The establishing shot slowly crawls away from a man playing a rather jaunty guitar tune, oblivious of the chaos to ensue his imminent execution. It tracks towards a figure facing an expansive industrial space, soon to form the setting of one of the most hotly discussed visual performances of recent memory. As the bedlam unfolds, you can’t help but ask yourself “What is this?”
This, is Childish Gambino.
This is the culmination of one of the most extraordinarily multifaceted and industry shattering careers to grace the modern era.
And this; this is America.
For those unaware, ‘This is America’ is the cultural phenomenon released by Donald Glover, under his rap moniker Childish Gambino (famously coined via an Online Wu-Tang Clan name generator).
The piece has generated a blistering reception, garnering close to 650m views on YouTube and countless think pieces attempting to extract and dissect the essence behind Glover’s vision of America and the place of African American culture within.
The video was directed by Hiro Murai who sat at the helm of seven of the eleven episodes from the concluded second season of ‘Atlanta’, Glover’s award winning FX show that tackles many of the same issues brought to the fore in ‘This is America’ — with a hotly anticipated third season scheduled for release in the coming months.
Couple this with the Gambino dropping 3.15.20 — his fourth studio album which is receiving widespread critical acclaim — and you begin to understand that this is a man at the top of his game commercially, creatively and culturally.
Glover represents a triple threat within the entertainment business, whilst simultaneously exceeding this cliche; He doesn’t just sing/dance/act — he’s developed a personal brand which firmly asserts that refined creative skill, targeted in a selection of different areas, pushes boundaries in the right way. He’s achieved this by culturing a network of innovative collaborators who enable him to succinctly express his vision, regardless of the creative channel.
Jack of All Trades, Master of All
In my mind, Glover represents the epitome of visionary. The content he creates is a manifestation of often uncomfortable, awkward and disturbing attitudes that prevail in our society; as such, it’s inherently unapologetic in nature. By fixating his commentary to such issues, through a varied combination of unique and abstract lenses, he moves the conversation forward. This style sits at the forefront of almost every episode of ‘Atlanta’; nuanced to the point of nuisance, it’s blunt realism combined with often mystical story telling can be incredibly jarring, but it’s what keeps the audience coming back week after week and it’s a signature of brand Glover.
You wouldn’t be begrudged for feeling slightly unsettled by the way in which Glover delivers his message; that’s the whole point. You might even believe this style would inevitably find him at odds with a mainstream cultural movement.
Yet, Glover is a as part of the establishment as any Billboard Top 100 artist or Hollywood starlet.
From his humble beginnings recognised as a comedic talent by Tina Fey and recruited to write for ‘30 Rock’, to playing the lovable misfit Troy Barnes on NBC’s cult favourite sit-com ‘Community’, a cameo appearance in Ridley Scott’s space epic film adaptation of ‘The Martian’ to his prominent musical break through as Gambino — you may even know him for his stand up routine revolving the crusade for him to play the first black Spiderman.
Glover is undoubtedly a household name.
This wasn’t always the case. There was a point in time when Donald Glover received a barrage of criticisms due to the very thing for which he’s revered now: his multi-channeled career progression and subversively off kilter ideas.
Because The Internet
Prior to the release of Glover’s sophomore album ‘Because the Internet’, some corners of the web perceived his unconventional career path as erratic, to the point where prejudice against both his music and his creative direction were wide spread. Having downplayed his involvement in ‘Community’, Glover released a bizarre silent film titled ‘Clapping for the Wrong Reasons’, a 20 minute long effigy of a life succumbed to the pressures of fame and the emptiness such an existence entails (it should be noted that this film was directed by the very same Hiro Murai of ‘This is America’ & ‘Atlanta’ and was produced by equally subversive & acclaimed rap figure Flying Lotus).
Following this, he released a set of Instagram photographs of hand written letters explaining his disillusionment with the media, the internet, and their perception of him; later elaborating his fear that the labels attributed to him by society would creatively constrain him. He then proceeded to bow out of the digital sphere, in what appeared to be an indefinite fashion.
These were very real issues Glover was facing, given life through artistic expression. This contradicted the wholesome image he had been cultivating up until this point in his career, and the contrast had some fans up in arms — written off & rejected by the rap scene because of his past and disowned by his fans due to the darker direction of his future.
‘Because the Internet’ proved the perfect response to these cries. It was a brazenly self aware offering, serving up the best of Glover; the euphoric highs of №1 hit 3005 combined with the grimier hard rap styling of Sweatpants, cementing Glover in popular culture as a master of both worlds and, rather soundly, silencing his critics.
It was incredibly apt title, because it was the genesis of Glover’s acceptance into the mainstream; an album which came to represent the dominant, if not sometimes domineering, impact of digital culture. Rising from the ashes of an all too public rendezvous with insecurity, anxiety and depression — brutally magnified by the public persona fame enforces — was an offering which flew in the face of the ‘plant a flag, pick a side’ attitude which laid waste to many careers throughout the late 00s and early 2010s. It showed that through sheer creative will, a mark can be made which transcends specific tastes. This all came to be, quite literally, ‘Because the Internet’.
Journey Over Destination
Donald Glover’s meteoric, albeit non-conventional, rise to prominence can be seen as an inspiring analogy for the ability we are afforded by a digital society in achieving our own goals. As much as the behemoth Glover represents was shaped, to put it colloquially, ‘Because the Internet’ — so too can we all harness our networks, social or professional, in conjunction with the tools we have at our disposal in order to further establish our own personal brands. Our most powerful common resource, the stories which shape us, can only be amplified by the countless innovations and globalised sharing potential being realised every single day.
Gone are the days of the ‘Jack of All Trades, Master of None’ and in its place is the age of the highly refined, multi-channeled creative who employs empathy and intrinsic flare to establish themselves and the message they wish to share.
Some will connect with your take, others will decry your efforts, but I truly believe that embodying a genuine approach in a creative way will win over even the most ardent cynic.
One thing’s for sure, Donald Glover is going to keep doing his thing.