What train do you want to take? my date asks. I don’t answer, because I have no idea where we are. It's Halloween 2011 and we're going to Brooklyn Bowl to see Donald Glover, the writer/actor/comedian touring the country with his buzzy new album, Camp. I am told that Donald performs under the computer generated rap name Childish Gambino. Neither my date, nor I, can imagine a day two years in the future where hundreds of thousands of people will actually be anticipating the release of his third album, Because the Internet. We have just come from hearing Angela Davis speak about Black women, writing, and using our creativity to battle oppression.
I look at my phone, and it’s later than I’d hoped: 9:08—which means Donald Glover went on eight minutes prior. But that’s only in the alternate universe, a world outside New York and hip-hop, where things start on time.
I ask myself why tickets to this show are $20, and only available at the door, as if advance tickets had already sold out. That’s unlikely. But when we get there, it’s packed. It’s packed with furries—or maybe they’re just avid cartoon fans. Donald Glover, a.k.a., Childish Gambino, comes on stage—I miss his entrance in order to pee—and the crowd goes wild.
So I look. And I listen. And I'm waiting to be wowed, after having heard Donald spit a single whiny verse on Peter Rosenberg’s mixtape. I’m waiting for the punch-line. But I had already been informed by my date, many times before: He’s not a joke rapper; he’s for real.
Who isn’t these days?
My first thought—or, the first lyric I make out: “I love pussy and I love bitches” (Or is it “I love bitches and I love pussy”?)
My first thought: This again? I don’t know much about rap, so I’m not sure who the reigning emperor of pussy and bitches (what’s the difference?) is, but whoever claims the throne, they don’t need any more subjects. Which is funny, because he should make Donald their jester.
Before tonight, I’ve never heard Childish Gambino’s music, but I’ve also never heard his comedy. I’ve just seen him on the side of a bus and thought he was cute.
Well, he’s not. The other first thing I notice is that he has shoulders for ears, i.e., he’s tense. His eyes are bug-open, his eyebrows are permanent surprise. This is called “emoting.”
His emo is priceless. His emo is slavish to Drake ish—just rounder-faced. He has on a button-up and tie, he’s accompanied by a full band, and he’s bouncing around on stage, ever so rhythmically, but he’s really sad inside. You can tell. He says he’s not white enough for the white kids, not black enough for the black kids, and he’s a nerd, and he’s awkward, but it doesn’t matter because he gets mad bitches and hoes now, and yes, this is his only subject, and that’s stupid, but so what? He’s poorly rapping about poorly rapping. Meta-foolishness. And that’s how I know he’s sad. Because irony is the saddest form of humor.
The crowd just loves him, though. A pudgy white bunny knows every word, even the 'nigga' parts. He smiles delightedly as he mouths each word in the back of the room, one ear flopping over, a dribble of beer on his chin.
And he keeps going, this one, this Glover guy. All I can think, as I suck the sauce off a hickory-smoked barbeque wing, is that Angela Davis would hate this. And how glad I am that we didn’t invite her.
Because Donald is just so awkward, so uncomfortable in his own skin. In addition to his posture problems and unwillingness to blink is the fact that he’s so caught up on his childhood. Childish Gambino could be fudged into simpler terms to mean Babyish Baby, and that’s apt. Donald’s childhood, I glean, was very similar to mine: an ethnically black child who grew up culturally white because of the surrounding school system and neighborhood. The difference between him and me, however, is that I found something else to say besides Ow.
It’s amazing how pain can permeate. Soak. Completely overwhelm a person’s personality, goals, ability for rational thinking. If Donald Gambino weren’t so hurt by the achy split he was made to feel as a well-spoken, non-gangbanging little black boy, maybe he could find something to say besides, Gee, it really sucked being a well-spoken, non-gangbanging little black boy. It’s strange how genuinely funny he is, talking about hot Asian chicks at UCLA, and how people said he wasn’t really black, and how now, brown cow, everyone is riding his dick, because it’s really not funny at all. Not from back here. Not without more alcohol, a better get-up—not without the amount of distance it takes to laugh like that.
Somewhere, maybe in New York, maybe in a giant, gilded hotel suite, Donald is writing rap songs that are completely inaccessible as songs. The experience is true—didn’t Trey Ellis write about this very phenomenon, didn’t he call us all “cultural mulattoes” in the early nineties? He did. But in long lines of prose, not over snare and kick, not in front of whites who don’t—can’t—get it. Donald is staring out at the skyline, ordering room service, flipping channels, hoping he’ll catch himself—and then there he is, on stage, the hottest ticket in town, an almost-crown on his head, an almost-cape on his back. This is his dream, his dream as an unwanted black nerd, his reality as a cool-ass motherfucker. New York City. Just like he pictured it. Adoring bitches, dap for days. He is getting back at us for all those jabs at his tender pride, all those people who doubted him. This is for high school, for the cruelest thugs, for the clueless whites, for the girls who always said no. But not for anyone else.
Kyla Marshell is a poet and writer in New York. Her work has appeared in Vinyl Poetry, SPOOK Magazine, Blackbird Journal, and Okayplayer's The Revivalist, among others. Holler here: @khellonmars.
[Photo via Getty]