By DeVaughn Harris
So, given all this information that we, as the public, have received from Glover, Gambino, Earnest, along with all of Glover’s different personas, the question that we’re left with is: What does it all mean? In other words, so what? What can we, as Glover’s audience, take from the stories he’s told, re-told, and continues to tell? To answer this we have to look at a specific population: his fanbase, his audience. Glover’s aptitude for storytelling adds a new facet to the multi-faceted nature of the griot, and that facet is influence. A story is often times told for its content, i.e. the message, but there’s a latent function of a story, and that is the influence of its form. Marshall McLuhan, in The Medium is the Massage, claims that “all media works us over completely,” meaning that medium, the vehicle for the story, carries with it its own power: “the medium, or process, of our time – electric technology – is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. It is forcing us to reconsider and reevaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted.” Donald Glover’s adventures through media is asking us to do these things, to reconsider our relationship to race and technology, primarily. One of the major ways he accomplishes this is through the choices he makes regarding medium. Moreover, the way in which a storyteller delivers a story, that is, the media through which the story teller tells his story, can impact the audience so that they will, in turn, become storytellers themselves. Glover’s fanbase serves an excellent example of this; evidence can be seen on platforms such as Reddit, Rap Genius, and YouTube wherein fans of Glover’s, Gambino’s, Earnest’s, etc., interpret, debate, and discuss their own affirmations and/or reservations about Glover’s stories.
The most exciting thing about Glover’s fans’ reaction to his work is that they’re doing the exact same work that an academic would do in university, rather, in more familiar terms; they’re doing exactly what DJ Spooky claims a DJ would do. In Banks’ Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age he writes about the DJ as academic:
The DJ has to know his or her audience enough to know what to say and what to play at all times…playing in the tensions between familiar associations and new connections, new contexts, and experience the kind of release that sends them home drenched in sweat and sensory. The DJ creates and recreates community with every performance….(Banks, 28).
Banks is talking about the skills a DJ must possess in order to maintain their crowd’s attention. In this same way, Banks is describing the skills an academic must possess in order to continually fuel a conversation that they’re having with their audience. That’s what academia is. It’s researching topics, phenomena, or even people in order to pull out questions, and hopefully, answers that will fuel a conversation that the academic themselves believes must occur. A DJ is doing that, except they’re researching sound; they’re looking at sounds, they’re learning how to watch the flow of their crowd in order to know which rhythms to interject with, when to drop the bass, when to raise the treble, when to add in the hi-hats or the synth. In order to make this argument more cohesive, simply replace the word “DJ” in Banks’ interpretation of a DJ’s responsibility with the word “academic;” I’m willing to bet my bottom dollar that a similarity in essence will jump out.
In 2009, Rap Genius started as a platform for annotating clever rap lyrics. In other words, much like the DJ in Bank’s earlier interpretation, Rap Genius is a platform where non-academics are able to do academic work. Fans of an artist are able to offer their interpretation of their favorite song’s lyrics in an effort to try and decipher the artists’ work, much like an academic researching artist in an attempt to discover new meaning and offer a new perspective from which future audiences can work. An example more relative to Glover’s sphere of influence can be seen on the song “I. Flight of the Navigator” from Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet. The song begins with an introduction in the form of a monologue from Gambino recounting a dream he had. When reading a fan’s interpretation of the introduction, it’s clear to see the elements of research that’ve been implemented into the deciphering the lyric; the fan writes, “In the Because the Internet screenplay, The Boy wakes up in the hospital after his suicide attempt while this song plays. This is vividly shown in the visual for the song as well. With that being said, the dream he describes here may have happened during his coma.” With hyperlinks to the screenplay that accompanied Gambino’s second album, the fan, or contributor in Genius’ terms, is using the tool of reference to substantiate their claim beyond its superficiality. The contributor is grounding their interpretation in the work done by the artist in order to show a link between their interpretation and the text. This not only is a sign of the permeability of academic skills, but it shows that fans are willing to contribute to Gambino’s work; they’re willing to respond back to the work that has been given to them in hopes of deciphering the story that Gambino is trying to tell and re-telling it in their own style, or they’re internalizing the influence that Gambino’s story carries, re-orienting his message, and telling a story of their own.
Another example of academic skills permeating different social groups is Reddit. Launched in 2005, Reddit is home to thousands of communities, endless conversation, and authentic human connection. In other words, everything Glover stands for, hence his message about the Internet and human interaction explained in one of my previous blog posts. The communities that Reddit references in their about message are known as subreddits, and in those subreddits, fans of a certain artist, tv personality, or even random things on the internet like cat videos or watching old grandmothers knit, can congregate and exchange ideas about anything pertaining to the subreddit’s focus. Glover’s subreddit, titled “r/donaldglover,” explores every aspect of Glover’s work offering interpretations, arguments, and analyses of it all. The most notable example can be seen in user u/MetamodernCam‘s work: a multimodal research project (much like this one!) focused on Gambino’s sophomore album, specifically the metaphysical and existential qualities that present themselves throughout the entire project. MetamodernCam’s website explores the entire breadth of Because the Internet, and although it is an academic paper in its purest form, the author has condensed it into the form of a website to remain consistent with the Internet’s mode of delivery: fast and succinct. While I can praise MetamodernCam’s work for a few more lines, I want to examine the work he’s doing with his paper and his website: he’s essentially taking Gambino’s message(s), re-orienting them, and producing a story of his own and building on top of Gambino’s original message. In this way, MetamodernCam is using academic skills to re-tell a story and tell a story of his own to an audience that he knows well enough (the r/donaldglover subreddit) to be confident that they’ll appreciate the story. This synthesizes the skills of the DJ/academic, the work of the griot, and the work the audience member such that MetamodernCam is using academic tools to interpret and understand a message, then re-orienting that message in order to produce one of his own. Like DJ Spooky says, “DJing is writing. Writing is DJing.” Glover’s writing across media produces more writing within (and about) that media.
The synthesizing of all three aspects of story telling and re-telling come together to form one last argument for this website: we can all be griots. While Glover and his ability to tell stories are the focal points of this project, the conclusion must branch off of his work in order to give the audience something tangible to walk away with. While Glover is a modern-day griot, using the Internet as a method of spreading his stories, he doesn’t do so without reason. In an interview regarding one of his recent movies, The Lion King, he says, “I know culture…and I’m going to make culture that’s going to affect people.” In this quote, Glover is saying that he wants to make things that speak personally to people, he wants to tell stories, like The Lion King, that inspire culture and bring forth a new generation of storytellers. Well, this website is exactly that. While Glover is evidently a griot in every sense of the word, there is room for more of them, more modern-day griots.