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.