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South African Comedian On New Special 'Unlearning'


We're often told that in order to grow as a person, we have to learn - learn new ideas, new skills, new strategies. But our next guest thinks that in order to grow, it's important to also put aside a lot of what we've been taught.


LOYISO GOLA: I'm 37 years old, and I realize at 37, there's things that I've got to unpack about my life. Everybody's going to do it. But it's, like, you know when you upgrade your cell phone, when you up - just randomly, on a Tuesday, they'll be saying, can you - would you like to upgrade your iOS? You're, like, (mumbling). There's no need at all at that time. And then you download another app - a random app, right? And then app goes, I don't work without an update.


GOLA: And I'm, like, yo, that's how life works. That is how life works. You have to constantly upgrade your software.

FADEL: That's the theme of South African comedian Loyiso Gola's new hour-long Netflix special, "Unlearning." It was released last week and focuses on how he is constantly unpacking and unlearning lessons from the world around him. Gola tackles everything from his upbringing in apartheid-era South Africa to his childhood relationship with tuna. He's also making history as the first African comedian to have a solo hour-long standup special on Netflix. And Loyiso Gola joins us now from Cape Town to tell us more.

GOLA: Hey. How are you guys doing?

FADEL: Great. So, first of all, congratulations. It's a huge milestone - the first African comedian to have a solo on Netflix. How's it feel?

GOLA: It's special (laughter). And I hope it's special to the people who watch it. But in terms of milestones, it's fine. It's fine. And, like, the way I see it is, like, people can put a lot of titles to the things I'm doing, but then I can only - my personal reward is that I get to do stand-up comedy.

FADEL: Yeah. Speaking of titles, I want to talk about the title of your special, "Unlearning." What exactly are you unlearning here? And why did you want to focus this performance around that idea?

GOLA: It's because I'm, like, turning 37 in two months. And then the thing that really bugs me, especially when I'm interacting with a lot of people - they use the phrase, I've been here long enough. I know. And they go, we've been doing this forever. And then it's, like, yeah, but it doesn't mean it's the right idea.

So as I was growing, I was, like, I need to scrutinize the things that shape the human being that I am because some of them at first glance seems like they're advantageous to my life, but they're not really. You know, they're just holding me back. And I'm - you know, I'm having unnecessary fights because I'm stuck in my ways. And I realize the formula to life is to constantly unpack because life is constantly changing. So I wanted to share that idea with people that, you know, you've got to constantly unpack yourself.

FADEL: Amazing. You filmed this Netflix special during COVID-19, in the middle of this pandemic, a socially distant venue. There have been other comedy specials that were produced during the pandemic, but yours is almost so intimate it feels almost like normal times. South Africa was hit particularly hard by COVID-19, so how did it feel that you were able to produce the show safely in this moment?

GOLA: It was quite nerve-wracking in the sense that, like, the president shut down certain parts of the country. And luckily, the part that we were shooting at wasn't shut down. And, you know, we were able to get at about 50 people in, which I thought would suffice. And it was great. It was fantastic.

FADEL: I can't remember the last time I was in a room with 50 people. That sounds so nice (laughter). Well, you have so many things that are so relevant in the moment, from race to the pandemic. Were you really conscious of that as you wrote the material?

GOLA: Definitely. Definitely. I think, like, if you're Black, like, your - you can't distance yourself from this kind of - these kind of themes. I think it doesn't matter where you are as a Black person in the world. There's certain things that you talk to. Like, you just - you can't distance yourself from the politics of the day because they affect a great majority of the people that look like you.

A kid who lives in Paris or lives in Nairobi or lives in New York, wherever, whatever the case may be, I don't want them to feel inadequate as Black people the way I felt when I was growing up because, you know, if you look at history, they'll tell you that you never contributed. So I want kids also who watch the special to sort of feel that they should investigate more of people's contribution towards human progress, if you may say that.

FADEL: So you made comedy history with this special, which is no easy feat. You've been doing this for a couple decades now. What's next for you? Where do you go from here?

GOLA: I don't know. I think for me at the moment, it's just to stay safe and free of the virus so that I can plan going forward.

FADEL: That was comedian Loyiso Gola from Cape Town, South Africa. His Netflix special, "Unlearning," is available to stream now.

Thank you so much for joining us.

GOLA: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAINT MOTEL'S "MY TYPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.