By DeVaughn Harris
Donald Glover showcases an eerie understanding of his many audiences. From his comedy special, Weirdo, to his musical career under the persona of Childish Gambino, he is able to read his audience members insofar that he can produce an environment that fits the mood. In other words, he’s reading the room. An example of this can be seen in Weirdo when Glover, at 2:00 minutes, looks into the audience and asks, “How many of you guys know me from my show ‘Community‘?” After a round of applause, he follows that question up by saying, “Great. Just want to let you guys know this is gonna [sic] be nothing like that.” By openly admitting that the next hour will be full of everything that isn’t Community, he’s emitting a sort of confidence that can only be achieved by being able to gauge the mood of your audience. This process is similar to a process DJ Spooky highlights in his book Rhythm Science. Spooky refers to this process as watching the flow, hence the title name of this post. He explains it as “the content versus context scenario of Dj culture.” (12). For Spooky, the the DJ navigates a complex set of cultural references (usually songs) that has, because of the proliferation of recording technologies, created a “flow,” a torrent of media that the DJ intervenes on and uses in order to create a scene or a show or an event. He uses the context of a certain song as the content of his own. The content versus context binary allows a DJ to understand his or her audience (another, new context) in order to provide the best atmosphere for them (another, new content). The context can be thought of in a social aspect. Social context can include anything from the political mood of a generation to the latest fad; Glover works as a griot by taking into account the social context his audience exists in and producing content that cultivates that culture, it also holds the potential to inspire some audience members to possibly add to that social context by producing a new political viewpoint or a new fad. Glover does this in Weirdo, as he takes on the conventions of stand-up comedy and performs to the audience expectations, creating a new “self,” or another “self” that is Donald Glover the stand-up comedian. This same effect is most easily seen when he dons the alter ego of Childish Gambino. Moreover, Gambino notes the complexity of his audience of listeners quite frequently throughout his music. An example of this can be heard in the song “Sunrise” on Gambino’s first studio album titled Camp. In the song, Gambino says, “To my white dudes, it’s a concert. To my black nerds, this is church.” Similarly, in Weirdo, Glover points out in the beginning of the special that the comedy he’s about to perform will be nothing like the relatively mild-mannered comedic role of Troy Barnes on Community. He knows he speaks to two different audiences that perceive and understand the information he’s communicating, the stories he’s telling, differently. And he shapes his work accordingly. He takes on new shapes in new contexts and new media.
By creating this complex set of selves, he’s not changing the message of being an outlier, he’s simply reconfiguring the delivery of the message in order to reach a new level located within a social context. Some audiences of his may be interested in experiencing a comedic shift from mild-mannered to raunchy, while another portion of his audience, located in a more musical social context, may be interested in the way he’s using music to synthesize the mild-mannered-ness and raunchiness attitudes into song lyrics, i.e., a different medium. By being able to watch the flow, or analyze his audience and where they lie in the social context, of his audiences across mediums of comedy and music, Glover acts a griot, permeating different social circles in order to communicate a similar message to less-similar groups of people.
However, with different audiences come different expectations. This is so for obvious reasons: different mediums have different conventions. His televisual audience expects Troy Barnes, comedic audience fans expect Glover’s stand-up comedic form, and his musical audience expect Childish Gambino. Being able to present himself in those three different forms as Barnes, Glover, and Gambino supports his aptitude for acclimating to different audiences, thus reinforcing his role as a griot. In griotic fashion, though, the message remains cohesive in its essence throughout these three mediums. In Community, Barnes is trying to fit into the mold of being a community college student as best he can without fully conforming. He is able to do so by befriending Abed Nadir (played by Danny Pudi) and the pair begin to foster identities that are outliers to their social circle. Similarly, in Weirdo, Glover, as himself, speaks about his struggle to build an identity growing up Black in Atlanta, while he attended New York University (NYU) and began writing for 30 Rock in New York City, and as an actor in Los Angeles. Further, as Gambino on Camp, he discusses growing up Black in America and struggling with how to present himself in different social situations (school, relationships, the music industry, etc.), yet another identity inquiry. Throughout these three mediums, Glover’s message about identity does not falter; he reinvents it by taking different forms and shifting his mode of delivery to various audiences.
In Rhythm Science, Spooky says “a logic of dispersion creates the new gathering spaces, the cathedrals, the museum and galleries of the phantasmal, the virtual crafts that we use to extend our sense of telepresence.” (32). This “logic of dispersion” is another term for Glover’s transmedia world-building that he does throughout his career, whereas “the gathering spaces” are the worlds wherein his audiences manifest and congregate to immerse themselves. Glover’s career is multi-faceted which allows him to create these worlds: 30 Rock, Community, Weirdo, Childish Gambino (which includes all his musical works), Atlanta, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and The Lion King are all worlds that Glover has either invented, or re-invented whether through acting or writing (frequently both), with the intention of inviting his audience into gathering into new kinds of spaces. In these spaces – the spaces from which we watch him transform across these forms while maintaining an overarching story about race and gender in America today – we begin to see the ways in which these performances expose what these media are capable of, what we expect from them, and what they say to each other. To watch Donald Glover’s career is to take a course in transmedia storytelling. In the same fashion, we, the audience, are invited to gather in these episodes, these events, to immerse ourselves in Glover’s worlds and consume his message.