Donald Glover as Childish Gambino | Interview
The star talks about his rap music, his future and growing up surrounded by racism.
Stone Mountain near Atlanta, Georgia, is just that: a mountain made entirely of bare stone. Well, it’s more like a really big hill. Carved into its sheer face is a redneck’s Mount Rushmore—Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, on horseback, eternally charging the Union. On summer evenings, locals picnic on a long, sloping lawn facing these Confederate icons to watch the “Lasershow Spectacular,” crude cartoons in red and green light projected onto the vertical rock. It’s an entertainment relic of the 1970s. In the finale, Davis, Jackson and Lee are traced in lasers, then come alive and gallop again. The crowd whoops and hollers.
Perhaps the most famous native of Stone Mountain, Georgia, is Kenneth, the dopey simpleton on NBC’s 30 Rock. I imagine much of Kenneth’s back story was fleshed out by Donald Glover, another son of Stone Mountain, who wrote for the sitcom between 2006 and 2008, before taking on the role of Troy on the network’s Community.
Glover, 28—who plays Lolla on Sunday 5 as alter ego Childish Gambino—was raised in a Jehovah’s Witness household. His parents took in foster children to live alongside Glover and his biological brother and sister. I reach Glover by phone in New York.
How fucked up was it to be black and watch the laser show?
[Laughs] I was a kid. It didn’t seem that fucked up.… Kids don’t have any reference for anything. Kids are exposed to shit and think, that’s just the way it is.
There was a “South will rise again” air to it.
I’m not mad at it. I’m not against it. People have that background, they’re excited about it. It has a history that has really dark shit in it. When we went, people would throw beer cans at us. I didn’t really get it, but my mom was like, “Fuck these guys. We’re going to come here and enjoy this.” There’s a whole thing on the new mix-tape that deals with that, with that experience there, with taking your place in American culture.
Is that why the mix-tape is called Royalty?
Right, the whole idea of royalty, American royalty and “Black Kennedy.” I don’t want to say it’s [about] co-opting, but it’s the idea of joining. Like, there were kids in Atlanta that would go on vacation every summer. I just started doing that last year. That was the first time I was like, Oh, man, I can go on a vacation? To most Americans, that’s an important, family thing. I want to take my part in that, too. I don’t want it to be weird when I go to Stone Mountain. Some people might think, Oh, we’ll never be a part of that Stone Mountain thing. Fuck that. We’re supposed to be there, too. I don’t give a shit that the second Ku Klux Klan was started there. It’s not there anymore. My family is.
Speaking of America being fucked up, I watched one of your videos on YouTube and I got a Mitt Romney ad beforehand.
Oh, no! Yeah, Mitt Romney paid for the song. That’s crazy. They’re probably targeting my audience.
Either that or my URL falls into a key demographic.
[Laughs] They targeted you. “This guy buys a lot of Q-tips. He’s probably a Mitt man.”
In 2002, Glover graduated high school and enrolled at NYU. It was there he began dabbling in music. He started with remixing songs on his computer with downloaded software. By the end of 2003, he had crafted his first mix-tape. In the near-decade since those college days, Glover has put out four mix-tapes and three independent (and free) albums under the moniker Childish Gambino, a handle he got from an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator. After signing to Glassnote Records, home of Phoenix and the Temper Trap, Gambino dropped his official debut, Camp, in late 2011. Last month, guests like Beck and RZA popped up on his latest freebie, Royalty.
The takeaway from all this: Glover’s music career predates, or at least has run concurrently with, his comedy and acting careers. Because of his résumé, some writers have difficulty reconciling whether he is serious about rapping. Yes, his lyrics can be funny—or, frankly, juvenile and silly—but there is also introspection. “A lot of people still think I started making music because I wanted to get in on something, or because I wanted to be Drake,” Glover tells me. “No, this is by far the worst time for me to do this. All the other stuff [acting] was going pretty great! And I stopped doing that stuff. I stopped.”
Camp, of all your material, is most about your upbringing.
It’s not just that Atlanta is segregated, not just racially or financially, but the worlds are different. That speaks for a lot of places. That’s why people think the album is about them. A lot of people have said it’s a schizophrenic album, as far as sounds, but you have to be schizophrenic to make sense of a lot of the stuff that goes on there if you’re jumping from world to world. If a kid is from College Park and he stays in College Park, he doesn’t need to understand what’s going on in Buckhead and vice versa. I grew up in Stone Mountain, which changed drastically while I was there. I used to work downtown and I had friends in [the suburbs]. You just try and make sense of it all.
How did you do that?
As a kid you’re malleable. So I was like, okay, when I’m here I’m like this, and when I’m there I act like this. I’ve had white friends who would say nigger. Not like…it’s weird. They would say it, but in a way that was like, we don’t like those people, but you’re different. As a kid, you’re trying to make sense of that. “Well, they’re friends with me, but they’re saying that about other black people.…” It’s a lot of…it is schizo.
You are self-deprecating, which is not exactly rampant in hip-hop.
I’ve become less self-deprecating. I have to. It’s a skill to take yourself seriously. I’ve never really done it. Because I feel like with Tumblr and Twitter and all that, it’s really hard to be like, “I’m the shit,” because you’re already engaging in something that says “I’m the shit.” If you’re on Twitter, what you’re saying is, I’m important enough for you to care what I think.
You could say the same thing about rapping.
Exactly. Your doing it says, I’m worth listening to. So I always tend to not do it. But I started taking myself more seriously. Everyone I’ve been meeting in rap, even Eminem, who’s a goofball, is like, “I’m fucking dope. That’s why I’m here and you’re not.” Also, I realized a lot of kids are listening to me. Whether I want to be or not, they’re looking up to me. So I can’t be like, “I’m nothing.” That’s not something they need to hear.
Do you think about those kids when you rap about cunnilingus?
Look, there’s far worse things out there that they’re exposed to. Also, it’s the truth. If I was lying, if I were like, “Man, I kill people. I’m glad those people are dead.” If it was all a big lie, then I’d have to look at myself. But, you know, it’s the life you live that you’ve got to talk about. I don’t feel bad about any of the shit I say. Ever. I know people hate some of the shit I do. People give me shit for “You See Me,” the line “Asian girls everywhere…UCLA.” Look, I like Asian girls. I don’t know what to tell you.… I’m sure I won’t be rapping about that when I’m 35. At least I hope not.
You’re not going to stop liking Asian girls, are you?
[Laughs] No, I’m not. But I might have some perspective on it then. I wrote that song when I was 26. Also, I don’t like the backlash, now that I’m dating an Asian girl. It sucks, because now I can’t just like an Asian girl. Now, people are like, that’s his thing. Well, yeah. But also, she’s a person. [Laughs]
That last line is the closest Glover comes in our conversation to sounding like his character Troy—dry, cute, sarcastic. He says he only really cares what his fans or peers think. Then he confesses that critics are “somewhat important” to him. But only if it’s the critics he respects. “Honestly, I like it when a white 40-year-old is like, ‘This is bullshit!’ ” When he says this, he sounds a bit like Chevy Chase.
Glover is still trying to figure it out. But he admits this. In one breath, he promises he is “going to make amazing shit”; in the next, he’ll say, “Look, I’m only going to get better,” as if to say he realizes it’s a long road. He oscillates between cocky and humble. But that is what makes Childish Gambino arguably the most relatable and mesmerizing figure in hip-hop.
Childish Gambino helps close Lollapalooza Sunday 5 at 8:45pm.