In 2018 Donald Glover Was Crowned Music’s New ‘Racial Thought Leader’ — But What Exactly Does That Mean?

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Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” appeared on our critics poll songs list at No. 2. Check out the poll here and read our thoughts on the song below.

In 2014, things were both different and the same. The internet news cycle’s memory-warping velocity can make it easy to forget this, but it’s true. That year, a major corporation was hacked, resulting in a huge information leak. That summer, the world lost a visionary, black female voice. And that fall, the country roiled with discontent, following the brutal killing of another young black person at the hands of law enforcement. Also, there was Donald Glover.

In 2014, the 30-year-old actor, comedian, musician — who at the time had only just relinquished his role as Troy on the hit NBC sitcom Community— was busy touring in support of his second studio album Because The Internet. Back then, Glover was still on the internet, and would treat his fans to Instagram photos, joke tweets, and the occasional public breakdown. While this latter moment is certainly an important beat in Glover’s narrative arc, there is actually another memento from his since-erased internet identity that I’d like to revisit. One that I think serves as somewhat of a revealing prelude to the internet-shattering, thinkpiece-stoking, meme-frothing behemoth of a music video that he released this past May.

“This Is America” took the world by storm. It was given the “everyone should watch this” treatment, and Glover himself was being heralded as the genius of the moment. For many, it signaled the culmination of a transition that he had been making for years — from goofy sitcom side and bumbling hashtag rapper, to full-fledged auteur. But this transgressive, race-conscious Glover didn’t emerge out of nowhere. Within “This Is America” one can find the matured fruits of seedlings that had been developing within him for some time.

On August 13, 2014 Glover took to Twitter to unleash a series of 28 tweets. It began with a proclamation, or rather a recitation of a proclamation that Glover had heard many others make before, “‘Childish Gambino is a white rapper.’” The tweets that ensued were a tongue-in-cheek poem in which Glover proclaimed that he actually did “wanna be a white rapper.” In fact, he wanted to be “so big” and “so white.” He wanted to be so white that a white dad would feel comfortable sending his daughters (“who are home for the summer from Stanford”) to his show. He wanted to be so white that he could “eat dinner with the Koch brothers.” The poem strays into him talking about sleeping with the Stanford girls and making jokes about G-Eazy saying the n-word, but it closes gravely, “I hope I become too big and too white. / but I am a black male. I am a n—-.”

While the whole affair was sort of ham-handed and a little crass (not unlike most of Glover’s other work up to that point), it displayed a real vulnerability and spoke to a frustration that many black entertainers who have found themselves comfortably ensconced in the good graces of the white establishment have encountered: Being thought of by both your black and white peers as a thing apart, as exempt from the normal rules of the game, when everything about your lived experience tells you that that is not exactly the case.

2018 was the year Glover went from conventional multi-hyphenate celebrity to having the crown of Great Racial Thought Leader placed upon his head. Like Dave Chapelle, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar before him, Glover was now being looked upon to make sense of the noise, to cut through the chaos with cold, unsparing honesty. The yearning for a defiant, truth-telling voice was especially high in 2018. Moral repugnance reigned supreme in the music world. R. Kelly continued to go un-silenced. Convicted sex criminal Tekashi 6ix9ine agitated, taunted, and provoked his way to the top of the charts (and later into prison). And former “GRTL,” Kanye West, dawned a MAGA hat, while stumping for Trump and right-wing conspiracy theorists. Music listeners and, frankly, the entire country were desperate for someone to do something, say something. Anything.

And the person that presented himself was Glover. Whether it was through the spacey ruminations and shocking tableaus of his FX series Atlanta or through the withering visual commentary of a music video like “This Is America,” Glover’s work intimated deeper socio-political meaning and invited dissection. In a May episode of The Ringer podcast “Damage Control,” critic Justin Charity commented that, “there’s an impulse to approach Donald Glover’s art as if it’s an academic riddle that we all must decode.” And, the masses really did get their Da Vinci Code on. As New York Magazine’s Craig Jenkins noted in his May essay, a brief survey of the web will produce a nearly endless fount of Youtube reaction videos, frame-by-frame explainers, and historical deep dives inspired by the video.

And while the internet bloated itself with content attempting to extract a clear thesis from it, the “This Is America” video actually proved to be somewhat of an ambiguous document. How exactly were we supposed to feel about the bearded, shirtless Glover gwara gwara’ing amidst bloody chaos? There is something to be said of the casual consumption of violence and trauma that modern media enables, if not encourages. There is also something to be said about the way that that same consumptive machine disproportionately makes casual, shareable content out of both the ecstasy of black joy and the anguish of black trauma.

These are ideas I’m certain Glover and the video’s director Hiro Murai had in mind while making “This Is America.” What is not as clear is who Glover thinks is to blame. Despite how much many wanted it to be, “This Is America” was a not a polemic. There are no fingers being pointed. Instead — as Doreen St. Felix astutely put it for The New Yorker — there is simply an air of unplaced disdain. Disdain for the moment, the way things are, and seemingly, Glover’s own culpability in feeding it; in, the end, he’s the one pulling the trigger.

In September, Glover kicked off his This Is America tour which included two sold-out dates at Madison Square Garden and a two-night stint at The Forum in LA. In the spring, he’ll headline Coachella before doing a series of arena dates in London and Paris. There’s no foreseeable horizon to the Glover rise. Many are looking toward his next project to see if he’ll continue to feed the fire he stoked in 2018. In reality, he’ll be building upon an idea he’s been working through for some time, his whole life probably.

There are a collection of tweets that comprise an epilogue to Glover’s 2014 tweet poem. In them he writes, “I’ve been threatened by police twice this year, hand on holster. so when someone calls me a ‘white rapper’, I wanna make sure they understand I don’t have all the benefits.” In those days, Glover had seemingly been welcomed with open arms into the white entertainment world, and his music did attract a certain, often white demographic of listeners. But then, as now, he was also a 30-something-year-old black man. And this is, after all, still America.

“This Is America” is out now via mcDJ/RCA. Get it here. Check out more results from the songs poll here and albums poll here.