Noisey

All About That Race: Understanding the Secret in Childish Gambino's Videos

Childish Gambino's latest videos are telling a story about what it's like being black in America.

by Trey Smith
Mar 12 2015, 4:46pm


Art courtesy of Mr. Victory

Donald Glover is a mysterious person who seems to purposefully escape classification, bouncing between careers as often as most people bounce between lunch options. When he first started rapping as Childish Gambino, nobody really took him, an actor and comedian, seriously. The direction Childish Gambino seemed to be taking as a project didn’t help: Out of nowhere, Glover released a short film called Clapping For The Wrong Reasons , which was made in Chris Bosh’s house and seemed to say a lot while ultimately being about nothing. In the same vein, Glover released a cryptic, disjointed screenplay in which he played a character from the internet whose dad was Rick Ross in conjunction with his sophomore album Because The Internet. It appeared possible that Donald Glover was going too far into aimless self-indulgence in the name of being a different kind of rapper.

More recently, Glover has stayed out of the public eye, choosing to remain relatively silent even as his profile and popularity have skyrocketed. He’s become a legitimate star, but he’s less openly self-promotional than ever. His main method of communicating with the public recently has been his music videos, of which he has released five in the last 15 months. The videos for “The Worst Guys”, “3005”, “Sweatpants”, “Telegraph Ave.” and “Sober” border on short films at times, and they have taken viewers into worlds filled with time eddies, horrifying tentacle monsters, and suspiciously empty diners.

It’s not immediately clear what the message is, but since Glover has a history in television and is particularly in tune with visual expression, it’s reasonable to assume that there is a larger message—and that it’s more pointed than the Childish Gambino film experiments of the past. Some of the videos share common themes and characters, leading many a fan and redditor to wonder if there was a larger story being told through the series. Theories have been thrown around about these videos suggesting that Donald was an alien, or that this was a sequel to his screenplay, or even that all the videos are completely unrelated.

But if you know where to look, you can see that the thing linking these videos together is a recurring monster figure. This monster is shown visually throughout the videos, and it represents the struggle of being black in America.

Anybody who has been familiar with Gambino for even a couple of hours knows that his history with his blackness is complicated. The incidents he’s rapped about before aren’t too far away from ones that I’ve also dealt with at different times growing up. That reminder that somehow you aren't black black like the other kids who go through the same things you do and are somehow inferior for it. You don't fit into any of the typical stereotypes and are made to feel inadequate for this failure, despite still being subjected to the same treatment.

That’s what the monster in the videos is telling us. There is a whale in the series that acts as a looming threat throughout. Its attack on Glover is the catalyst behind the story, and its effect on him is what drives the plot forward. The appearance of the monster is symbolic, as whales are often associated with cognizance, emotional maturity, and deep wisdom—all overriding themes of the videos. The videos are an investigation into perspective shifts, unwarranted aggressions, and the lack of real progression in how society deals with race as a whole.

These videos are not like what we traditionally get from rappers, and they have brought viewers deeper into the world as Gambino sees it. The lingering confusion for viewers reflects Childish Gambino’s own doubts. It’s the same confusion that black men experience living in our society on a daily basis, and Glover wants us to know and talk about it. In many of the chapters, we see the artist participating in activities that aren't typically associated with black males.

From the beginning, he’s surfing and hanging around a bonfire in “The Worst Guys” before being attacked by the whale, leading to the beginning of his consciousness shift. From there, assuming that the videos are to be watched in order, we see the evolution of his mindset. When we see him riding a ferris wheel on a boardwalk with a teddy bear in “3005,” what we are seeing is Glover trying to hold on to any bit of innocence he has left. However, the teddy bear he’s holding shows how the transformation of his thought process continues to eat away at him. The fire burning in the distance, which none of the other riders seem to notice or at least let on that they have, begins to to decay his teddy bear. Before the bear becomes unrecognizable, Glover decides that he can’t live with this situation anymore and leaves it all behind, reaching the next step in his mental awakening—as seen in the “Zealots of Stockholm” outro section.

He is suddenly alone and standing in darkness on the previously brightly lit boardwalk. The change from “3005,” a light feel-good song, to the second section of “Zealots of Stockholm,” a much more dark and menacing track, is representative of how his views of the world have changed. It is no longer the cheerful place he knew it was—now that he’s seen the violence it is capable of in more than one way, he can’t continue to believe any other version of it. The transitions in scenery, tone of music, and overall appearance of our hero are clear indicators that some changes are occurring within Gambino.

These changes become more extreme in “Sweatpants,” where he is not only stuck in a more literal loop, repeatedly walking in the same sequence through the diner, but he also begins to see himself in others, losing his mind trying to find someone he can relate to. The outro of “Sweatpants” finds him in the forest he saw on the ferris wheel, finally at peace with this new reality. He’s relaxed, singing and grooving along with others in the woods, a stark contrast to the state we saw him in during “Sweatpants.” The song “Urn” that plays during this scene is about acceptance and letting go of the pain that you’re holding on to, and vowing to let good things happen to you: “Don't let me lose my life / Keep holding on.” Glover is finally ready to embrace this new state of mind and explore all the benefits that come with this awakening.

Gambino’s evolution culminates in “Telegraph Ave” where, while on vacation, he is identified by the locals as more than an outsider, but an outright threat. This assumption leads to the first aggression he has to face post-enlightenment, and brings an abrupt halt to his getaway with Jhene Aiko. Though he has resolved to make the most of this new knowledge of the world in this environment—his hopeful new sanctuary—he is forced to deal with the negative sides of this frame of mind that come due to the misgivings of others. We see him enjoying everything the forest has to offer, but even in this utopia it’s impossible to escape the progression of his point of view. The whale enters his life again, foreshadowing the second attack of the story, which is where we first get a glimpse into how others view blackness in America.

Before he gets in the water in the beach, one of the locals takes a photo of him and Aiko. As they thank him and he begins to walk away, the photographer looks back with concern at Gambino. Anyone who isn’t in complete denial knows how young black men are viewed by the general public in America. In short, we’re looked at as ticking time bombs just waiting to explode and cause harm to all around us. We are made to look like savages needing to be disarmed and put in our places, although there’s no evidence to back these thoughts. The audience gets to see how these prejudices are often acted upon by these biased third parties, and how they chose to portray the victim in the aftermath.

The incident in “Telegraph Ave.” begins as the couple is walking through the forest at night and Glover is suddenly attacked by the same local who took their photo a few scenes earlier. The aggressors slam the protagonist with their truck, leaving him in a bloody heap on the ground. They run out and try to get Jhene to come with them, believing that they’re protecting her. As they attempt to lead her away, Gambino arises in a new, monstrous form, lashing back at his attackers after becoming the very thing they were afraid he’d become. This new form represents how he will be presented to the rest of the world as a consequence of his reaction to their transgressions against him. They are dead, Jhene is terrified, and Donald has to once again deal with outside forces making him something he is not. We know that our hero isn’t this great beast the locals assumed he was, but that doesn’t matter now. He’s lost everything: his girl, his paradise, his self identity.

In “Sober,” he has finally come to grips with these changes and is searching desperately for someone else who can help him understand this new reality. The video begins with Glover coping with the most impactful experience of this new awakening. A study of his surroundings tells us that he is back in the location of the first three videos, but based on the snow falling from the sky, a lot of time has elapsed. The video begins with Glover alone and inebriated in a carry-out restaurant, trying to get the attention of a young lady waiting on her order. At first she seems to only notice his weirder moments, not giving him the time of day and remaining glued to her phone. But once she gives him a chance to show that he isn’t just another drugged out creep, she’s up dancing and having a good time. Still, this isn’t enough to keep her around. She leaves and he is once again alone, left to deal with these stresses and issues by himself.


Art courtesy of Mr. Victory

The development of perception is constant throughout the story, as Glover desperately tries to get “woke” (as the kids say), mainly in relation to how occurrences and situations that the world throws at you can shape your views. Glover's new awareness of his blackness causes him to notice a number of things he previously would’ve missed or paid little mind. The gash on his leg at the beach in “The Worst Guys” represents his first real encounter with his blackness. When he surfaces from the attack, his expression isn’t one of pain like most people would have when slashed through the skin. It is one of confusion and frustration, as if he has experienced that first time you realize others see you differently.

One of the most exhausting things about living as a black person in America is looking around and seeing none of the progress over the years that the majority swears has taken place. You still have to put up with the same racism and aggressions your forefathers had to. There are the more obvious hints hidden in the videos, like the restaurant cycle and the ferris wheel, which represent something greater in this allegory. The fact that he’s stuck in a loop while the world around him deteriorates in both instances isn’t a coincidence. The point is pushed further as we notice what’s going on with respect to time in “Sober.” Look closely at the clock on the wall at the beginning and end of the video: It never moves. When looked at through the larger lens of race, it makes you think if Gambino is saying that we’re seeing history repeat itself when it comes to America’s treatment of blacks, or that nothing ever changed in the first place.

Loneliness is another large aspect of being a young black male in America. There is the constant feeling of forced solitude, whether literal of mental. While loneliness is a major theme of Because The Internet, it is brought into a narrower context when you observe the events in the videos. Through all of the stages of the story, there’s always this creeping feeling of being “the other,” a person who is outside whatever norm the powers-at-be have placed. A feeling that even if you do your best to fit within these rules, you’ll still never be fully accepted. In every one of the videos we see Glover alone in some fashion. Whether it be on the ferris wheel, being surrounded by himself in a diner, or being viewed as an unwanted outsider because of his appearance. He’s always being slowly pulled away from others, mentally and physically. All of the stories told throughout the videos have Glover searching for a companion, someone to be near him and understand him. Like other young black males, he just wants his existence to be acknowledged.

Through the transformation into the monster, Glover’s videos tell a tale of living as a young black man in America who doesn’t fit into the public’s stereotypes of what he should be. The whale’s attack sent Glover through a story of battling and coping with the most frustrating aspects of living this profile type. We saw him confront those feelings of isolation brought on by everyone telling you that you don’t belong anywhere, that’s there’s no home for your soul—and still manage to find happiness.

Trey Smith is so fucking woke right now. Follow him on Twitter.