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Trevor Noah Says He Grew Up 'In The Shadow Of A Giant' (His Mom)

Sep 3, 2018
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're going to conclude our series of Emmy nominees with an interview with Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show," which is nominated for two Emmys, including outstanding variety talk series. The show's been on a break, but here's a clip from the August 15 episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

TREVOR NOAH: This has been another rough week for the Trump White House - scandals, bad press, bad poll numbers. But the good news is they found someone to blame.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE TAPPER: White House press secretary Sarah Sanders dropping a bombshell on today's White House briefing - she walked in and read a statement from President Trump announcing that the White House is revoking the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Mr. Brennan has recently leveraged his status to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations, wild outbursts on the Internet and television. Mr. Brennan's lying and recent conduct, characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary, is wholly inconsistent with access to the nation's most closely held secrets.

NOAH: Unfounded allegations, wild Internet outbursts and lying - sounds like Sarah Sanders is just reading from President Trump's daily schedule. It's just...

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: ...Sounds like to me - it's like, Mr. President, we need to wrap this up. You'll be late for your 12:30 outburst. Come on.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I spoke with Trevor Noah in November 2016 after the publication of his memoir "Born A Crime." And he literally was. He's South African, the son of a black mother and white father. When Noah was born in 1984, during the apartheid era, it was illegal for a black person and a white person to have sexual relations. As you can imagine, this led to complications for Noah and for his mother, who he lived with. A film adaptation of the memoir is being made starring Lupita Nyong'o as the young Trevor Noah's mother. Trevor Noah speaks six different languages, including several African languages. His mother speaks several languages, too. I asked him to read a passage from his memoir about how he and his mother used language to navigate difficult situations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NOAH: (Reading) Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world. We were in a shop once, and the shopkeeper right in front of us turned to a security guard, and he said in Afrikaans, (speaking Afrikaans) - follow those blacks in case they steal something. My mother turned around and said in beautiful fluent Afrikaans, (speaking Afrikaans) - why don't you follow these blacks so you can help them find what they're looking for? (Speaking Afrikaans), the man said, apologizing in Afrikaans. Then - and this was the funny thing - he didn't apologize for being racist. He merely apologized for aiming his racism at us. Oh, I'm so sorry, he said; I thought you were like the other blacks; you know how they love to steal.

(Reading) I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast, give you the program in your own tongue. I'd get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. Where are you from, they'd ask. I'd reply in whatever language they'd addressed me in, using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion, and then the suspicious look would disappear. Oh, OK, I thought you were a stranger; we're good then. It became a tool that served me my whole life. One day, as a young man, I was walking down the streets, and a group of Zulu guys was walking behind me, closing in on me. And I could hear them talking to one another about how they were going to mug me. (Speaking Zulu) - let's get this white guy. You go to his left, and I'll come up behind him.

(Reading) I didn't know what to do. I couldn't run. So I just spun around real quick and said (speaking Zulu) - yo, guys, why don't we just mug someone together? I'm ready. Let's do it. They looked shocked for a moment. And then they started laughing. Oh, sorry, dude. We thought you were something else. We weren't trying to take anything from you. We were trying to steal from white people. Have a good day, man. They were ready to do to me violent harm until they felt that we were part of the same tribe. And then we were cool. That and so many other smaller incidents in my life made me realize that language even more than color defines who you are to people. 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 in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn't look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.

GROSS: That's Trevor Noah reading from his new memoir, "Born A Crime." I like that passage so much in part because when I hear you on "The Daily Show" and in some of your stand-up comedy that I've heard on recording, you do accents and voices so well. Like, you can mimic other people really well. And it seems like that's something you learned to do out of self-preservation when you were young.

NOAH: Yeah, definitely. I think it was something I inherited from my mother who learned to do it. You know, I, like a baby duckling, was merely mimicking the survival traits that my mother possessed. And I came to learn very quickly that language was a powerful, powerful tool.

Language and accents govern so much of how people think about other people. You know, and it's been happening since the beginning of time. I mean, even now in America, you know, when people say they hate immigrants, they're not referring to a Canadian immigrant. You know, they're not referring to somebody who has an accent who's slightly different to theirs.

It's often that voice that throws you off because I sometimes think it's the - you know what it is? It's when you hear somebody speaking in an accent, it's almost you like they're invading your language while they're speaking to you because if you hear someone speak another language, you almost don't care. But when they speak your language with an accent, it feels like an invasion of something that belongs to you. And immediately, we change.

GROSS: You know what I think? Yeah, I think people think that people with accents that are a little hard to understand must be stupid...

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: ...Because you don't understand what they're saying.

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: And, therefore, they're not smart.

NOAH: Yeah. That's - I've seen that everywhere. I've seen that everywhere. People, you know - people make jokes about that. And that was funny. When I first came to the U.S. - because I do accents. And I've traveled the world.

GROSS: Yeah.

NOAH: And I have friends of almost every single ethnicity. And I would mimic them. And when I came to the U.S., I remember one day we're at "The Daily Show," and I mimicked my Chinese friend. And the guys at the show were like, oh, hey, don't ever do that again.

GROSS: (Laughter).

NOAH: That's really racist. You shouldn't do that. And I said, what do you mean, it's racist? They said, oh, you can't do a Chinese accent. That's - and I said, I'm not doing a Chinese accent. I'm doing my friend's accent. And they said, yeah, you can't do that. And I said, OK, but can I do a Russian accent? And they said, yeah, yeah, of course, you can do that. I said, and a British accent? They said, yeah, go ahead. And I couldn't understand.

And then I came to realize, obviously, because of the historical, you know, significance of that accent and how, you know, people who had Chinese accents or continue to have Chinese accents in America are treated as being stupid or not as intelligent as an English speaker who is fluent with an American accent - I came to realize why. But it's always fascinated me how quickly you can change where you stand with another human being just based on how you speak.

GROSS: We're listening to my 2016 interview with Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show," which is nominated for two Emmys. We'll hear more as our Emmy series concludes after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELLIS MARSALIS' "JUST SQUEEZE ME (BUT DON'T TEASE ME)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Trevor Noah, host of "The Daily Show," which is nominated for two Emmys. We spoke in 2016 after his memoir was published. He speaks several languages, is a gifted mimic and can do lots of different accents. When we left off, we were talking about how the way you speak affects how other people judge you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: One other thing about language - I found this amazing in your book - that you watched American TV shows, but they were broadcast in different languages. But if you wanted to hear it in the original American English, you could simulcast it on the radio.

NOAH: Yeah.

GROSS: So you sometimes did that. But what was your reaction when you heard the programs in their actual original voices?

NOAH: Oh, they - sometimes it was mind-blowing. There were some characters that I knew of - like, I remember for most of my life, I grew up, and "Knight Rider" was - you know, David Hasselhoff was a Dutch character.

GROSS: (Laughter).

NOAH: ...In my world. I guess in some ways, he still is today. But yeah, it was weird for me because there were certain characters who I had ideas of. Again, I came to realize the power and the importance of language. And it's more than just language and the way we perceive it. If you look at this election, I feel like Donald Trump was speaking a different language to Hillary Clinton. You know, it's not dissimilar to what we saw in South Africa with our president, Jacob Zuma.

I remember sitting with people laughing when they would watch the debates, and they'd go, this guy's a buffoon; oh, man, he has a - such a low word count; he's got the grammar of a 5-year-old. He has the - you know, the vocabulary of a toddler. And I said, yeah, but do you know many people find that appealing right now? He's up there, and everybody understands what he's saying. And they were like, ugh, can you imagine this guy as a president? And I said, yeah, but think of how many people who for the first time are listening to a presidential candidate, understanding every single, quote, unquote, "policy" that he puts forward. And sometimes that's a thing that I will call them - you know, like, elites - not even liberal elites, just people who are educated, they forget sometimes that communication is more important than your grasp of language, you know? Can you communicate effectively with a person? That's what I learned as a comedian.

I remember one time, I went on a little bender where I tried to learn as many words as I could from the dictionary, and I thought, I'm going to increase my vocabulary onstage, and I'm going to expand my word count. My word cloud will be immense. And I got onstage, and I lost half of the audience because half of the people in the audience were going, we don't know what perambulate means; why do we have to think about this? And I realized, you've got to be careful in citing what your intention is. Are you using language, you know, as a flourish, or are you trying to communicate as effectively as possible with another human being? And that's what Donald Trump, in my opinion, did very, very well.

GROSS: Do you find yourself code-switching in the U.S.?

NOAH: I do. I do definitely, depending on where I am. And code-switching is fun for me. You know, I don't even do it intentionally. I just find, speaking to one person, I change a few words; I change my tone; I change my accent slightly. It's a seamless transition that I do without even thinking like a chameleon. I don't think that I'm doing it; I just do it.

GROSS: So one more thing - I'm thinking, like, when you took over "The Daily Show" after Jon Stewart left, there was a sense of, OK, we have a biracial president; now we have a biracial host of "The Daily Show."

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, like - you know, so, like, there's this kind of...

NOAH: Both half-African. What are the chances?

GROSS: Both half-African, exactly.

NOAH: (Laughter).

GROSS: So there's this - some kind of like, he's not American, but there's this simpatico, you know, with, like, the moment that we're living in politically. And now, like, things are really shifting politically. And I still think there's this sense of like, you have this sense of the times, but it's coming from a different part of you than...

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: ...You know - would you talk to that?

NOAH: It's interesting - it's funny that you just mentioned that. I never thought of it like that before, that simpatico. I feel like it's almost fitting - isn't it? - that when there was a half-black, half-white, half-African man, he was in the White House, he was being mocked by Donald Trump - I think it's only fitting that now Donald Trump gets mocked by a half-black...

GROSS: (Laughter).

NOAH: ...Half-white, African man when he's in the White House. So I feel like that actually worked out. I never thought of that.

GROSS: Trevor Noah, recorded in 2016. "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah" is nominated for two Emmys. And that concludes our series of interviews with Emmy nominees. You can catch up on the entire series on our podcast. The award ceremony is Monday, September 17.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Khalida Brohi, who grew up in a tribal region of Pakistan. Her mother was forced into marriage at the age of 9. Khalida's cousin was the victim of an honor killing. Khalida was the first girl in her village to go to school. Her education made her realize that girls and women should no longer accept this kind of treatment and should insist on their rights. She's written a memoir about her life and her work as a women's rights activist. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.