On Friday September 14, 2018 I joined about twenty-thousand people in Madison Square Garden for Childish Gambino’s last tour. The concert was good enough. It had the requisite lighting and crowd interaction expected of mainstream pop stars in a post-Beyoncé era. Gambino was animated and vulnerable. He wound his hips, popped his shoulders, and spent more than an average amount of time sitting on the floor with his legs crossed. Conspicuously missing from his final set were singles from his first project Camp- the one Pitchfork gave a 1.6, but also the one that made me and my fellow suburban expats fall in love with him. This omission served as supporting evidence in a fellow concert-goer’s end of show rant: Childish Gambino sold out.
I was first introduced to Gambino by a high school friend of mine. Paige heard him up in the dorms at the University of Florida and played him for me over Thanksgiving break. I was immediately curious. Lines like “Took the G out your waffle, all you got left is your ego” made me chuckle and also differentiated him from the more self-important wing of hip hop. It was clear in the beginning that he was joking, or at the very least he wasn’t dependent on album sales for survival.
After hearing “BonFire” I decided to Google this guy. I found out that Childish Gambino was the stage name for an actor-comedian named Donald Glover who I previously wrote off as “bro” humor. I never watched Community. I didn’t particularly enjoy his stand-up. Yet somehow his music spoke for me. Across the suburbs there was a generation of young black people who did not define themselves by mainstream representations of blackness. They were called “oreos” and ridiculed for “talking white.” Some of them ended up developing antagonistic views of the larger black culture. A lot of those kids went to college. And now they plus their white friends were Gambino’s primary audience.
Because of this fact I wasn’t as surprised by the number of white Gambino fans in the audience as some of my friends. However, I was surprised by the last four minutes of the show. After hitting every high note in “Redbone” Gambino starts screeching
“I just need ya to know. I told ya” in that same pitch. “I told ya I was going to give ya an experience.”
“I tried to mother fucking tell ya”
That he sustained such high vocals after about ninety minutes of singing and dancing was impressive. Like a person witnessing a car crash, his screams catch you off guard by their passion. Standing in the crowd I couldn’t help but hang onto his last words, “I tried to tell ya” Tonight he told us he’d give us an experience, but what has Gambino been saying the past seven years?
The first person I asked was named Darnell. He’s a Morehouse alum studying theology abroad in Germany. Darnell told me that Donald Glover sold out and that “getting yours” is what he told us. He then cited the lyric “get your money black man” to support his case. The infamous line supporting black capitalism got me thinking of the limits of such a message and how Gambino’s style of dress contradicted the message that material wealth was all that mattered. This is America has been lauded, critiqued, and picked apart ad nauseam, but what I found the most compelling about its moment in the sun was how quickly the internet turned it into a meme. The viral version of Gambino dancing with Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” dubbed, spoke volumes. Even when forced to examine the history of racial violence that defines this country in its popular music, the internet (people) found a way to ignore what they don’t like and just dance.
I went back and forth with Darnell before a young man about our age interjected his opinion. He argued that “yeah, but he’s got to eat right,” a half-hearted defense of Gambino’s undeniable increasing commercial success. Soon, the guy from Morehouse and this random concertgoer were engaged in a heated debate. They carried on until we got in the merch line where I was able to debrief with Darnell.
“You see that bull shit right there man?
Why do I have to go out of my way to let this white guy down softly at a Childish Gambino concert? That’s how I know he sold out.”
The episode eerily reminded me of a 2013 interview in which Donald Glover has a similar experience waiting in line at an ATM. Glover recounts the following “there was a guy in front of me getting money. I came up and he got nervous, so I went to the side and waited for him to finish. I said to my group of friends, “I don’t think white people know how much effort in my day is put into making them feel comfortable.” Donald and Darnell are united by their subscription to the notion that it is their job to make other people feel comfortable.
This same interview pushed me to think more deeply about what Glover’s been trying to tell us through this Gambino character. From its origins in a Wu-Tang Rap name generator, Childish Gambino has been a product of the internet, but also of a certain privileged irony. Gambino was a mixtape rapper. Each of his projects differed stylistically from the profit-driven recipe used by labels. He helped cultivate the infamously independent Chance the Rapper. In a pre-Trump era, he got on Twitter to complain of unjust treatment by his label. He also tweeted “I want to be a white rapper.” And like his musical antecedent Kanye, Gambino spent a lot of time bemoaning the limitations placed on black artists. In the same freestyle where he chastises his critics at SPIN Mag for their hypocrisy in traditional rap bravado, he also casually mentions that he knows the coding language Python- seemingly to remind us that he’s different. For a while, it seemed that Gambino was dedicated to a public image of being misunderstood. He quoted Sartre and Kierkegaard in interviews
Then at some point the ground shifted. I would argue that the success of Barack Obama followed by the election of Donald Trump has led us to the current desperation for a black messiah. Obama created space for more representations of blackness. Trump reminds us of our ancestral insecurity. As a result, the corny black guy became the cool black guy, because we needed A black guy. And this is how in a span of about ten years the guy who pretended to date-rape college bros on YouTube became an authority on American race relations.
What does it mean when the margins by which you’ve defined yourself become the center? I imagine it’s something Glover must be asking himself as he’s catapulted from ironic obscurity to the mainstream. How can Childish Gambino be a sell out when his primary consumers have always included white people? The argument that he is primarily a capitalist and unconcerned with the plight of the common man, would hold if his hit TV show didn’t capture the nuances of class within the black community so well. Further, if one were to seriously entertain the notion that commercial success exists inversely with authenticity, then is it even possible to not sell out? If an artist is forced to choose between providing for their family and their art, is there a noble choice?
No, it seems to me that to call Childish Gambino a sellout is to ignore that he’s always entertained people for money, now he’s just doing so on a culture-defining level. Historians have advanced the idea that many of Gambino’s facial expressions and gesticulations in his number one hit “This is America” are references to minstrelsy. But what does it mean when a black man is playing Jim Crow? Surely, this is not the same type of detestable cultural production as that of Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. But what if it is? What if Gambino is telling us that no matter how serious you are, the internet will turn you into a meme.
What if Redbone is a call from the other side? Telling us to stay woke, because everyone and everything will be co-opted by the internet. Before Donald Glover announced the end of Childish Gambino he had spent years talking publicly about death. He credited growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness for his practical view towards life’s end. He wore a deceased man’s sweater to a Breakfast Club Interview. During the promotion tour for Because the Internet he casually mentioned how he tried to kill himself after his last tour. If Childish Gambino, a child born of the internet, is now dead than it would be imprudent to rule out infanticide. The same cultural forces that produce the Messiah necessitate his demise. Glover just beat us to the kill.