As an African American living in Mzansi for the past ten years, I’ve found it an adventure watching Trevor Noah rise from a domestic treasure to an international star. Although I was offended by Noah’s comedic attempts on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno – and by the fact that he tried to genetically de-link my blackness from Africa – I get him. This was his big international opportunity to make his country proud and tease Americans the way Americans have been teasing Africans for years. I can imagine underneath his schoolboy smile is a frustration with much of America’s ignorance – he just so happens to have enough funny bones to translate his frustration into making the right people laugh; important people like The Daily Show‘s John Stewart.
Not everyone is laughing and many, including African Americans, Jews and women, find his entire repertoire – from his casual tweets to his stage performances – beyond offensive and even dopey. The first time I encountered Noah was six years ago in Johannesburg, after a friend asked me to go with him to hear this new comedian at a jazz and comedy venue; a venue that no longer exists – the blues room. I remember laughing so hard, that afterwards I needed headache pills. Noah’s talent and versatility as a comic is undeniable. As a columnist, I began to follow his career, primarily because I write about personal leadership, and at the time no one’s brand identity was rising as fast as his.
Noah’s reputation is one of deep contrast: rebel intellect juxtaposed with smooth delivery. Noah represents a fresh breed of conscious South Africans; those keenly aware of the West’s imperfections and proud of this beautifully complex country. For these super talents, long gone are the days of ‘Let’s just pack up and chase the American Dream’. This new generation of talented Africans, not just South Africans, would skip America and the entire Western world and work solely in the motherland if the middle class were large enough to absorb their wealth ambitions. I’ve worked with many artists, entertainers and other professionals who share this sentiment. The reality is that during this chapter of history, if a comedian from South Africa wants to cash in and make it big, she or he must build their reputation outside the borders of their country.
Although South Africa will approach 60 million people before 2020, the majority can’t afford to experience Trevor Noah in person. Therefore, to go beyond earning a good living, he would have to MC corporate events, playing to many of the same people in nine provinces – whereas by going international, he can not only expand his economic reach but inspire people to shift their backward perspective towards a country and continent yearning for an evolved look. The conundrum many talented Africans face is wanting to win over the hearts of the international community while creating enlightenment by taking jabs at their ignorance.
For decades, Africans have been force-fed Western media making fun of it. Hollywood has largely made a mockery of Africa. One of the lowest points was during Jamie Foxx’s 2002 stand-up special, ‘I might need security’, about returning from Africa after shooting the Muhammed Ali epic – and having encountered a smell so bad that it moved him to suggest visitors should “[c]arry an extra set of nostrils, because you’ll burn the first two right the fuck off”. There comes a point when enough is enough. How long does the West expect the stars from Africa not to reciprocate? America shouldn’t expect Africans to allow Westerners to drag their countries into a destructive and narrow narrative that potentially impacts trade, tourism and ultimately economic growth!
When Noah appeared on Leno and began insulting African Americans about Blacks having bad credit and not actually being African – ha, ha, ha, blah, blah, blah – half of me became angry and the other half smiled and said, “Finally, it’s time for payback”. Noah is smart, and I hope he makes the leap from being a big fish in a small pond to swimming in international oceans, where sharks from the West have been attacking vulnerable people in emerging markets for ages. The Daily Show is just the right platform for him to take bites out of the collective Western ignorance.
Perhaps he’s just what the emerging markets need – a rebel voice not afraid of the West and proud of being reared in Africa. I hope he will gain the right social media balance quickly, before it’s too late. I’ve prepared myself to be offended a few more times in the name of balancing the global ignorance equilibrium. Trevor, enjoy the journey – just remember the basic genetic principles of evolution while making fun of us. DM
Timothy Maurice Webster is an author and columnist based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter: @timothymaurice or on the web at www.timothymaurice.com.
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