Childish Gambino has come a long way. The man born Donald Glover has gone from nerdy outsider in the rap game to a Golden Globe winner, as the world has opened up to his talents. Not all of us could pull off the transition from largely derided rapper to master of funk (as confirmed with new album Awaken, My Love!), via an absurdist humour TV show – one of 2016's best. But he was making a more personal impact on his fans years before.
Rewind, for a moment, to 2011. I was a 19-year-old kid on the brink of adulthood, not entirely comfortable in my own skin, when my interest in Glover sparked. Listening to rap and attending an all-boys school in South East London dominated by my hyper-masculine black peers pulled me in one direction, before I was turned the other way when I moved to a predominantly white sixth-form college. There, checked shirts, skinny jeans and crop tops were the norm. I contorted myself to fit into each social environment, attempting to turn my blackness up in school for the acceptance of the majority, while toning it down to prevent intimidating my white counterparts in sixth-form. Earl Sweatshirt summed it up best on 2013's "Chum", as being "too black for the white kids and too white for the blacks".
But 2011 was also the year when Glover released his debut, Camp. Listening to it, his vocals spoke to a similar sense of social anguish. He'd also grown up in a world where he was picked apart for being a little… different. He didn't fit the traditional young black male stereotype cemented in decades of American pop culture, instead rhyming and singing with a cadence that may not have been considered "manly". He made references to cult TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Firefly and experimented with EDM. Glover himself was aware of his position, saying in a 2011 interview that "for a long time music was black or white, but now there's people like Tyler, the Creator making a huge impact. Like me, he's a middle-class black kid that dressed like a member of Good Charlotte and got called a faggot. I got jumped once simply for having a skateboard."
Not everyone loved the album. You may remember Camp picking up a 1.6 rating in Pitchfork, in what still feels like a mind-boggling review that accused Glover of using "heavy topics like race, masculinity, relationships, street cred, and 'real hip-hop' as props to construct a false outsider persona". But they weren't hearing the same story I had. Glover's weirdness was often read as weakness or an inability to articulate a coherent message, and a major indie publication refuting his multifaceted persona felt like a rejection of being black and weird.
He paid it no mind, though, regrouping for 2013's Because the Internet – a beautiful, strange and cinematic album that showed where things had changed. Glover sounded emboldened, but his anguish bellowed too. He was an awkward soul, flitting from one identity to another both in life and on record, because it was obvious he was in pain. Similarly, as is the case with so many other kids who grow up with interests that fall outside people's assumptions, I continued to try and maintain a balance between "too black" and "not black enough".
Talking to Noisey in 2013, Glover sounded at his darkest: "I tried to kill myself. I was really fucked up… I didn't feel like I knew what I was doing. I wasn't living up to my standard, I was living up to other people's standards, and I just said 'I don't see the point'." People have always attached themselves to music's misfits in the past, clinging onto their idiosyncrasies for comfort. You only need to look at how fans mourned David Bowie and Prince last year; how they idolised and repackaged the punk aesthetic of The Sex Pistols, The Slits and The Ramones; how they still flock to see Madonna, Springsteen and Iggy Pop, to understand that we gravitate towards people who turn our assumptions on their heads. The "tortured artist" has become cliche because, somewhere at some point, it was rooted in reality. Artists battling inner conflict drew people in.
Addressing his issues only made Glover stronger, and his music became a backdrop onto which he could project the chaos in his head. You can hear it in full, wailing flow on "II. Earth: The Oldest Computer (the Last Night)" and buzzing on "II. Zealots of Stockholm [Free Information]", both off Because the Internet. It felt like an epiphany for me, where I realised that being unlike what people think you should isn't a bad thing. Critics took note too, commending Glover's dedication to the album's cause, while still accusing him of trying too hard to stand out. This wasn't him trying – his natural tendency to be different stemmed from the fact that he was different.
Glover laid low for the next few years, carefully crafting what would become FX TV series Atlanta. The show reimagines the boundaries for black American TV – in good company, with the likes of Insecure and Black-ish – and lays out the stereotypes Glover has had to fight while projecting an alternative reality. As a general plot summary, Glover's character Earn Marks stands on the fringes of success and hip-hop society before becoming the manager of his rapper cousin Paper Boi – and that doesn't even begin to touch on the comedic devices, bizarre twists and underlying surreality the show develops.
Then we come to the present day and Glover's December 2016, rap-free album, Awaken, My Love!. Writing for Noisey, Israel Daramola deemed it an album that "feels more like, well, an awakening. Its heavy use of Funkadelic and Sly Stone instrumentation, Bootsy's wobbly singing style, and high-pitched Prince wails are in service to the love, hopefulness, and, of course, fears about bringing a new life into the world" – alluding to Glover's recent new role as a dad. The alienated kid from Camp has grown to subvert the various definitions of blackness through his music, slipping from the firm grip of his critics again. He's shapeshifted once more.
So here I am, aged 25 now, and able to say that Glover empowered me to just be me. Unapologetically. As with all identities our cultures create, there are levels to being black. And, whether you subscribe to the hyper-masculine image of black people that rap overwhelmingly projects, or an alternative kid that isn't really that, Glover's evolution has given a voice to those black freaks and geeks who've felt they had to compromise who they were for acceptance. But when you learn to throw those assumptions aside, you really kickstart the sort of journey Glover has made. You quiet the voices urging you to be this way or that. You learn to just do you.
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(All images by Ibra Ake)