experienced through our selective oppressors.
I think those are the things that many people can relate
to a across-the-board.
So there's more to unite, even though you say
there are differences?
There is definitely more to unite, especially when you are being
oppressed as a group.
When you are in the US as a black African man,
I can tell you now that if you have an encounter
with the police they are not going to split the hairs that
you are talking about.
They're not going to say, excuse me, Trevor Noah,
are you from South Africa or Detroit?
That doesn't happen.
But here you are, a black icon, South African born and so on,
and you present one of the most iconic news
programmes in the US,
The Daily Show you took over from John Stewart last year.
Now we see a lot being made about fake news appearing
on websites on the internet, and that's something people lament,
particularly in the recent presidential campaign,
because it kind of distorts facts.
Do you feel that you in some way use mockery, fake incredulity
that perhaps you're treading a fine line yourself?
I don't think so, because we are operating in the space
of a news parody and satire.
When you talk about fake news, the biggest difference is it never
tells you that it is fake news.
We let you know from the beginning.
We are on Comedy Central.
I tell you from the get go who I am.
There is no facade.
So when you come to our show...
One thing we do maintain is factual accuracy and that is a standard
and a legacy that I inherited from John Stewart and I keep it.
I keep it not because of moral high ground, but because I believe
the best jokes are based in truth, and so when your
true foundation is solid you will find that your jokes
connect with more people.
Are you not contributing to that kind of echo chamber effect?
Now we are seeing that there is a lot of personal
invective on social media,
traditional media, polarised opinions.
Are you perhaps becoming part of that?
You are implicitly a part of it, though.
How do you not be a part of it?
I'll tell you one way you can not be a part of it,
is by trying to operate in a space where you are completely neutral,
devoid of all opinion and giving everybody an equal platform
to share their views.
Oftentimes what we've seen is all you are doing when you do
this is you are giving a platform to either hate speech or to divisive
rhetoric that is extreme, and the middle keeps getting pushed
over to the right.
So when you look at conversations that are had...
So for instance, when someone will be on CNN
saying, "Are dues people"?
And then you're like, are you going to give that
person a platform?
So if I say the world is square, do I deserve a platform?
When I go against science, do I deserve a platform?
When I go against things that we know, why do we still give
these people a platform?
The truth is we do it because we want to maintain
the appearance of impartiality.
But the news then loses focus, because the news should
be fact driven.
Am I correct?
No, you answer that. Yeah, of course.
Should it be fact driven?
Yeah, comment is free, fact is sacred, is what we always say.
So, if you've got the facts... We haven't got much time.
Now fact has become opinion.
OK, but do you feel now that you're concerned that there is right wing
rhetoric and power now combined?
And I'm thinking of Steve Bannon, who is now going to be appointed
chief strategist to Donald Trump at the White House, chairman
of Breitbart News, the Conservative website,
where one headline said the Confederate flag proclaims
a glorious heritage.
And of course the Confederate flag was used by the southern states,
the slave-owning states.
Are you worried about that combination between right-wing
Because, essentially, Donald Trump may not be saying it
using his words, but the people he's surrounding himself
with echo the sentiment that he is not creating
an inclusive America,
does not plan to be a president that unifies America.
Well, he has said he wants to unify America, and I'm not saying
that he himself has got far right views, I'm just saying
that there are those from the far right who have hailed his victory.
Yes, but you see this is interesting because look at you now
as a news person.
You are in the uncomfortable position where you have to appear
to not say anything that implies anything,
even though it is laid out before us.
So I ask you this question.
You will go, "Somebody is not racist, nor are they..."
I'm not saying that. I'm just saying...
No, no, I'm saying, as an example, someone goes, "You're not far
right", but if you surround yourself with those people,
if you are at meetings with these people, if these people are having
events where they are heiling,
if the rhetoric that is around you completely is that,
are you not that?
I'm just saying that there are those of the far right
who are using his victory to legitimise their discourse.
You backed Hillary Clinton, you urged your viewers to vote
for Hillary Clinton in the presidential campaign.
We already know Donald Trump has criticised the Saturday Night Live
for running a sketch about him, saying he was totally unprepared
for the presidency, and so on and so forth.
Finally, are you Trevor Noah going to be careful with what you say
about President Trump because the space is
shrinking for you?
I will say this.
I will be as careful in talking about Donald Trump
as he was when he was speaking about Barack Obama.
Because at the end of the day, free speech, and that is something
I appreciate and celebrate, free speech means that
you have the right to speak out against things that you see.
You know, any ludicrous ideas are any instances
where there is hypocrisy within politics.
I have that right and I intend to use it.
I am not fundamentally opposed to Donald Trump as a human being,
but I am in a position where every single day I will be
living in a country that is under his presidency
and so if he affords me comedic material,
then I will only do what I can do, which is turn that into fodder
and put it on a TV show, that is a fake news show.
Trevor Noah, thank you so much for coming on HARDtalk.
Thank you for having me.