I ran into Donald Glover at Amoeba Music a few years ago, literally. I took a step back from a shelf at the same time he did, which caused a small collision neither of us saw coming. We both immediately turned around to apologize, and I was surprised and even more embarrassed to learn I had backed into someone I admire. Donald Glover, Childish Gambino. The most surprising part of the experience was that he was so… nice. We chatted briefly over the albums that caught our attention, and I remember feeling relieved that he was so down-to-earth and gracious. Contemporary culture shows us this is not always the case.
Earlier this month, Kanye West shocked, disturbed, and disappointed fans with a downward spiral of pro-Trump tweets and an interview in which he asserted that slavery was essentially voluntary. A few days later, Donald Glover hosted Saturday Night Live and performed as Childish Gambino where he debuted a new single, “This is America.” The corresponding music video was released at the same time, and has ignited a necessary flurry of conversations centering on race, fame, and the responsibility of the artist. What role does an artist’s mind have in influencing culture? A stark contrast has been created that challenges the paradigm of the not-of-this-world creative genius, instead giving rise to the genius of accessible intellectualism.
When West announced that 400 years of slavery sounded “like a choice” to him, America was gob-smacked by the degree of ignorance possessed by one of our most celebrated figures. Rather than educate himself through credible news sources (or learn about history like the Zong massacre in 1781, where 133 Africans were thrown overboard alive and left to die after the captain steered the ship off course during the Middle Passage. All 133 victims were thrown overboard while still alive, and were left to die in the ocean — does that sound like a choice?) one of the country’s most prominent figures — someone praised as a “genius” — harbors these abhorrent thoughts and promotes them as truth.
I will leave West’s musical “genius” for others to decide. As a public figure, he has succeeded in elevating his status to the very highest level, complete with mass audience and “famous for being famous” wife. This has also successfully alienated him from the real world. Not only does West underestimate the knowledge of the general population (like the reality that only 8 percent of high school students know slavery was the cause of the Civil War) but perhaps too he underestimates the danger his flagrant, uninformed, and inaccurate claims can cause.
Some reports claim West is putting on a work of performance art, which is another absurd and tone deaf response to contemporary social issues. In West’s desire to be the center of attention, he has attracted millions into his orbit, but has failed to make meaningful contact. West seems to be the only one who understands his own “performance”; if a genius makes an egregiously tone deaf claim, should we allow him an audience, no matter the outcome?
Donald Glover is taking a different approach to fame and influence by being an accessible intellectual. Glover became a household name after his role in Community, was endearing in Magic Mike XXL, and is reaching a broader audience in the new Star Wars movie. The recent commercial appeal complements Glover’s artistic endeavors with hip hop persona Childish Gambino and his FX series Atlanta. The Atlanta episode “Teddy Perkins,” for example, showcased Glover’s astuteness at taking the cultural temperature. Glover acted in full white face in the episode that called attention to some of the norms the country has adopted: greed, celebrity idolatry, abusive relationships, violence.
It comes as no surprise that the video for “This is America” hits so close to home. The video is home at this point. Glover knows what he is performing about and who he is performing to, and creates a troublingly accurate mirror to contemporary America. Gun rights are given precedence over human rights, which we collectively seem to forget once a major black celebrity like Beyoncé completely stuns at Coachella. And yet people of color continue to be targeted by law enforcement and our government. These issues are not swept under the sparkle of expensive chains, naked actors resembling celebrities, or drowned out in egocentric bombast. Glover is using his platform to educate an audience that he understands because he has actively sought to stay connected to contemporary events, not become a spectacle of one.
West’s approach to addressing these issues are full of the sound and fury Shakespeare warns against, whereas Glover’s response centers on silence. I don’t know one person who was not rendered speechless after their first viewing of “This is America.” By providing a clear, articulate, and informed example that indicates “This is America,” audiences are encouraged to drown out the cacophony of misinformation and bigotry that are infecting our country, and are instead stunned into silence to think about what we’ve done. Glover’s ability to accomplish this ought to be considered genius.