Donald Glover has been lavished with well-deserved praise for a very good month so far.
It began with him hosting a better-than-average episode of SNL on May 5. During the show, he performed two new songs as Childish Gambino. He also released a multilayered music video for one of the songs, “This Is America,” which captured the online conversation during the following week. Then his critically acclaimed FX show “Atlanta” wrapped up its second season Thursday. And on Monday, “This Is America” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
The “This Is America” video explores major tenets of American life, such as gun violence, the entertainment industry, appropriation of and appreciation for black culture, and more. While cultural critics have arrived at different conclusions, almost all agree that it’s an intricate piece of social commentary on the state of America in 2018.
Some have even contrasted Glover’s recent path toward a more politically progressive public persona with Kanye West’s recent embrace of President Trump and the right, resulting in Glover being dubbed the “anti-Kanye.”
Many culture consumers, however, have called out the auteur for the past content of his comedy and music, which many claim is misogynistic, homophobic, fetishistic of Asian women and dismissive of rape — among other things.
Thirty years ago, a celebrity like Glover would toil away at his craft (or crafts, in his case) somewhat quietly for years before breaking into the mainstream. Back then, without YouTube videos and the social media conversations that surface them, his NYU comedy troupe, Derrick Comedy, would probably be known to only Glover’s most ardent fans. His early, less-polished standup routines and rap albums might have slipped by the discerning public.
Glover benefited from this new era, as many of his early comedy sketches went viral, leading to an offer of a writing job on “30 Rock” when he was still in college.
His music also found success on the Internet, his early mix tapes blowing up to the point that he was dubbed an Internet rapper by several outlets. He grew so fascinated with the Web that he named one of his records “Because the Internet” and constantly spoke of his love and fear of it in interviews.
“At this point with the Internet,” he told Vice, “it feels like we’re just giving a handgun to an infant and going, ‘Don’t shoot yourself.’”
In many ways, the Internet defined him.
As cultural critic Andy Greenwald said on the Ringer’s “The Watch” podcast, “This is a guy, who has in a way that is very specific to our era, has come of age very much in public. He has been famous for a while. … He has been learning and struggling and adapting and growing in public for a while. And that can go super badly.”
Glover’s past lives alongside his present. And that past is seen by many as controversial.
One of his first viral hits with his aforementioned comedy troupe was called “Bro Rape: A Newsline Investigative Report.” The sketch, which features Glover raping a fellow male student, has racked up more than 11 million views on YouTube.
It also led to enough outcry that he was eventually forced to defend it in the Guardian. When asked about it in 2011, he said, “I think it’s odd that you can’t joke about rape, when people joke about murder all the time. A lot more people are dying than getting raped. I think it’s a comedian’s job to make everything funny. Nothing is off-limits.”
“If you take risks, you face the possibility you might fail,” he continued. “But I believe the perfect joke would turn someone. My sister has mental problems, but I use the word ‘retard’ in my comedy. Do I love her any less? Would I go up to a mental ward and say: ‘You’re idiots’? No. I would never do that, but sometimes saying retard is funny, it’s a release.”
Glover, as Childish Gambino, also rapped about Asian women a lot, and often in demeaning or shocking ways. It has led many in media to pose questions like “Does Childish Gambino have an Asian problem?”
Some lines were simple, such as “This Asian dude, I stole his girl, and now he got that Kogi beef” or “I need some variation, especially if she very Asian.”
Some, though, were jaw-dropping: “I got a girl on my arm dude, show respect/Something crazy, and Asian, Virginia Tech.” The line refers to Seung-Hui Cho, a Korean American who killed 32 people and wounded 17 others when he opened fire on his fellow students at Virginia Tech in 2007.
These lines are clearly meant to be cheeky, funny, clever or satirical. Even so, Glover has clearly matured as an artist during the past decade — but “Bro Rape” lives on YouTube right next to “This Is America.”
Glover doesn’t often discuss his art in public. (His publicist never responded to a request for comment from The Washington Post.)
When asked by E! what he hopes “This Is America” does, for example, he inscrutably replied, “I just wanted to make, you know, a good song. Something that people can play on the Fourth of July.”
And recently, in the New Yorker, he said, perhaps as a form of ironic performance art (Kanye, again, comes to mind): “I feel like Jesus. I do feel chosen. My struggle is to use my humanity to create a classic work — but I don’t know if humanity is worth it, or if we’re going to make it.”
When asked in that profile if he looks up to anyone, he responded in Kanye-esque fashion, “I don’t see anyone out there who’s better. Maybe Elon Musk. But I don’t know yet if he’s a supervillain.”
What Glover hasn’t done is apologize, or take back the things he’s said. According to the crowdsourced website Setlist.fm, where fans post concert set lists, he’s mostly abandoned performing his more controversial songs. And he once dismissed his own first album as “decrepit Drake.”
The most open he’s probably ever been came in 2013, after he left the NBC sitcom “Community.” That October, he Instagrammed several handwritten messages scrawled in all caps on Residence Inn Marriott stationery that explained he didn’t leave the show to rap, but to be on his own, and that he was reeling from seeing “a bunch of people die this year.”
It then listed several more insecurities:
- “I’m afraid people hate who I really am.”
- “I’m afraid I hate who I really am.”
- “I’m scared I’ll never grow out of ‘Bro Rape.’”
- “I’m afraid people think I hate my race.”
- “I’m afraid people think I hate women.”
Finally it said that no matter how many “mistakes you’ve made during the year, your life, your eternity, you’re always allowed to be better,” underlining the last point.
“You’re always allowed to grow up,” it continued. “If you want.”
It seems that’s exactly what Glover is trying to do: To grow up. But the Internet doesn’t always make that so easy. It’s a space that obscures and blurs time, making the past seem present, a place where old mistakes have a habit of lingering — even if their perpetrators attempt to outgrow them.
The question is how much that matters. In the Internet Age, are you always allowed to be better?