That voice. So polished, with its instantly recognizable South African lilt, issuing a combination of wit and wisdom that’s launched comedian Trevor Noah to stardom on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.
Recently, his show has given him a platform (even if he was temporarily silenced last year with a bruised vocal cord that required surgery) to highlight the physical health and educational needs of the disadvantaged in his home country and around the globe.
For this performer, talking isn’t just a big thing -- it’s everything. As a poor kid growing up in Soweto during the waning days of apartheid, Noah talked himself out of countless small scrapes, low-level street hustles, and even serious jail time. And then he talked his way into local DJ jobs, cable access TV, and, eventually, the U.S. entertainment industry.
He credits his mother, Patricia -- for whom he named one of his nine popular comedy tours -- with instilling in him a deep reverence for education. Noah says its impact has made the difference between finding success and settling for scraping by.
“My mother didn’t have much money for toys or even food,” he says. “But the one thing she always made sure we had enough of was some sort of sustenance for the mind. She always bought me books. She made sure education was the one thing I had access to, at all costs to the family.”
The Luck of Opportunity
Noah knows how fortunate he’s been. “Luck is the difference between a police officer who gives you a warning and one who gives you a ticket,” he says. “Between getting a job interview with someone who’s in a good mood versus a bad mood. We can only put so much effort into the things we do. But you have to be in the position to exercise your luck. That means working hard -- so you’re ready to receive the luck when it happens.”
He cites his current gig as an example. “Me being on The Daily Show? It was luck that [former host] Jon Stewart saw my comedy on YouTube. But I had to put my clips on the internet in the first place. I had to record those clips and make sure they were of good quality,” he says. “I was lucky YouTube existed and that Jon put my name forward to host. But I worked hard to get the job and to keep the job. So luck and hard work are a beautiful dance that I try to live in life.”
He wants others to have the luck of opportunity, too. And to meet it, head-on. Which is why in 2018 he launched the Trevor Noah Foundation (TNF), whose mission is to provide underprivileged South African children with psychological support, education, life skills, and improved employment prospects.
“Education can be the one thing that changes the trajectory of human lives -- from humble beginnings to ones where they can support themselves and their families,” says Noah, the best-selling author of the memoir Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood. “I wanted to get involved in a sustainable way. Not just a charity, but to ask, ‘How can schools sustain themselves more efficiently? How can we empower teachers and students?’ People focus on the kids, forgetting that teachers are often the most underappreciated, underpaid people in the world. And yet everybody’s children needs them.”
For this reason, TNF partners with Microsoft to provide schools with technology, researches and launches innovative curriculums, and supports educators to work to achieve a 100% student transition rate from high school to a university or a technical or vocational institution. These efforts help to forge new generations of young people who are eager to contribute to, and better, the world.
Noah also hosted the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 event in Johannesburg this past December, which raised a whopping $7 billion to eradicate extreme poverty and increase access to education and clean water for the world’s neediest people.
He was thrilled to be asked to work the stage to honor what would have been the late South African revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. Of course, an all-star lineup of performers -- including Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Chris Martin, and Pharrell Williams -- was quite the draw, too. He also knew fans would welcome him as a hometown hero. Johannesburg is just 25 miles from his old neighborhood in Soweto.
“I’ll make any excuse to go home,” he jokes, admitting this particular excuse was perhaps better than most. Still, it’s tough to host such an event when you’ve literally lost your voice, especially when your doctor discourages the rigors of travel -- or even speaking -- due to a badly bruised vocal cord.
“I had symptoms for about 6 weeks” prior to the festival, he says, which included hoarseness. He soon learned he’d gotten a polyp on one of his cords. “It was hemorrhaging and inflamed,” he adds.
Feeling hoarse is the most common symptom among people who have polyps on one or more vocal cords, says Milan R. Amin, MD, who specializes in laryngology, voice, otolaryngology, and head and neck surgery at NYU Langone Voice Center. He says they’re often found in people who rely on their voices for a living. Not only famous singers, actors, and comedians, but everyday lawyers and teachers, too.
“A polyp is a benign growth at the edge of the vocal cord,” Amin explains. “We have blood vessels embedded in our cords. From the pressure generated to produce sound, those vessels are sheered or pushed laterally. With enough force, you can tear the vocal cord and get a hemorrhage. What we think happens is after a single or repeated hemorrhage, you wind up with a blood blister, which, over time, forms into a polyp.”
Left untreated, polyps (or lesions) can grow larger or deeper and make your symptoms worse, he says. Noah’s symptoms got so severe, he was told he needed surgery to remove the polyp -- and total vocal rest. Being a man who’s made a habit of meeting luck with hard work, he figured it out.
To keep his day job on track and his voice fully silenced, Noah recruited his fellow cast members on The Daily Show to share his faux news desk and speak for him, as he comically, if mutely, oversaw their efforts. Hilarity ensued. The bit even went viral.
He made the concert, too, opting to rest his voice as much as possible before and after hosting the big event. He and his doctor scheduled surgery over the holidays last year, when Comedy Central was already due to go on hiatus. He knew he could use the already sanctioned time off to recover, then start the New Year off and running. Or, in his case, speaking.
“It was way too important to miss!” he says now of Global Citizen. “It raised billions in commitments from governments and organizations from around the world.” (And hanging out with Beyoncé, backstage? That was pretty good, too.)
Learning to Listen
The challenge, then, for a go-getter like Noah is to agree to slow down. After surgery, he was told he needed 2 full days of complete vocal rest (meaning no talking at all), followed by 10 days of modified rest (a laugh here and there, maybe, but not much more).
Rehab was also required -- special techniques that teach Noah and others like him how to put less stress on their vocal cords when they speak -- as was a commitment to learning how not to physically strain the voice. This can mean avoiding loud restaurants or shouting into a microphone -- and perhaps putting the brakes on at least some of his many voice-related projects to take some much needed downtime.
But look who’s already talking now. In addition to his Daily Show duties, Noah is now touring the U.S. and Canada with his latest stand-up effort, Loud and Clear. And, after his first foray into films as the AI computer system voice “Griot” in the 2018 blockbuster Black Panther, he’s recruited Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o to help turn his successful memoir, Born a Crime, into a movie. (She’s playing his mother and serving as producer.)
He’s already writing his book’s follow-up, for which his publisher is clambering for pages. (“I’m working on it!” he good-naturedly reassures. “I’m taking my time and enjoying not knowing, exactly, what it will be.”) And, once again, he’s prepping for its Audible version. Noah’s voice work on his debut was the highest-rated audiobook in 2016 and continues to be a top-selling title.
Still, the comedian’s recent issues with his much sought-after voice have told him something -- and he swears he’s listening. “The body has a fascinating way of knowing what you need, even if you ignore it,” he says. “Sometimes, I think sickness or injury is the body’s way of forcing it to rest. It’s a humble reminder to myself to not always be pushing so hard -- to take the time to recharge and reset.”
All About the Surgery
Noah revealed how he was scheduled to have surgery to remove a polyp from his vocal cord just hours after doing this interview. “For the good of the cover!” he joked at the time. Amin, the NYU Langone Voice Center doctor, explains what to expect from such a procedure.
Size matters: “Larger polyps tend to have been there for longer periods of time,” says the surgeon. “We’re often more aggressive surgically with those, because they’re harder to resolve through nonsurgical means. We can often be more conservative with smaller polyps that have only recently developed: voice rest, steroids, and some form of voice therapy.”
Change of behavior: Amin adds, “The majority of my patients are not librarians. They’re outgoing and talkative. And not necessarily aware of how much pressure they’re putting on their vocal cords on a daily basis. Voice therapy teaches them awareness and helps them with the production of sound so they’re producing it more efficiently to create less trauma.”
In-office or operating room: “With relatively small polyps, you can treat them in the office. We use a laser to burn off the polyp using a local anesthetic. We do this regularly, with good outcomes,” he says.
"For larger polyps, we may use the operating room,” he says. “Patients may do pre-operative voice therapy and vocal rest first, and they may take steroids to decrease the size of the polyp as much as possible before surgery, because inflammation can potentially harm the healing process. Patients go under general anesthesia. Using magnification and tiny instruments, we remove the polyp. The patient goes home that same day.”
Scar tissue: “The concern after surgery is that the vocal cords heal and remain soft,” Amin says. “That’s how we get vibration. We blow air past the vocal cord and it vibrates. If it heals with stiffness, or scarring, you can lose vibration, which can change your vocal quality or affect the ability of singers to hit high pitches.” He notes that surface polyps have a lower risk of getting scar tissue after surgery than deeper lesions, which must be dug out.
Recovery: Recovery time is 2 days of total silence and 10 days of modified vocal rest, says Amin. He suggests taking 2 weeks before returning to everyday voice use, and then not raising the voice or yelling as much as possible going forward. Once you’ve had a polyp, “you’re considered at increased risk for developing another one,” he says.
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