“That Well-Spoken Token”: Donald Glover and the Pl...

“That Well-Spoken Token”: Donald Glover and the Plight of Black Masculinity

This is a society that does not love Black males; it is one that refuses to understand their experience but instead continues to place them into categories or stereotypes such as aggressive brutes, murderers and drug dealers where they have no real say in how they are represented. It is no surprise, then, that they have made few strides in challenging these categorizations.

Traditionally, much of the analysis on masculinity in media has centered around the white man with little focus on the images of men of color, in particular those of Black men. Author Barbara Ehrenreich identified and commented on the shifting masculine identities white men possessed throughout the years in her book “The Hearts of Men” — the Breadwinner, the Beat, the Playboy — and how these identities forced them uphold a strict set of beliefs, morals and values. These studies fail to acknowledge the Black men who, like the white men, feel stuck in an institution of identity with a specific system of expectations and beliefs, but unlike them, are doomed to fail.

In her article We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, feminist scholar bell hooks says that Black men have been “victimized by stereotypes that were first articulated in the nineteenth century but hold sway over the minds and imaginations of citizens of this nation in the present day.”

However, Black men who oppose this classification are becoming more visible with the likes of Dave Chappelle, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper and Donald Glover — who seek to differentiate themselves from these stereotypes through their work and public performance. Yet, this differentiation often leads to a new type of segregation in communities of color where their most successful become incredibly distant from them. Glover’s 12-year career in particular is placed in a very interesting spot on the spectrum of Black patriarchy. While he used to embody some of the stereotypes that plague Black men, with time he has repositioned himself as an emerging figure in the plight of Black masculinity in media. Through his various pursuits as an actor, comedian, writer, musician and showrunner, Glover has challenged hegemonic Black masculinity norms by resisting the confinement of a white-dominated patriarchy and radicalizing his own social consciousness.

Glover entered the entertainment industry in 2006 when Tina Fey and producer David Miner contracted him to write for “30 Rock” after reading a spec script he wrote for an episode of “The Simpsons” and watching the short videos he had made for student improv group Derrick Comedy at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. He was hired shortly before graduating from NYU with a degree in dramatic writing. In a profile in The New Yorker, Glover claimed he got the job “because funds from NBC’s Diversity Initiative ‘made him free.’” Glover’s race certainly influenced his career, but only as a token that implied racial acceptance and inclusivity.

He wrote for the show and made occasional cameo appearances until 2009 when he decided he wanted to further pursue acting and other creative projects. Three days after quitting, he was cast in the NBC comedy “Community” as Troy Barnes, a former high school jock who learns to embrace his nerdy side while enrolled in a community college. Simultaneously, Glover was experimenting with music and adopting his rapper persona, Childish Gambino — a name given to him by the Wu-Tang Clan name generator — he released a series of mixtapes for free on the internet. His first mixtape, “Sickboi,” was released in 2008 and four more followed throughout 2009 and 2010. Glover began demonstrating just how talented he really was, dipping his toe in different creative pursuits because he began realizing how many options were available to him. He developed fans as both Glover and Gambino but the latter gave him more creative liberty and the option to be himself in a time where he began feeling like he was trying too hard to please others and conforming to their definitions of what a Black male should be.

With Childish Gambino he was able to channel these vulnerabilities and attempt to re-define what it meant to be a Black man — but it took a while before he finally found his voice in the plight of Black masculinity. He was caught in the internal conflict of deconstructing hegemonic norms of Blackness and the desire to please his audience and sell albums. In his song “Backpackers,” he describes himself as “that well-spoken token who ain’t been heard.” In March 2011 he released an EP which was quickly followed by his first studio album, “Camp,” in November. The two presented a more vulnerable Gambino who rapped about his experience as being too Black for white people and not Black enough for Black people with lyrics such as “they talking hood sh—t and I know ain’t know that was about/ ‘Cause hood sh—t and Black sh—t is super different.”

Yet, his other lyrics still heavily relied on Black stereotypes in order to be commercially successful. In his piece in The Atlantic, Michael P. Jeffries identifies this as “a soulless attempt to cash in.” He wasn’t attempting to embody the characteristics of Gangsta Rap that were popularized in the mid 1980s and still dominated mainstream hip-hop, but he was trying to assert the fact that he was a “real” rapper and Black man by falling back on the “objectification and degradation of women” that was popular in rap music.

Nonetheless, “Camp” allowed Gambino to write about his experiences with race, class and gender “in an attempt to reclaim a corner of an industry that had decided only one type of expression was allowed,” Jeffries said. This expression showed men as assertive and thuggish, implying that they had to be from the streets to be taken seriously as a rapper. Yet Tupac and Biggie were two of the biggest rappers and central figures of hip-hop but had a good upbringing with the former attending a performing arts high school in New York.

Once they died, however, Jay-Z took over, and reinforced the idea that the story of the hustler and the story of the rapper “overlap as much as they converge,” Miles White said in “From Jim Crow to Jay-Z.”

In an interview with The Guardian’s Robert Fitzpatrick, Glover discusses this shift in rap music and Black masculinity, saying, “Black culture is a fight. We want to hold on to what we are, but sometimes the things that we are can be totally negative.” Fitzpatrick asks if he thinks his pop rap album will change this restriction of Black masculinity to which Glover responds that it can try. In one song on “Camp,” he raps, “You won’t speak to the hood, man / If I was given one chance I think I could, man. These Black kids want somethin’ new, I swear it / Somethin’ they wanna say but couldn’t ‘cause they embarrassed.” These lyrics address his belief that there are more men who identify with his story of being a Black kid who didn’t and still doesn’t align with the characteristics of the hood that have been exploited in the media. As a result, Gambino takes it on himself to voice these stories and attempt to speak to some portion of the hood.

Gambino also references another rapper in The Guardian interview. He mentions Tyler the Creator who, similar to himself, does not physically adhere to hegemonic Black masculine norms but continues to reinforce them through his aggressive masculine performance. Members of Tyler’s hip-hop collective Odd Future also posed themselves in the same debate of what it means to be real hip-hop artists, specifically, Frank Ocean, who publicly came out as a gay man in a Tumblr post in 2012. Yet, Ocean continued to display heteronormative ideals through a “continued performance of what has been normalized to reflect a Black male in hip-hop’s artists’ behavior” with strippers and naked women appearing as the object of his gaze in his music videos. All three artists had crafted albums and identities that attempted to dismantle racist stereotypes of Blackness but, unfortunately, neither was willing to fully disown the misogynistic tendencies and aggression that make up hip-hop authenticity.

Concurrent with Childish Gambino’s growing fame was Glover’s immersion into stand-up comedy with two stand-up specials on Comedy Central. In the same interview with Fitzpatrick, Glover discusses his comedy routines as well as his improv video from college “Bro Rape: A Newsline Investigative Report.” In these comedy sketches, he joked about topics such as Blackness, AIDs and rape, garnering a lot of controversy. “I think it’s odd that you can’t joke about rape, when people joke about murder all the time…I think it’s a comedian’s job to make everything funny,” he said. He continued discussing how his comedy is a release for him and all of the pain he’s endured growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, as a Black boy who “didn’t like the stuff Black guys are meant to like.”

Channeling one’s pain and experiences in artistic ways is common among entertainers, especially comedians. Dave Chappelle openly addressed his experiences as a Black male and the limited representations of Black masculinity in his comedic sketch series “Chappelle’s Show,” which also served as a tool for social advocacy before he abruptly quit the show in 2005. Yet, Glover’s insensitive jokes about rape dismiss the trauma and aggression that lie within the topic, further contributing to rape culture. Moreover, his other comedic routines involve him “comparing having kids to AIDS, mak[ing] confusing compliment/insult jabs at Black women,” said Richey Collazo in Affinity Magazine, reinforcing the misogyny that plagues Black masculinity.

Following his two comedy specials, Glover had minimal success in stand-up comedy but continued growing as a musician and actor. He remained as a series regular on “Community,” released“Royalty,” and embarked on tours as Childish Gambino. Additionally, he signed a deal with FX to develop a music-themed television comedy. He also began writing a concept album titled “Because the Internet” with a team of writers, directors and producers that would become his team for every creative project going forward.

Before the album was released, Glover and director Hiro Murai released a short film titled “Clapping for the Wrong Reasons” as a prelude to it. The film shows Glover and his team’s creative process and repetitive daily routine that consisted of smoking marijuana, drinking and partying with girls. Glover, however, appears to be tired of the lifestyle he has been living and hiding under. Everyone in the film embodies and revels in the lifestyle that fits the definition of hip-hop and rap culture, yet Glover finds himself feeling isolated in an environment he doesn’t seem to fit into or want to try to fit into anymore.

At the end of the film, Glover and Fam Udeorji, one of the executive producers on the album, are sitting around a bonfire sharing personal stories from their childhood and teenage years. The latter talks about the time he purchased a gun and had to hide out on the streets because he was being threatened and stalked by a group of people near his house. He emphasizes the fear he felt for his life. Glover, in an attempt to relate, shares a story about one of the foster kids his parents took in who had to sleep in the same bed as he did and eventually kissed him.

These two stories couldn’t be more different with Udeorji’s being the epitome of a hood story and Glover’s being a story of sexual confusion. There is minimal conversation after this and Glover retreats back into the house, feeling as alienated as he did all throughout the film.

When asked to describe the meaning of “Clapping for the Wrong Reasons”by Noisey, Glover says there is “no point to the movie.” Nonetheless, the film does say a lot about the inescapable feelings of loneliness and “otherness” he has felt for most of his life but has tried “too much sometimes” to pretend he didn’t feel by embodying hegemonic Black norms to please people.

It is no coincidence, then, that around the release of the film, Glover announced his departure from “Community.” In the Noisey interview he says, “Watching Kanye and my other heroes do st they were afraid of made me ask myself, and this is not a diss to ‘Community,’ but why am I sitting here and just smiling? Is it for residual checks?” He was tired of being the token Black character and feeling like he was selling out by merely cashing in paychecks instead of actually making a difference or doing something for Black men.

The concept of selling out is one that frightens most entertainers but some choose to indulge in financial success, specifically those that come from poor backgrounds and have allowed themselves “to be co-opted, seduced by the promise of greater monetary rewards and access to mainstream power that are the payoffs for pushing a less radical message,” said hooks. The failure that lies within this is the lack of sharing this good wealth and power with others who come from similar backgrounds. Glover’s career had been influenced by his race since the beginning when Tina Fey hired him as a writer, but instead of changing the status quo from within the white-dominated entertainment industry, he began to assimilate. He became comfortable with the continuous paychecks and as a result shed a lot of the ideals and goals he set forth with a few years ago, neglecting to use his status as a multi-talented star to speak for those who remain silenced by hegemonic structures.

Upon the release of “Because the Internet,” Glover faced criticism on social media about his assimilation into white culture with many people saying he whitewashed the Black experience. Critics also said Glover failed to deconstruct the misogyny and aggression that made up Black masculinity. In a series of Instagram posts he set out to address these critiques and offer some insight into the internal dialogue that he regularly had. He said things such as, “I’m afraid I’ll regret this,” “I feel like I’m letting people down,” “I’m scared I’ll never grow out of bro-rape,” “I’m afraid people think I hate my race,” “I’m afraid people think I hate women.”

Glover was becoming aware of how he failed to dismantle the stereotypes and tropes he hated and instead began to embody them. Sometimes, people of color who do succeed shed some of their cultural identity, claiming it only halfway when it financially benefits them. This has led to a new form of segregation in communities of color where their brightest no longer belong to them but to the white culture that hates them.

One of the last posts in the series said: “You’re always allowed to be better. You’re always allowed to grow up.” With this Glover seemed to be telling his fans that he would do better as a spokesperson for the Black community and would shed these toxic features of Black masculinity that he had initially set out to deconstruct. He took all of this as a sign he needed to do some self-reflection and deleted his social media accounts, reemerging in 2015 as a softer, more socially conscious Glover and Childish Gambino.

That year he kept his projects to a minimum, taking on a few supporting roles in films like “The Martian” and “Magic Mike XXL” but focused on developing and shooting the show he had signed on to create for FX two years prior. This show, “Atlanta,” would follow two cousins, Earnest Marks and Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles who navigate the rap scene in Atlanta and learn the line between the street life and real life. Glover not only served as the creator but also starred as Earn, a homeless Princeton dropout who manages his cousin Paper Boi’s rap career.

The show premiered on September 6, 2016, to rave reviews, “Glover doesn’t need to write verses in order to make a profound impact in rap,” Carrie Battan wrote in The New Yorker. “Atlanta” gave viewers a deeper, darker look into the Black experience, highlighting topics such as the dismissal of mental health, police brutality, incarceration, homosexuality and cultural appropriation.

Moreover, there is a discussion of Earn’s masculinity that begins in the pilot with Paper Boi telling him, “Manage came from the word ‘man.’ And um, that ain’t really your lane.” Earn doesn’t embody the true definition of masculinity. He is homeless, constantly asking for money from his baby’s mother and overall possesses a non confrontational demeanor.

Glover seems to be attempting to redefine masculinity in Black culture or at the very least show that masculinity is on a spectrum. He carries this reflectiveness over to Childish Gambino’s album “Awaken, My Love!” which serves as an ode to the funk music he grew up listening to. The album consists of long distorted sounds, light soul, a bit of Auto-tune but most notably, no rapping. The lyrics also no longer focus on Gambino’s analysis of himself and his internal struggles. He instead focuses his attention outward with songs such as “Redbone” or “Zombies” recognizing the danger that often appears closer than one thinks, the lyrics appearing as warnings of some sorts to those listening.

“Zombies” in particular contains lyrics such as “We’re coming out to get you / We’re all so glad we met you / We’re eating you for profit.” The zombies Gambino sings about are money-hungry leeches seeking to exploit someone’s creativity for a financial benefit, a concept he is all too familiar with as he previously let white culture benefit off of him for many years. “Awaken, My Love!” demonstrates the level of Gambino’s awareness, an awareness he seemed to lack just three years prior when trying to assimilate to a hegemonic culture in which he was often exploited. He has now reemerged, awakened by the injustices his culture faces, and seeks to share this knowledge and his power as a successful entertainer with others.

Around the time he was making the album, Glover was given news he’d take on a new role in his life as a father. Fatherhood made Glover softer and want to, even more so than before, destroy the toxicity that plagued Black masculinity. The song “Baby Boy” specifically is written for his son Legend. It is a vulnerable song where Gambino coos about how small and precious his baby boy will be but also about some of the insecurities and fears he has about becoming a father to a Black son knowing how hard the world is on Black boys. These are fears that Black parents know too well: “There was a time before you / and there will be a time after you / though these bodies are not our own / walk tall little one, walk tall,” he says in “Baby Boy.”

This references Ta-Nehisi Coates’ novel “Between the World and Me” where he discusses the dangers of being a Black man in America, emphasizing the idea that they do not have any control over their bodies. Glover passes this message on to his son advising him to walk tall in a world that wants to see him fall down.

After the album’s release, Glover rose to a new level of stardom. “Atlanta” was renewed for a second season and the first season collected many award nominations and wins. In his acceptance speeches, he discussed the oppression of Black people and how his son made him believe in magic and people again. Additionally, he won his first Grammy as Gambino months after announcing that he’d be retiring his rapper persona after one last album in 2018. His work as Gambino seemed like a stepping stone for rap and hip-hop and a salve for Black teenagerswho identified with his feelings of isolation and being seen as outcasts because of their nonconforming identities as opposed to their hyper-masculine peers, but it seems as though this work may be finished with other performers and rappers such as Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean now allowing themselves to fully demonstrate their vulnerability and variations of masculinity. Even Jay-Z has demonstrated a new vulnerability on his latest studio album “4:44” showcasing a new, softer masculinity in the hip-hop world.

The world is seeing a shift in the way Black masculinity is portrayed in the media. Hip-hop and rap authenticity no longer heavily rely on aggression, violence or the degradation of women and men are allowed to be vulnerable about their feelings and are often celebrated for it. This is not all due to Childish Gambino but one can’t help but view his progression from someone who spent a lot of his life trying to adhere to hegemonic Black masculine norms to someone who seeks to dismantle it as a huge stepping stone and a model for men to follow. Though he has shed the toxic traits of his masculinity and expresses the reality of how hard this is in “Atlanta,” it is going to be hard to fully dismantle the toxicity that plagues the patriarchy when so many remain blinded by the lure of acceptance that comes with selling a less progressive message.

With one of his newest tracks titled “This is America,” Gambino continues to use his platform to highlight the role of Black entertainers in glamorizing their own trauma, as well as America’s desensitization towards the violence and mistreatment of Black people. The video, released on the same night of the track’s release, illustrates a gun-crazed society. Glover stars as a murderer who sings and dances as much as he pulls the trigger. Grimacing in one frame and then grinning in another, he maneuvers his way through the madness appearing behind him. This madness is riddled with metaphors about race and gun violence in America such as a nod to an old Jim Crow poster. Yet, the audience is too busy watching Gambino dance and sing along with a children’s choir (that he later shoots).

The dancing and singing serve as a distraction to the violence that inevitably finds itself in the Black community. Gambino himself serves as the murderer, not a white perpetrator, perhaps in an attempt to explain that Black entertainment serves as its own distraction from the violent realities Black America regularly faces. But instead of masking the reality entirely, “This is America” finds a way to make audiences uncomfortable, every viewing offering a new perspective of what exactly America is. The end of the music video shows Gambino running for his life, wide-eyed and sweaty. This is America, where Black males endure the worst confinement of a masculine identity, locked in and locked out by their own minds.

The video, then, serves as a reminder that there is still a lot of work to be done and Black entertainment, in many forms, is finding a way to implement change. Gambino (and Glover,) throughout the trajectory of his career, has placed himself in the middle of the plight of Black masculinity by reassessing his goals and pointing his gaze outwards, imagining a world where his sons and other Black boys can walk tall.


Header by Cody Corrall. Photo: Eli Watson, CC 2.0.