By DeVaughn Harris
Donald Glover begins his journey as a storyteller starting immediately after he graduates college at New York University. Upon graduating, he is offered the position as a staff writer by Tina Fey for her award-winning show, 30 Rock. It’s easy to understand how Glover told stories in his role as a writer, but it’s good to cover as much ground as possible when analyzing his career in conjunction with griot tradition. After leaving 30 Rock as a writer to pursue his interest in acting, Glover was offered the role of Troy Barnes on another award-winning television series titled Community. The shift is social spheres, which are also in line with the shift in media delivery insofar that they both come with different audiences is evident. The social sphere shifts from people who are fans of Glover’s stories, or him as a writer, to people who are fans of Glover’s person and what he has to offer on screen and verbally. This shift within social spheres and media takes place multiple times throughout Glover’s career. To climb the show business hierarchy from staff writer to actor supports the claim that he is able to adapt to different social environments seemingly well as Community continued for three and a half seasons on the air.
Although television was something within Glover’s realm of interest and capability, he believed that there was more to be done. After making the monumental decision to leave Community in pursuit of his musical career, his alter ego, Childish Gambino, began to take shape. In this stage, which can be thought of as the infancy of his nature as a griot, Gambino is leading “a revolt against a whole complex of ‘givens’ coded into society,” specifically, he is resisting “givens” that have been coded into rhetoric surrounding the black community. Through his music, he is telling stories about black experience in an attempt to interrogate the negative rhetoric geared towards blacks and remedying it by offering new, constructive perspectives in his lyrics. Gambino’s first studio album, Camp, is rich with stories. Beginning with the first track titled “Outside,” Gambino tells a story of growing up in Stone Mountain, Atlanta, Georgia where his mother would ask him to “watch the meter, so they [the electric company] don’t turn the lights off,” or the fact that she worked two jobs just so he could “get into that white school.” In this album, Gambino is telling stories from Glover’s childhood to provide a basis for “the only black kid at a Sufjan concert.” As a child, and well into his adult years, Gambino saw himself as a standout. He has a funny looking hairline, he wears short shorts, he loves Sufjan, and he had the benefit of growing up in a two-parent household, a luxury most Black children don’t experience in today’s world. In the album’s ninth track, titled “Hold You Down,” Gambino makes a plea to Black fathers saying, “If you’re a father, you should stick around if you could. ‘Cuz even if you’re bad at it, you can Tiger Woods. Or MJ. We [Black children] warriors, we all need senseis.” Glover is pulling from different aspects of Black society in order to tell stories while using a device ubiquitously palatable to the Black community: music. By doing this, Gambino is borrowing a communication device from the Black author Henry Louis Gates Jr. known as “signifyin’.” Signifyin’ is the act of using something relatively palatable to communicate widely understood ideas to a certain demographic in order to help them understand. Banks’ definition of signifyin’, in terms of the DJ as a griot, reads as, ” [The DJ is] playing in tensions between familiar associations and new connections, new contexts, and experience the kind of release that sends them home drenched in sweat and sensory.” (Banks, 28) In this definition, Banks is consolidating the DJ’s role as a griot into one moment: the moment when the DJ is able to translate a message of a good time through his various ways of mixing, remixing, and delivering music to “familiar associations,” or audiences. Although the delivery may differ between different audiences, the message of having a good time doesn’t get lost in the midst of the translation of the message. It’s like the ideal state of a game of telephone; the message rarely falters in its transport from one audience to the other. In other words, you’re intellectually leveling the playing field. Gambino does this well with his music in Camp as he is using music, namely rap, to string together complex stories to make it easier for his audience to understand what he’s trying to say. By using this method of signifyin’, he is able to communicate messages about race, inequity, hypermasculinity, African-American culture, sexuality, fatherhood, and more in his debut album.
Later in Glover’s musical career as Gambino, he develops an interest in our methods of communication themselves, substantiating further his role as a modern-day griot. His sophomore album, Because the Internet, explored the new frontier of communication, relationships, and human interaction via the web. Something he communicated frequently throughout interviews surrounding the album’s release is that “we have the technology to make things way realer.” The Internet is used to deliver information succinctly and swiftly. For example, Instagram, a popular social network that uses pictures, instead of words, to communicate messages, allows users to curate their own archives while also crafting stories about their lives. Lifewire, an internet blog much like this one, writes that Instagram is “like a simplified version of Facebook, with an emphasis on mobile use and visual sharing. Just like other social networks, you can interact with other users on Instagram by following them, being followed by them, commenting, liking, tagging, and private messaging.” The third song on Gambino’s second album is titled “Worldstar” after the popular website, worldstarhiphop.com, where users can upload videos of captivating events that famously consist of streetfights. The song, and website, are examples of just how fast and succinct the internet is; videos on the website usually range anywhere from a few seconds to three minutes, because that’s all a person needs when surfing the web. Internet users, for Gambino, aren’t looking for a full-fledged analysis of an event when they’re on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, or Worldstar, they want to see things that grab their attention, but only for a short while, so they can move to the next viral video, meme, or status update; Gambino believes we want as much information as we can get in the shortest amount of time possible. In the song, Gambino says “Yeah, motherfucker take your phone out to record this. Ain’t nobody can ignore this. I’m more or less a moral-less individual, making movies with criminals, tryna get them residuals.” Here, he’s emphasizing the moral depravity of the Internet. The Internet is fast and succinct, therefore, by definition, there is very little room for morality when it comes to getting information to websites like Worldstar, or other social media networks.
An example of Gambino’s philosophy regarding the Internet, and yet another clear example of his griotic aptitude for storytelling, is the short film he wrote and starred in titled, “Clapping for the Wrong Reasons.” Released on YouTube in 2013, the film has two variations, the director’s cut, and the internet version. The director’s cut is a 24-minute short film whereas the internet version is only 50 seconds long. By creating separate versions of the same film, Glover demonstrates that the Internet feeds us information that is both short and fast, but that carries much baggage with it that almost always warrants unpacking. Watching the 50-second internet version, it seems as if viewers have all the information they need, however, if they scroll to the full-length version of the film, they realize that they didn’t have all the information they needed. When interacting with posts on the internet, regardless of the form (e.g. video, text, audio), we settle for gists. For example, Twitter’s character limit, to date, is 280 characters. Because of that, blog posts like these, that offer in-depth analyses of rhetorical phenomena such as Childish Gambino’s music cannot survive in an environment like Twitter, nor will they in any other digital social media environment. The director’s cut version of Clapping For The Wrong Reasons offers us what we don’t usually see on the Internet: a full-length rhetorical landscape. We settle for the gist of an idea, a conclusion rather than the full argument, a result rather than the process, an ending rather than the entire story. The director’s cut symbolizes what the Internet rarely has space for: a full-length message. By including both versions, Gambino offers an opportunity to view the full message and the gist, and by the full message simply having the space to exist, as a result of Gambino’s philosophical volition, the message has the ability to be delivered, intact, to his audience.
Gambino’s fifteenth song on Because the Internet is titled, “Zealots of Stockholm [Free Information],” and it’s named as such because that is what he believes the Internet to be: free information for the public’s taking, yet we prefer the condensed version of that information. Throughout the song’s latter half, the words “free information” are repeated, as if Gambino is trying to send a message to his listeners about the story he’s trying to tell about the Internet. Gambino wants to say that the Internet is literally free information. A majority of the world can access the Internet and receive information. However, similarly to with the aforementioned dichotomy of the full-length message and the gist, audiences settle for 280-character tweets rather than full-length messages when they can access both with relative ease. Gambino, remaining true to his nature as a griot, is saying that the content of the Internet, i.e. the information, is available for everybody. It always has been.