I am guessing if you regularly read these little outbursts from me you are probably of an age that if I asked you a certain question you would all give the answer - Danny.
That question would be - Name an African American actor whose last name is Glover?
And you would be right. Danny Glover is the actor best known for putting up with Mel Gibson’s hammy acting in the Lethal Weapon franchise [someone please explain why we needed more than one] and has also been in lots of other movies and TV shows. Good actor but we aren’t talking about him today.
Today I want to give praise to another Glover. His name is Donald Glover and he isn’t, as far as I know, related to Danny but boy he is on fire at the moment.
You might also known him as the wonderfully named Childish Gambino, rapper and DJ whose latest song “This Is America” and accompanying video have been on the top of the charts and leading in downloads and clip views for the last couple of weeks and will certainly be discussed in university cultural studies courses for years to come.
If you aren’t up on the latest in rap that’s ok because you may have caught him as Troy Barnes in the TV show Community which ran here until last year and can be probably be found somewhere on Netflix or Stan. Set in a US Community college, basically the US version of a TAFE, it was an ensemble comedy that could be just ok on some nights and truly great on others. It did for a while star Chevy Chase but he didn’t add much. It was a new generation of comic talent, most of whom seem to be just as well known for their script writing chops that stood out and Donald Glover’s character’s scenes with his friend Abed played by Danny Pudi were often the standouts.
He is also in the latest instalment from the Star Wars franchise - Solo A Star Wars Story. I am guessing he steals the show there too.
Atlanta, the TV series that he conceived and co- writes is on SBS currently. It won two Grammys for the first season and the second season is another level again. I don’t always enjoy it mainly because I often feel very uncomfortable with the portrayal of Glover’s character Earn and his group of friends and their life in Atlanta. It covers so many of the issues that confront those chasing dreams in the USA, a country that is supposed to reward those with hunger and persistence.
Except these characters are black and living in a tough disadvantaged big city where drugs, violence, racism and greed rule. So much is offered and so close and yet some things remain just out of reach. Ambitious and quirky, pointed and caustic, if you can understand the slang and the thick accents it makes you laugh and it makes you think. And if you are white it makes you uncomfortable, well that’s what it does to me.
His song “This is America” is arresting. It’s not rap as I think of it and to my dumb white man ears it seems to be part of an increasing maturity moving rap away from the same old rhythms and mindless lyrics advocating violence, crime, misogyny and the usual accompanying clips filled with gang signs, bad jewellery and product placement. Not too soon in my opinion for it was a music genre rapidly approaching self-parody and self-defeating for most of its old school exponents. But tunes like this and work from Kendrick Lamar, Drake etc. seems to setting rap on some new courses much like the punk and new wave movement saved rock in the same way in the late 70s and early 80s.
Childish Gambino’s lyrics are open to interpretation [go on to the internet, there are already blogs to help you with this] but the tone of the rap is almost like one of those self improvement tapes you are supposed to listen to as you go to sleep. The video is jaw dropping. If you only watch one music video this year watch this one. And watch it more than once. With the dance action, the shocking set pieces and Donald up front and centre you can easily miss the other action in the background. The feeling seems to be that the song and video are a comment on what it is like to be black in the USA today, what white America takes and wants and expects from African Americans and the effect of their gun culture and unfettered capitalism.
But there are contradictions and mountains of references to other elements of popular culture. For a few seconds his dance moves look like a zombie shuffle from The Walking Dead, other times his dance moves echo every black stereotype strut we have seen on US TV comedies for decades, some scenes are reminiscent of last year’s movie Get Out, observers film the action on their phones and the guns seem to be treated with love. The tone flips from a Sly and The Family Stone happiness to resignation to boasting to violent to wise to sad to fear throughout. It is unsettling and compelling and enthralling all at once.
There is a shitload going on here. Trying to get up to speed I had a go at reading some of the serious critiques around the song and believe me every “serious” newspaper and magazine have published lots of columns inches. The link below from online mag Vulture is one example. I couldn’t get through this article.
Like those restaurants that have the giant steak offer; “You finish it and it’s free”, I found this one too dense to finish but read a random paragraph and you will get an idea of the fuss. I have a friend with a PhD in art studies so over a cuppa I am going to get her to break it down for me. One thing for sure, if phrases like cross cultural appropriation and content collapse float your surfboard then its six foot and pumping here.
Anyway people are calling genius. I don’t know, Donald is displaying some serious talent and he has taken my interest and critical thinking about race relations to a new level with quality entertainment. And yes, I reckon it is art, something I never thought I would say about a US comedy show and a rap song.
Normally here I would list some really great relevant tunes but I feel a bit of a sham, as I really am not a rap fan. Hip Hop with its more positive and melodic approach works for me more. But tradition dictates so here we go.
Gold Snafu -Sticky Fingers
Wild Thing – Tone Loc
Cosby Sweater - Hilltop Hoods
Me Myself and I – De La Soul
Hey ladies - The Beastie Boys
Paid In Full – Eric B & Rakim