Over the weekend Donald Glover stopped by Saturday Night Live to host one of its most critically acclaimed episodes this season. Lean in the years SNL has been mostly hit and miss with its comedy but the Glover episode was consistently good to great. The skits that ranged from the socially aware (He tackled the lack of minority representation in Star Wars) to a playful homage to cheesy 80’s R&B were all genuinely funny. In addition to his hosting Glover was doing double duty as the musical guest and performed two songs from his upcoming album, the sequel to his Grammy award winning “Awaken, My Love”. It was a victory lap for Glover: in his opening monologue he joked at how he auditioned for the show twice and didn’t get it.
Earlier in the week another famous polymath was undergoing an entirely different experience. Enfant terrible Kanye West re-emerged after an online and music sabbatical in late April with several new projects in tow and a brand new attitude: a shift from socially progressive politics and calling out presidential malfeasance (“George Bush Doesn’t Care about Black People”) to proclaiming his love for the bigot overlord, President Donald Trump. So outrageous were his string of statements in the last few weeks that he was able to unite the left and some on the right with his proclamation that ‘Slaver was a choice’; even the right wing it girl Tomi Lahren was taken aghast. When he wasn’t shooting himself in the foot over politics he found a way to even mess up the one thing he’s been doing well with lately, fashion. Recently tweeted intricate design ideas were found to be done by someone else thirteen year earlier with the only change being a Photoshop erasure of where the original designs came from.
It’s a change from five years ago when in 2013 Kanye West was released the politically charged Yeezus. He performed its first single, “New Slaves” on Saturday Night live with the lyrics” You see it’s broke nigga racism/ That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store, And this rich nigga racism/That’s that “Come in, please buy more. What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain? All you blacks want all the same things”. It was a Molotov cocktail of a performance; one that was confrontational, punk and unapologetically black.
In 2013 Donald Glover decided not to reprise his role in the critically acclaimed television show, “Community” which wasn’t surprising. In addition to his acting and writing projects he was also juggling a burgeoning music career. Under the ‘Childish Gambino’ moniker Glover made rap music that spoke to the future IT managers and black geeks of the world while heavily borrowing from his influences (the Atlanta Trap music scene, Drake and of course Kanye). At the time Donald Glover’s take on race in his music career amounted to “This Asian dude, I stole his girl, and now he got that Kogi beef.”
That year Donald leveled up both as a musician and a socially conscious artist with the release of, “Because the Internet”, an ambitious concept album (it had an accompanying screenplay) that dealt with internet addiction and how social media pressures warp our view of society. His the follow up album “Awaken My Love” was an ode to African-American 70’s funk and R&B with a warning to “Stay Woke”. To promote his current record during his SNL residency he released the video for his single, “This Is America”, where a happily dancing Donald Glover and friends in the foreground of the video intentionally ironically amplify the horrifying reality of America’s gun violence, police brutality and prison industrial complex in the background.
With “Because the Internet” Donald Glover found himself getting woke with Kanye going into the opposite direction. The cracks were showing; what should have been a softball radio appearance turned into an infamous internet meme later that year. Painstakingly friendly interviewer Sway Calloway suggested to West that his gripes of being locked out of the fashion world as an aspiring designer should lead him to using his sizable resources to create clothes outside of those industries. He was one of the biggest musical artists in the world after all. “You ain’t got the answers Sway” he screamed and sadly enough he was right. Sway had the answer on how to bring his fashion ideas to the world but not what on what Kanye was ultimately seeking…the acceptance of the white fashion gate keepers. The fact that he had the means to put it out on his own didn’t make a difference; he needed the white acceptance or it didn’t matter.
Kanye continued to court high fashions acceptances with middling results until his sneaker collaborations gained traction (the one fashion market where black male tastemakers are readily accepted). Meanwhile Donald Glover and his brother Stephen were working on what would be his best work to date, “Atlanta” a television show that follows four characters as they navigate through being black in America. A commercial and critical hit the shows genius is that the surreal plotting (it veers from comedy, drama and horror on a dime) echoes the surreal experience of people marginalized in America. A place where there is easy access to modern technological marvels like smart phones and cars but basics like healthcare and clean drinking can be distant. It’s the most unapologetically black show on television: a place where the music of the modern day Billie the Kid Tay – K and the culinary genius of Atlanta’s lemon pepper wings are celebrated. Glover’s previous television successes were built off his mainstream fan base and he used that to leverage bring the show’s original vision onto the screen:
“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.”
At his level Glover should have been able to negotiate a television show on his own terms but that is not how the world works in when it comes to minorities. So he snuck in the back way knowing that if they won’t accept you on your terms sometimes you’ve got to think outside of the box.
Despite already having had white acceptance and success Glover realizes that it’s not what it’s cracked to be and what he owes future generations of creatives:
“Chris Rock told me, ‘Man, they wouldn’t have let me make your show bac
k in the day.’ I’m a little better than Chris, because I had Chris to study. And now I am actively looking for the black female to replace me.” Robinson studied him over the flames. “I’m going to die someday, I hope. Then I won’t have all this pain and anguish and pressure…
Kanye found the easy way out of much of the pain and pressure of being a minority celebrity; just disavow the minority part. He followed the “Slavery was a choice” statement that got him in so much hot water with this gem:
It’s like we’re mentally in prison. I like the word prison, because slavery goes too direct to the idea of blacks. It’s like slavery, Holocaust, Holocaust, Jews. Slavery is blacks. So prison is something that unites us as one race … the human race.
No matter how the story plays out Kanye’s musical legacy is cemented. His albums have all been critically acclaimed and have pushed not only hip-hop but pop music in general to places that they’ve never been. His statements calling out sexism, homophobia and racism don’t fade in the wind even though he wears a MAGA hat. It’s just disheartening to see these changes from someone who’s still at a creative and commercial high done, seemingly, to help promote his products. He’s at a place with the monetary and cultural currency to do whatever he wants. So it’s disheartening to hear someone who proclaims himself a “free thinker” focus on virtual and real world ‘likes’ to gauge his worth. Sway may not have had the answers but Sway understood the insanity of a man who had everything but for some reason thought he had nothing at all.