Donald Glover: Fear and Trembling
We sit down with Childish Gambino to talk artistry, racism, suicide, sexuality, and how we're all going to be dead soon.
Donald Glover knows he’s going to die. He says it over and over again, not in a particularly dark way, but with a sense of finality most people reserve for talking about a wedding that they have to attend at the end of the year. It's just another thing that's going to happen. We’re at the Four Seasons in Toronto, seated, maybe two arm-lengths apart. He’s barefoot, wearing the same fur hat with ear flaps that he's worn in recent radio interviews, telling me matter-of-factly that he's going to die.
He's a far cry from the jubilant and loveable Troy, the character he played on Community for the past four years of his life. Nor is he the same guy we were introduced to with the rise of YouTube sketch-comedy group Derrick Comedy back in 2007—the bro with a bag full of newly-Axe'd black dildos coming over to "just chill." He's technically here as his rap alter ego Childish Gambino, on a label-mandated press tour promoting his new rap album Because the Internet. But as he sits cross-legged sipping a glass of Oban Brand whiskey, it’s clear he has other things to talk about, not just death and hip-hop. Even though he knows that he's going to die, he's OK. The problem is that everything else isn't, and he just wants to know why we're not talking about it.
Despite the fact that he recently turned 30, Donald looks about 21, the same age as when Tina Fey hired him to write for 30 Rock. He's very much a product of the internet, but now questions if the same structure that made him famous is responsible for more evil in this world than good. “At this point with the internet,” he says, “it feels like we're just giving a handgun to an infant and going, ‘Don't shoot yourself.’” The way he sees it, the internet's created a dangerous system where people aren't held accountable, where trends start and stop within weeks, and information is being put out at a rate so dizzyingly fast that it might as well just be noise.
The fact that this interview even took place is a testament to the power of the internet. After his Breakfast Club interview, I started tweeting my thoughts on Childish Gambino's musical output. All of my opinions weren't positive, but his friend Fam sought me out online to thank me for not criticizing the person, but the music he was making. This led to an email exchange that culminated in Fam inviting me to drop by the hotel the day before Glover would announce that he'd be doing all of his press at once, in the park, with all of his fans. In short, I was granted an exclusive sit-down to talk about Because the Internet, because of the internet.
When I arrive, Fam welcomes me inside. He's recognizable as the supporting character in the final scene of Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, Donald’s new short film—the one by the bonfire, where Donald admits to having a gay encounter when he was younger. Although Donald and Fam aren't lifelong friends, they behave like it. “One of the main reasons that me and Fam get along so well is that we both feel very alone,” he’ll later tell me.
When Donald arrives, he looks worn out, eyes sunk in as he shuffles across the carpet to shake my hand. He asks me how old I am. I stumble, saying I’m 21 even though I’m 23. I correct myself, and Donald tells me this means that I'm stuck feeling that age—something he knows well since he still thinks he's twenty-five. He has no reservations, no caveats, nothing he won’t talk about. He settles onto the deacon's bench at the end of the bed and sits Indian style, getting up only once to retrieve another splash of whiskey. Throughout the course of our two hours together, he answers my questions while either looking at the floor or gazing out of the window that faces a church across the street. He avoids eye contact until he’s ready to thoroughly address me, at which point we lock eyes. He goes off on tangents, but manages to make it back eventually. Sometimes he answers a simple question with an answer that touches on race, his past and humankind. Other times, he'll give you the cold hard facts and nothing else.
Noisey: What's with the hat?
Donald Glover: We were in New York and it was cold, and I saw a homeless man who had a hat like this. And then we kept walking and saw a hat store and it had that kind of hat, so I bought it.
Based on your more recent public appearances, you seem to be coming from a darker place.
We were in the airport and I was waiting in line at the ATM and there was a guy in front of me getting money. I came up and he got nervous, so I went to the side and waited for him to finish. I said to my group of friends, “I don't think white people know how much effort in my day is put into making them feel comfortable.” In general, people don't know how much of my time is dedicated to making them feel comfortable.Maybe it has to do with being older, but I just didn't want to do it anymore. I don't want to make people comfortable all the time. Plus, we just feel like we're going to die soon.
Like, in a hedonistic way? Or the world is doomed?
We're just around death a lot. Since I started hanging out with Fam I just stopped trying to make it OK. People want you to think that it's OK, you're OK, take these pills, you'll be OK. But it's not OK. And instead of trying to make it OK and being told that I need to do certain things to cope, I've decided that maybe nothing is wrong and everybody feels this way. So maybe I should go with it. And since I've adopted that view, I wouldn't say that things are working great, but I'm less tired.
Why are you in Toronto?
We're here to do some interviews with radio stations, but I don't believe in doing traditional interviews anymore. It's so easy to twist words around, and I feel like with what we're doing, the truth will eventually just come to light anyway. I'm not worried about the internet anymore.
It speeds up everything and we get information faster, and I don't see the flip side of that. Like, people calling me a nigger or a faggot isn't new—the internet just makes it easier. I don't see where the good in that lies. Other than us being more aware of stuff, but I'm not more aware—I only pay attention to what's on my timeline.
You could make the argument that we're at least more informed. Look at the KONY thing.
We more informed, but there are so many opposing viewpoints. Some people say he's helping, others say he's supplying militias. Nobody knows who to believe or who to trust.
But isn't the flip side of the internet the fact that it allows for people like me to be here interviewing you, or for you to have a career?
Don't get me wrong, I love the internet. I think it's great and it's the only reason I'm here, I'm just like everyone else. I love watching Worldstar and all that shit.
What would your immediate reaction be to someone yelling out "Worldstar!" when you're in public?
Hit the deck. If I hear it and it's close to me, I'm just going to duck because someone is about to get hit. But niggas was screaming “Worldstar!” when we were in Atlanta and someone was shooting.
Where was this?
Atlanta at Opera nightclub. We were in Atlanta hanging and we came out and someone just started shooting in the parking lot. And everyone was yelling “Worldstar!” and running around until the cops came and broke everything up.
I mean, it's not that weird.
It is for Canadians.
Oh wow that's right; you guys don't have guns here.
Yeah, gun crime has kept a lot of people from crossing the border and performing here because they're promoting a violent lifestyle.
It was hard for me to get cross the border today. The guy was giving me a real hard time. I didn't know why. I didn't want to say that it's because I'm a rapper, but that probably was the case. The word "rapper" now has become so powerful.
When we went to Philly, the show had the be shut down because there was an electrical storm, so the fans came out to the tour bus to get some stuff signed. A lot of them were 15-year-old girls. Then the cops showed up with their batons and started clearing them out. And that's what pissed me off. I know that people assume that I'm like the next Wayne Brady or whatever—which is fine, because that's part of my brand and I've been making people feel comfortable around me for such a long time—but it's just like the ATM thing. Like, the cop is going right after these little black girls, because he knows their parents aren't gonna sue or whatever. And I get out of my bus to try to stop it and the cop yells, "Get back in the fucking van or I'll fucking bust your fucking skull in you fucking retard!" But our white tour manager just got up in the cop’s face, and the cop didn't do anything to him.
So is that because you're a rapper or because you’re black?
Here's the thing: he kept saying "rap." And to us, and to you, we'd be like, “No, it's a Childish Gambino show. It's going to be filled with young girls and nerds who like puns. There's no danger.” But they heard “rap” and that was it—it triggered something. And that word doesn't mean the same thing to different generations.
Is that something you see going away as they age themselves out?
Absolutely. It's going to be fine, eventually. We're at a weird point right where I believe that people just think that everything is OK right now. We're in a post-Obama world and everything is supposedly OK now. Fam works with inner city kids and a teacher told a kid, "Hey you can do anything because the president is black." That just pissed me off. Because you can't. I like Patrice O'Neal; he's like a prophet and like a black Louis CK. He asked everyone at his show to put their hand up if they thought they were racist, and nobody put their hand up. But then he asked them if racism still existed, and everyone said yes. So where are all the racist people? We live in a time where you can't prove it. And that's part of life. And I don't want this to be a race topic. But it still skews how I look at things. America is supposed to be this melting pot where everything is thrown in and the best rises to the top but that's not true.
Are you reading books right now?
Yeah, I'm really into Kierkegaard shit right now.
Man, that is not going to make you happy.
It does make me happy, because it makes me feel less alone.
Was that the point of Clapping for the Wrong Reasons?
I mean, there was no point to the movie.
At all? You weren't trying to do something with it?
I was just trying to make something.
I feel like if we're all going to die soon, like we feel we are, I only want to make dope shit. I want something people can look back on and see what they were doing.
The film does have to do with the album and the feeling that I'm trying to get across. When it started, I just wanted to do something cool and interesting and personal. Bink! the producer came and lived in Chris Bosh's mansion with us while we rented it for four months. And I was telling him that I feel like I try too much sometimes. And he told me that no matter what, someone is always going to feel how I feel. So that film captured how I was feeling at the time. Not just in the house, but in the world. The drifting, the not-knowing. Whether it be through relationships or through the house. That's what I was trying to do.
I just wanted people to get across something that they don't normally talk about, and why aren't they talking about it. I mean, I feel that way: why am I pretending to be Troy? Why am I rapping about puns? When actually, I'm afraid that my parents are gonna die or I'm afraid that I'm going to be Tyrese [Gibson]. Those feelings are the types of things that connect us, not showing the car you drove or the stack you have. I fully expected people to be like, “Fuck this movie, it sucks. Fuck this guy, he's pretentious.” But I just said fuck it, let me tell the story of how one time I kissed a boy. Am I gay? I don't know, maybe. But the maybe is what's really connecting us.
Fear is the only connecting factor, at least for me. Every time I say something that I think "someone else shouldn't know this," that's the thing that normally gets the biggest response. I used to have this fantasy that when I turn 78 I would do everything I hadn't done thus far. I'm going to do heroin, kill a person, blow dudes, just everything that's left to do in life. But as I get older, I realize that there's a good chance that I won't even make it to 78. First of all, I'm a black male. Secondly, every male in my family has a lifespan of like mid-60s. So technically, I'm mid-life right now, even though I’m not that old. But that's how I started looking at shit, so I started to wonder why I'm doing stuff. Why am I trying so hard to be nice to the guy at the ATM and making him not scared of me, or why am I not doing drugs, why am I living for other people?
How concerned are you with pushing stuff forward?
I feel like that's the only thing that I can grab onto that makes sense and has a purpose to it. I'm extremely lucky in the fact that I'm alive and I'm human, that doesn't happen a lot in the universe. This should never happen. Like, my dad, I know what his purpose was. He made sure that his kids were more educated than him so that they didn't have to make the same decisions that he did. You have to man up when you have kids, and that's what he did. My great grandparents bought their freedom and walked from Maryland to Virginia and bought the only land available. Have you ever seen American Gangster? You know Bumpy, the guy at the start who has a heart attack? My grandpa used to work with him, he was his right-hand man in real life. They ran numbers together. Those guys had this drive to go out and make something of themselves by any means necessary. So I look at all of them, and I wonder why does it stop with me, and I realize that it's because I have so many options available. And watching Kanye and my other heroes do shit that they were afraid of made me ask myself, and this is not a diss to Community, but why am I sitting here and just smiling? Is it for residual checks?
Community does seem like a sweet gig.
And it is! It's great, the people I worked with are great, the food was great, I got recognized everywhere and people loved me for it. But like, I was waking up screaming sometimes.
Because I knew I was gonna die. And if I knew that it was just like “this guy from Community died,” I'd be really disappointed. I can't live like that. I'd feel guilty that I didn't do anything for us, for humans.
Do you worry about spreading yourself too thin? Wouldn't your cause have more validity behind it if you only focused on one thing?
I feel like if a person does that, locks himself away to make better music, then that is his purpose. He has that mindset. I don't think what I did was that different. After I came off tour, we went to Australia and I was just super depressed. I mean, I tried to kill myself. I was really fucked up after that, because I had this girl that I thought I was going to marry and we broke 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.” So that's what we did after Australia. I rented a mansion, I invited over a bunch of people that I could trust like my brother, Fam—
Nah, he just showed up. Trinidad James is the best because he's honestly "the nigga.” He's such a nice guy and he's so funny. And we were both raised Jehova’s Witness and we bonded over that—he got our sadness. You know, Prince and MJ were both raised Jehova’s Witness too. And the weird thing about that religion is that they teach you that when you die, that's it. You get all of the guilt and none of the promise of it paying off one day.
There are so many people who subscribe to what you're doing, who are already fans of you from other ventures. Does that put more pressure on you to succeed?
One of my most vivid memories is from when I was at Stone Mountain in Atlanta. They have this laser show. It's a Confederate thing, and we were the only black family. So at the end when the South "gives up," the people who were sitting around us started throwing beer cans at us. And I remember one of my first thoughts being, "How do I make them like me?” So I carry that with me and I want to make people like me. But that's never gonna happen. So why am I trying to make them happy?
What do you consider validation on the internet? Does a publication like Pitchfork giving you a 1.6 influence you going forward?
Pitchfork helped me a lot. First of all, there's no way I can make something worse than that. It would be impossible. It put a lot of people on my side too. But I'm not worried. If I worked for Pitchfork, I wouldn't give myself a 9.0 either. They're a brand, they sell tickets to a show they put on every year. They're not going to give a 1.6 to someone who can be at their show and sell tickets. They're not the same publication that I grew up with anyway. It's changed, and that happens. Any good idea starts with a movement, becomes a business, and ends up a racket. And I'm not calling Pitchfork a racket, but they're a business. And I didn't fit their business structure. But I just want there to be a conversation, and this started a conversation about what Childish Gambino stands for.
You can say what you want about Macklemore, but he stands for shit. That's what made him huge. You know how easy it would be for people to just disregard him and say, "Bye Macklemore, you're Psy now"? It would've been very easy if he didn't have something to stand behind. He's doing the dopest shit. He's giving gay rights speeches right now.
But he's a straight white man.
Exactly. He acknowledges that.He’s self-aware. I know it may seem like a ploy, especially because he's a straight white male, but that's genuinely him. Most of the time, for a black woman to get shit done, you have to be one in a gazillion, you have to be Oprah. And even then you need a rich white dude to OK it. Most of the time when we see some racist shit, we can't speak up. But a guy like Macklemore can. Like this weekend in Vegas, we couldn't speak up and I was almost in tears over it.
What happened in Vegas?
My parents are disabled, so they can't walk around. But the venue that I was performing at won't let us inside. So I'm talking to the security guard, and and tell him, "Look, I know you're saying no to everything because it's a festival, but I'm performing tonight. My name is Childish Gambino, my real name is Donald Glover. You can look it up on your phone or tell your boss, but my parents are right there and everything is blocked and they can't walk. Can you please just help us get inside?" And they're just like, “No.” Then the cops come up to me and they say, "Can I help you" so I say, "Yeah I'm supposed to be performing and I'm just trying to get my parents inside," and he tells me to "get off the street" because we weren't standing right on the sidewalk. So we get on the sidewalk and the cops just cruise off.
And then I go back over to the security and the cop is with him and they start yelling at me again, so Fam says, “Yo, just chill,” and the cop loses his shit: "Did you just tell me to chill? License and registration." So they force them to drive off, but Fam pulls over to get out and the cop says, "Get the fuck out of the street" and you can see in his eyes that if we make a wrong move or say something else, they've got us. And that shit happens all the time. This time was different because he emasculated me in front of my parents. I can't even get them into my own concert. And you can't complain, because then you become the whiner.
That was the worst part of that Pitchfork thing. I know people are going to trash the music, I see them doing that shit and I see where they're coming from. There's shit on Camp where if I saw it as a kid, I would say that that shit is corny. And I'm willing to take that. But the shit that I didn't like about that Pitchfork article and that really made me mad is that the writer—and I know this nigga too because he lives on my block. Fuck that nigga. He's afraid of me, and that's something he's gotta deal with. But the thing that I didn't like in that review was that he said, "Oh, well Jay Z and Beyonce go to a Grizzly Bear concert—there's no problem. This kid that is on Camp, he doesn't exist anymore, because there's people like Tyler the Creator etc." and I'm like, "Fuck you. You don't know. You didn't grow up like me.” That's the thing. You don't get to tell me that racism is over. That's the one thing that bothered me most about that.
Where do you see yourself in the rap game?
This is something that I take from comedy. Chris Rock always says to me, “It's never the audience’s fault.” If I'm not respected, that's on me. Like, who ever has won from coming out and saying, "I need to be respected because I'm awesome." They'll come around eventually.
New shit is scary to people.
It's always scary. And that's the thing, I'm finally cool with people saying "this is dumb" or "this is stupid" because I've realized that I'm not going to be around to realize if that's true or not. All I know is that it's dope to me, and that's what matters. That's all I wanna do from now on, is make dope shit that we all think is dope. Worrying about someone being happy with what I make in 2085 is pointless to me. I'm done pandering. I was definitely pandering for a long time, but I feel like it doesn't help. I definitely used to make things because I knew people would be comfortable with them, but I'm done with that.
You seem to have gotten a lot better at rapping.
I'm going to say that's drugs. It just made me less tense.
How upset would you be if your greatest contribution to music after it's all said and done, was introducing Chance the Rapper?
I'd be upset, but only with myself. It would be like, you had the tools to do something great and you didn't. There's nobody stopping you from doing what you want. Even with this label situation, we're just now slowly coming around to the fact that we have to do whatever it takes. So I'd be upset, not because he's not good, but because I can be better than him if I push myself.
I haven't done acid yet. It's mostly just shrooms, edibles, and weed. I'm doing Ayahuasca soon.
Don't you need to be in a happy mindframe before you do Ayahuasca?
Here's the thing, I'm always sad. I always just "see" myself. I did a heavy edible the night before and I was happy, but I remember some things that I said while I was on it like "I don't know if I'll ever get used to people knowing who I am, or what my sister looks like." The first time I got high I got really sad. But I kinda realized that's who I am.
Would your ideal eventual career path eventually mirror someone like Tina Fey, Jerry Seinfeld, Will Smith or Drake?
I want to be something completely different from everyone on that list.
Now, excluding Tina Fey from that list. Fuck, marry, kill.
Drake's my boy, but he would not be fun to fuck, that would be really sad. I'd probably fuck Will Smith because he's ripped. I'd marry Jerry Seinfeld because he's so fucking rich. So by process of elimination, I'd have to kill Drake.
Why do you think rap critics don't embrace you the same way they embrace Drake?
My biggest problem is that critics approach music with their mind made up just because they don't like the person who's making the music. I put that on myself for not doing a good enough job. I definitely think that there's reasons that they could use to say they do like me, but for whatever reason they don't. And I get it. It's like Jiro Dreams of Sushi where the customer had the best sushi ever at Jiro's place and it turned out to be made by his son. And I knew that when Drake came out, I was like "fuck". Because critics are gonna hate me, there's gotta be a release valve for rapper/actor success. They can't be like "fuck, this nigga's great too! They're both dope! What are the chances?" They aren't gonna do that shit, and I knew that. But I have to be better, I have to beat him. And I'm not gonna beat Drake ever, I'm not that cool. I'm not gonna be smooth or cool, but I know I'm more imaginative than all these niggas. I've known that as a kid. I have more weird experiences to draw from.
Have you ever thought about making a concept album in order to stay away from the personal stuff that people use as ammunition?
That's what this is. Even Camp was a character, but this is more of that. Dealing with critics is the same as dealing with the cops. Whose fault is it that I'm being harrased? It's their fault, but at the same time, I know the rules. That's what I'm trying to do with this album, is just not leave the critics anywhere to go. I want to make it so good and so thorough, that they'll just have to conceed in some areas of their critique.
You say you're the son of Kanye. What does the son of Childish Gambino look like?
I just hope that he doesn't feel sad about who he is. I feel like the son of me doesn't have to worry about that. I look at Kanye like Steven Hawking, he's one of the brightest minds of our generation. But because he's a black rapper he's put in a box. Like when he was screaming about Justin Timberlake getting 15 minutes to perform even though Kanye has more Grammys than Michael Jackson—that frustration lives in me. And I don't have the same level of frustration because I can do more than him—I'm a little better because people don't look at me as a rapper, and my skin is lighter, and people aren't as threatened. And Kanye has this wealth of knowledge, but people stop him because he's an aggressive black male. I can go a little further, I can have the show, I can do the music. I understand how textures work in music, I can go a little further. I want the son of Childish to not even have to face those challenges.
Slava Pastuk is a writer and good listener living in Toronto. He's on Twitter - @SlavaP