About five years ago I interviewed Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover. It was a two-parter. For the first, I met him at Brooklyn Bowl. It was Halloween 2011 and the actor/musician was performing in costume, dressed as a park ranger in a fitted tan uniform with very short shorts. Glover is Black. At the time, the bulk of his fans were not. I noticed. The next day, while he was on his tour bus headed to Maryland, we spoke on the phone about that, the fact that he was uncool to most average Black Hip-Hop fans, and how his raps about struggling with his African American identity couldn’t win them over—even with artists like Kanye West making it okay to be emotionally available via song.
“Drake wears gold chains,” he explained in stand-up comic fashion. “I could never pull off wearing chains. J. Cole’s been to jail. I haven’t.” Those were, and to some degree still are, the templates of star rappers (not to dismiss the aforementioned rhymers, because they’re talented as hell). And Glover, someone who’d been called “Oreo” because he was Black on the outside but loved “white things” like above the knee shorts, could not relate.
With the 2016 Glover’s had it’s a great time to look back on that interview, to think back to a time when Childish was a middling rapper, part of an ensemble cast on a big NBC comedy, and most importantly, someone who wasn’t Black enough to be embraced by his own people.
In the last few months, Glover’s written and starred in FX comedy Atlanta, which has put a kaleidoscope on a city that’s essentially been seen through the same pair of trap and dance lenses for the last decade by addressing race, class, our judicial system, love and more from several Black perspectives while tossing in enough jokes to make viewers both laugh with and at slice of life stories. Atlanta opened to rave reviews and is bound to clean up during awards season (Glover won Best Actor in a Comedy at last weekend’s Critics Choice Awards, then the show was nominated for two Golden Globes).
And two weeks ago, Gambino released his third proper album, Awaken, My Love. It’s a funk-soul record absent of any rapping, just woozy falsettos and sobering lyrics reflective of the experience his not-so-famous peers live daily. It debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B Albums chart.
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Dude I'm so fucked up right now. I can't even form the proper hyperbolic sentence to explain to D'angleo why I woke him up at 4am to listen to this. I'm like—when is the last time someone sucker punched me on this level…..I mean I knew #AroundTheWorldInADay was coming & it was a left turn—I'm about to blow the wigs off music historians… but I thought I was getting some fresh millennial 2016 hip hop shit and I got sucker punched. The last sucker punch in black music I remember in which NOONE had a clue what was coming was Sly's #TheresARiotGoinOn—read my IG about it (the flag)—I'm writing in real time cause —Jesus Christ the co-author of #WearwolfBarmitzvah just SONNED the shit outta me. In the best way possible. I was NOT expecting a trip to Detroit circa 1972 at United Sound Studios. I haven't written or been stunned by an album I wasn't expecting since that time I got an advance of #BackToBlack. The music is so lush man, I can see the kaleidoscope color mesh of the #Westbound logo. Dude I can't curb my enthusiasm. All I know is if #P4k try to play him again with these ratings there WILL be a riot goin on.
Both Atlanta and My Love are evidence of Glover’s intrinsic Blackness. Nothing on Atlanta feels forced or effort-packed. Nothing about Gambino’s foray to funky town sounds pretentious (Complex didn’t agree. But Questlove, who plays a vital role in D’Angelo’s output loves it. So I’ll side with Quest). It all rings true. If there was a part of him that ever felt it needed validation from the Black community that hated on (or maybe worse, pretended he didn’t exist) Gambino because he was too white or not “down” enough, I hope it’s long been filled with self-assurance. With the success Glover’s had this year, it’s evident that he’s always been down and it’s the folks who labeled him lame that are the corny ones. Just look at him singing “Redbone,” for crying out loud.
In 2017 Donald has a role in Spiderman: Homecoming and in the next installment of Star Wars as a young Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams was the original). He returns with season two of Atlanta and likely will go on tour for My Love. Not bad for an awkward Black boy. So while he’s still apt to do interviews with his feet out, let’s not question which culture he’s most connected with. He’ll always be a top pick in the Black delegation’s racial draft if I have anything to do with it.