By DeVaughn Harris
Gambino’s nature as a griot presents itself most emphatically during the Because the Internet (BTI) album era. Mainly because it’s the most clear example throughout his career of how he is able to permeate different social spheres with his stories, to build a network of stories across song, film, television, and even live performance. In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins writes, “In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best—so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction.” (Jenkins, 96). Similarly, we cannot call Because the Internet simply an “album:” it is a short film, a screenplay (that is not the same as the short film), a series of live performances, a set of music videos, a video game, and an album. Gambino employs several different mediums of artistic delivery in order to communicate his message about the Internet and the role it plays in shaping human interaction.
Looking closely at Gambino’s work during the BTI era, we can create a layout, or a blueprint, for his transmedia world. For starters, let’s take a look at the short film Gambino created as an accompaniment to the album, titled Clapping for the Wrong Reasons. The film is loosely related to a screenplay Glover also wrote, titled Because the Internet, which Childish Gambino tweeted out shortly before the release of the album. The tweet has since been deleted, but according to the widely read – and sourced – website Rap Genius, the Because the Internet screenplay “shows off Gambino’s TV writing/acting chops and follows the life of a character simply called “the Boy” (played by Gambino himself), exploring his family dynamics and relationship with technology, high points and heartbreaks. Each of the album’s tracks corresponds to each of the script’s scenes.” Despite the fact that Gambino deleted the tweet, the original access point to the screenplay, all 72 pages of the script have been made available (with fan annotations) on Rap Genius. In other words, Gambino “drops” the screenplay via Twitter and, before he deletes it, the screenplay is passed through the hands of the millions of people who read and write on Rap Genius, where it lives on as a text Gambino initially authored but that now belongs to his audience; the only “copy” of the screenplay that exists is now literally in the hands of the internet, where fans annotate the screenplay, illustrating it’s connections with the album and Childish Gambino’s public persona.
“The Boy” who appears in the screenplay also appears in the short film Clapping for the Wrong Reasons. It’s implied that “the boy” in Clapping for the Wrong Reasons is also Childish Gambino, though he’s never named in the film. Clapping for the Wrong Reasons has a very limited linear narrative arc – it is a day in the life of “the boy,” or Childish Gambino. There is no obvious plot. During this one day, “the boy” floats through an enormous mansion set high up in the Hollywood hills. He is woken up by an unnamed character who tells him he has a phone call and when he gets to the phone he finds that the caller is actually looking for someone else. He moves from room to room throughout the mansion throughout the day. He writes music with some of his friends. He visits his brother who is playing video games. He talks about strange dreams he’s been having with a friend in the garden on the grounds of the mansion. During all of these interactions, “the boy” tries to find some kind of communion with his friends, with his community, only to be interrupted or to fall short. In perhaps the most sad interaction throughout the day, he confesses to a friend that he once had a homosexual experience with a childhood foster sibling. Even this admission, this confession, is met with confusion and silence. Clapping for the Wrong Reasons works on its audience like a parable, the mansion itself is the vast, beautiful ether we wander through as we try to connect in various ways with the people in our lives. These connections, though, are short lived when they happen to be successful (and often are not). In the final scene of the film, as “the boy” is walking out of the house, he runs into “the girl” who woke him up that morning. As she walks away from him, he turns and says “yo, who are you?” She grins and keeps walking away.
There are two versions of Clapping for the Wrong Reasons. The version addressed above is just under half an hour long and provides an immersive storytelling experience for the audience. The second version is called “the internet version” and is under one minute 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 also carries with it storytelling opportunities. Gambino creates two versions of the film, the director’s cut and the internet version, in order to tell the story of how we, as humans, respond to things on the Internet. The album does this, but in the form of musical delivery: “3005” hovers over Gambino’s childhood loneliness; “Flight of the Navigator” follows the voice’s urgency to find comfort in the face of the loss of of a loved one; and “Life: The Biggest Troll” tells us that “life’s the biggest troll but the joke’s on us, yeah the joke’s on you.” In the life we live online, according to Because the Internet, as soon as we think we get it, we don’t. The joke’s on us. There is an emotional reality to this, explored through the album; there is an existential quality to this, explored through the short film; and there is transmedia awareness to this, demonstrated by the various ways the audience is invited to experience and think about how these media interact and what they say about our digital lives. Jenkins tells us that in the perfect transmedia world “each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice versa.” (96). But Gambino asks us to put them into relation to each other – to use them to figure the others out – to see what we see when we look at the network of connections across album, film, screenplay, and the ways in which we consume and interpret those differing media. And as we step back to look at the architecture of Gambino/Glover’s media transformations, we see that they all add up to an overlying message: our digital lives simultaneously define and distort human connection, while also offering us the tools required to escape and recalibrate – through the making of art – which makes possible authentic human connection. Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, as its title suggests, shows us that we are applauding the internet for all the wrong things: it has only compounded the loneliness and disconnection we felt before it, but we can still make art out of it. We can still make music out of it. And we can make a transmedia world in which these connections become more possible – fans can annotate screenplays and song lyrics, the audience can be a character in the larger story assembled through these multi-media. We are invited not only to see ideas that are addressed in songs like “3005,” “Flight of the Navigator,” and “Life: The Biggest Troll,” don’t only appear as song lyrics, but have counterpoints in film – “Yo, who are you?” – and live performance. Maybe the internet, these transmedia connections imply, is better for making art than it is for “communication.”
Gambino is interested in creating worlds so his fans are able to navigate through different mediums of expression while still hearing – and participating in – that message. Along with the short film and screenplay, a controversial video game (that was never released to the public) accompanies the album as well. The choice to not release the video game, but to make trailers for it and generate anticipation for it, is, itself, a statement on trolling on the internet, the ways in which hopes and stakes rise and rise, to frequently be dashed. The trailer for the game, for example, includes the text “you can control the world…once you understand it.” But the internet is not a world we entirely understand – it is constantly changing. The “control” we seek isn’t possible. The game, so to speak, isn’t real. All these aspects, these media and comments about media, along with the Deep Web Tour, make for a world in which Gambino’s philosophy regarding the Internet thrives. Fans are actually upset that the video game wasn’t released – and their frustration is part of the point. And his audience, witnesses to the expansion across the internet that is the BTI era of Gambino’s work, are invited to experience (not just consume) these different aspects/artifacts and to experience them as a multi-layered text as interested in how it is expressing itself as much as what it is expressing. This act of transmedia world building is a key aspect of Glover’s role as a modern-day griot insofar that he is spreading a cohesive message that takes various routes to different audiences with relative ease. By offering a digital album, a digital film, a digital screenplay, and a digital video game (or lack thereof) – all of which you can access with a laptop and a wifi connection – he is mastering the art of storytelling in the digital age, thus making him a modern-day digital griot. He makes use of our saturation in the internet and, through making art in various ways out of it, provides a comment on what it’s like to live with and within it. We can get lost in the funhouse. Or we can make art to find our way out.