Editor-in-chief Aidan Gregory talks to Malawian comedian Daliso Chaponda about racism, colonialism, and being politically correct
Facing a packed out Squirrels bar, Daliso Chaponda pauses with a slight smirk, ready for a perfect delivery. “We’ve come a long way. If we had been here three hundred years ago, this would have been an auction.” The son of a Malawian politician, Chaponda read English at McGill University in Montreal where he decided to pursue a career as a comedian. After graduating, he lived in South Africa before moving to Manchester several years ago. I met Chaponda in Big Hands last semester.
On his Malawian background and going to university in Montreal
“I’m from Malawi, the blood is from Malawi, but I was actually born in Zambia. My dad was an economic refuge, because at the time we had a crazy dictator. A lot of people left the country and he was one of them. Then he joined the UN and became a diplomat.”
After going to schools all over Africa, Chaponda moved to Montreal to attend McGill University. He originally studied computer programming, after being pressured by his family, but switched to English once he realised his potential to pursue a career in comedy.
“I knew I wanted to be an artist beforehand, but I was pressured by my family [into doing computer science], ‘do the straight and narrow, do the straight and narrow!’, because my math grades were good. I think it was only once I was [at McGill] that I got the strength to say ‘screw you!’ I’d rather try and do it and fail, than do the sensible path, because I think the mistake that a lot of people make is that they think they can have it as your side job. So my parents were like, ‘you can do your comedy on the side, and the rest of your time programming,’ but programming is a full time thing anyway. My brother is a programmer, he doesn’t just work nine to five. Doing both became impossible.”
On British audiences
“In terms of the subject matter, they are more OK with people crossing the line. I mean comedians here like doing paedophile jokes and jokes about death and darkness. There’s more acceptability towards a dark sense of humour. But Canadian audiences are more liberal, if you’re using the left-wing definition of liberal. If you do a joke here that is slightly sexist or slightly racist, you won’t be booed off stage. I’ve seen people do it, they do it every week. But you could not do that in a place like Canada which is more liberal in the left-wing sense. Here, you’re politically correct and not politically correct, it depends which subject.
“I’ve got into trouble in Africa for telling jokes and I’ve got in trouble here for telling jokes. [In the UK], you get into trouble if it’s a special interest group you’re targeting. In Africa you get into trouble if it’s a person you’re targeting—that politician, or that public official.”
On getting into trouble in his home country
“I essentially did some jokes about the government. The flag had changed. We changed the flag from a rising sun to a full sun because we felt that the country had emerged. My joke was that the country is falling apart, actually I think we should change it to an eclipse. It was silly joke, and it just sort of spiraled out of control. Nothing actually happened, there were a lot of threats, and I had to talk to the censorship board. Realistically, the worst that could have happened was that I could have paid a big fine, and been arrested for a day or two. But it was more potential fires which I had to put out.”
On telling jokes about colonialism and slavery.
“I like jokes about stuff that matters. There are some comedians whose entire life is about meaningless details. There are some people who only want to joke about how you spin your spoon or something like that. And it’s funny and it works, but it’s not what my strength is. For me to write about something, I have to start with something that pisses me off, and use comedy to turn it into a positive emotion.
“We can’t pretend we live in this glossed-over utopia, where no horrible things happen. You can talk about those things without being accusative people. We’ve got to accept that they happened, the effects are still here, and that we can now poke fun at it.
“I actually wrote that joke [about the slave auction] in response to people who don’t believe that there is such a thing as white privilege. Or people who wonder ‘why do black people write about it now?’ But I’m like, ‘no, there are still going to be echoes.’ Almost everything in Malawi is still owned by British people. It’s history, but there are so many things that are still going on, and when I do shows in Africa I talk about it a lot more.”
On experiencing racism in the UK
“It’s not something that really bothers me, I know how to deal with it. I’ve lived in places where there is real racism, like South Africa. A slightly drunk guy in Kendal who sings is small-time. For the kind of comedian I am, it’s a very welcoming atmosphere here. For racist stuff, nobody is going to let people get away with it.”
On being politically correct
“It’s all about self-knowledge. You’ve got to know who you are and you’ve got to know how people see you. Take Louis CK. He does nigger jokes, and he’s white. But it’s fine, because he knows how to do it. The truth is, you’ve got to know who you are. For example, it’s no coincidence that Louis CK used to write for the Chris Rock Show. You can be part of a community without looking like that community.
“It’s all about saying something which is true, and then people don’t care who you are. Honestly, any white comic could talk about black people, no problem right, if what they are saying rings true to black people, but if it’s a stereotype that’s when they get very angry. And the backlash to all the generation-back comics in the UK, like Jim Davidson, is not because they were talking about race, but because they were talking about some weird stereotype.
“I think there is always going to be an evolution of comedy. Comedy moves forward, as society moves forward.”
Who would you say are your all-time favourite comedians?
“Probably Bill Cosby, Woody Allen. There are also new people that I love. Joan Rivers who died recently.”
What advice would you give to students today who are looking to break into comedy?
“Write a lot of jokes, get on stage whenever you can. But the other big thing is you have to write about stuff which matters to you, because a lot of people think: ‘Oh, Jack Whitehall makes that really funny’, or, ‘politics seems like a good way in.’ But if you’re not really into it, why would you talk about it?”