Donald Glover Is Not Your 'Woke Bae'
The New Yorker has a new in-depth profile with actor/writer/musician/renaissance man Donald Glover, and it’s the kind of thing that’ll make you think twice before you go back to tweeting about how that new Lando Calrissian Solo poster made you pregnant. The article, like the man, is a lot to take in, and defies any simple or easy readings. If there is a line between ego and honesty, Glover seems to walk in the other direction and ignore it completely. Any quote that makes you want to roll your eyes at its pretentiousness is followed swiftly by a reminder that, frankly, Glover has earned that confidence. Even when he’s saying he feels like Jesus.
Is there anything you’re bad at? “To be honest, no. Probably just people. People don’t like to be studied, or bested.” He shrugged. “I’m fine with it. I don’t really like people that much. People accept me now because I have power, but they still think, Oh, he thinks he’s the golden flower of the black community, thinks he’s so different.” He laughed. “But I am, though! I feel like Jesus. I do feel chosen. My struggle is to use my humanity to create a classic work — but I don’t know if humanity is worth it, or if we’re going to make it. I don’t know if there’s much time left.”
The article suggests the thing that makes Glover special is his wholly unique adaptability. He figures out who and what to study and absorb, then does so, whether it’s practicing basketball or learning how to deal with network executives. And it’s that same instinct that leads him to boredom: Once you’ve got the system figured out, what more is there to do? It’s why he claims he’ll retire from music after his next Childish Gambino album, and why he acknowledges that he’ll tire of making Atlanta eventually as well. He says of his career shifts; “Authenticity is the journey of figuring out who you are through what you make.” And for a guy who also will un-ironically say “I’m a very complex person” when asked how he feels, that journey of self-discovery is going to take some turns along the way.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the article concerns the executives who’ve worked with Glover. The piece compares their experience with him to his descriptions of working with them. There’s an undercurrent that perhaps Glover is biting the hand that feeds him, but it’s calculated. And you can sense the truth behind his version of events. One telling example is this bit about a performance in promotion of an early album:
In 2013, he did a pop-up in Washington Square Park to promote “Because the Internet,” the second album of a trilogy for Glassnote Records. The event was intended as a low-key happening: Glover sat on a park bench and broadcast his songs to about a hundred N.Y.U. students. After he played the album’s single, “3005,” Glover said, the label’s founder, Daniel Glass, “kept screaming for us to ‘Play it again!’ I was, like, ‘No!’ He was ruining it with a cash grab.” He added that Glass “was trying to buy me Margiela clothes and shit, so I’d work hard for him — but I realized that when I wasn’t selling anymore he’d throw me out.” Glass told me that if he’d called for more “3005” it was “out of pure passion for the music,” and that it was his wife who provided the Margiela clothing—a sweater, bought on sale after Glover had admired a similar one worn by their son. He added, “That’s a weird comment when you’re nominated for Album of the Year, Record of the Year. I look at this as an incredible success!”
Another example is how he describes pitching Atlanta to FX:
“I knew what FX wanted from me,” Glover said. “They were thinking it’d be me and Craig Robinson”—the Hot Tub Time Machine actor—“horse-tailing around, and it’ll be kind of like ‘Community,’ and it’ll be on for a long time. I was Trojan-horsing FX. If I told them what I really wanted to do, it wouldn’t have gotten made.” Stephen Glover, Glover’s thirty-year-old brother and his closest collaborator on the show, said, “Donald promised, ‘Earn and Al work together to make it in the rough music industry. Al got famous for shooting someone and now he’s trying to deal with fame, and I’ll have a new song for him every week. Darius will be the funny one, and the gang’s going to be all together.’ That was the Trojan horse.”
Whatever Glover was selling, FX bought it — and they gave him a lot of leeway, allowing him to hire an untried all-black writing staff and telling him to lean into the weirder elements. The CEO of FX, John Landgraf, later says: “I don’t have a problem with the Trojan-horse narrative if it’s important to Donald. We’re in the business of making pieces of commercial television that mask deeper artistic narratives.” The gamble has paid off, making Atlanta one of the biggest hits for the channel, but hearing Glover tell it, the whole process sounds like an exercise in seeing what he can get away with. He knows how to game the system, but that doesn’t mean he likes the system. He can, to use a phrase from later on in the profile, “see it all.”
Fam Udeorji had told me, “White Donald would be James Franco — a guy doing a lot of different shit, none of it interesting.” I asked Glover if there was a possibility, given his belief that the black experience was more interesting — albeit far more painful — than the white experience, that White Donald wouldn’t have ended up where Black Donald has. Very softly, he said, “Would you rather be a person who has all the opportunities but can’t see them? Or a person who can see all the opportunities but can’t have them?” Probably the latter, I said. You? “Yeah, there’s something beautiful about being able to see it all.”
But all of this talk of who Donald Glover is, and why he can be so successful at so many things, misses a key factor: the importance of imperfection.
Glover said that, as he’d grown, he’d realized that being a savior was impossible to reconcile with being an artist. “Everyone’s been trying to turn me into their woke bae”—millennial slang for an enlightened boyfriend. “But that’s not what I am. I’m fucked up, too — and that’s where the good shit comes from.”
To be honest, my first instinct was to go through and pull all of the cockiest sounding quotes from the article and present them without context, but that would be a willful misrepresentation of the man. What makes Donald Glover fascinating is that his ego is entirely justified, and it also isn’t the whole story. Boiling him down to being pretentious is just as problematic as trying to turn him into a woke bae. Just because he’s the kind of guy who’ll say “I’m a very complex person” doesn’t make it any less true.
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