Donald Glover is just getting started
The surprising rise of Donald Glover
Words— Marc Richardson
Donald Glover was, for a long time, pop culture’s resident hipster, thriving as an actor, writer, and rapper on the fringes of the mainstream. Throughout the late aughts and early 2010s, he was a writer on the critically-acclaimed sitcom 30 Rock and an actor on the cultish sitcom Community, while he also self-released mixtapes under the Childish Gambino moniker. But if Glover was multi-talented, it was his devotion to his myriad interests that seemed to be holding him back from more widespread adulation and success. Until recently, that is.
Glover has been enjoying a steady rise since 2016, when the Atlanta-born talent released his album Awaken, My Love! and debuted Atlanta, a show that he executive produces, writes, and stars in.
In a way, Awaken, My Love! divided some of Childish Gambino’s fans by offering a stripped-down and funky sound that contrasted Gambino’s usual staccato wordplay. But, the standout hit from the album, “Redbone”, earned Glover a Grammy for the best traditional R&B performance and the song was featured in Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed Get Out.
Atlanta —and Glover, by extension— has rightfully earned a handful of accolades, including Golden Globes and Emmys, though it can’t be described as the most popular show on TV. Still, Glover’s name started carrying more gravitas as his loyal fans lobbed his name into suggestion boxes for roles like Peter Parker — while he was never approached about that role, he did end up voicing Miles Morales in two animated episodes of the Spiderman franchise.
Glover’s steady upward trajectory morphed into a moonshot in the last few weeks, starting with a May 5th appearance on Saturday Night Live, where his myriad talents were on full display. Glover used the platform to debut a new song, “This Is America”, that was almost immediately tapped as a must-listen. But, unlike other songs that tend to debut around this time of year, “This Is America” was not a prototypical summer anthem; rather, Glover packaged nuanced and poignant criticism about the current state of the United States into a decidedly catchy song.
While the SNL performance garnered attention, the song’s accompanying music video, directed by Hiro Murai, offered a visual rebuke of current America. The 4 minutes of scathing sociopolitical criticism became a veritable cultural ‘thing’ — hundreds of think pieces were penned, millions of tweets tweeted, and hundreds of millions of views racked up on YouTube.
Powered by the strength of the video, “This Is America” debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100, with Childish Gambino unseating Drake for his first ever foray in the top spot — he had previously topped out at #12. It was an important cultural moment, but also an important moment in Donald Glover’s career and this only a few days before the premiere of the latest addition to the Star Wars franchise, Solo: A Star Wars Story, which sees Glover take on the role of the much-loved Lando Calrissian. But Glover isn’t just playing the role of Lando, he embraced the character’s intentionally vague but complex personality, publicly declaring that Calrissian is pansexual (because in space, who wouldn’t be? Duh.).
While Glover had shied away from the spotlight in the lead up to and aftermath of the release of “This Is America”, his media obligations as a member of the Star Wars cast, has put him in the spotlight at a time where all of Glover’s manifold talents are blossoming in unison. And he has genuinely (in both senses of the word) crushed said media obligations.
Take his Noisey UK “Questionnaire of Life” appearance, wherein he confidently ranks Migos above the Beatles and Elvis, equates Lando’s droid companion (slash potential life partner?) to millennials, Tupac and Joan of Arc, and just generally oozes a certain nonchalant-but-well-rounded charisma that we all wish we possessed.
Even the retro-inspired Gucci wardrobe he’s been wearing over the last month, from the mauve suit at the Met Gala to the monogrammed deep-collared sweaters, have helped shape Glover as someone who “gets it” —it is one of the brands of the moment, after all— on a different level than most, albeit in an unpretentious manner.
Nothing has really changed about Glover, in the sense that he isn’t a prototypical late bloomer who only realized his potential as his window of opportunity was waning. Instead, we’re only just now realizing the extent of his captivating personality and creative genius. “This Is America” elevated Glover from a niche rapper to a bonafide mainstream personality —though his loyal fans will argue that he already was— and gave him a sense of vindication, in that he was now undoubtedly part of the cultural conversation.
But, for those who are falling in love with his Childish Gambino ego, it may be too late of a realization, though, as Glover has announced that the next Gambino album will be the last and a farewell tour of sorts is in the works. In true Glover fashion, he attributed the impending death of Childish Gambino to the fact he was bored of the project and wanted to focus on other creative endeavours. But this is someone who set aside 30 Rock and Community to focus on Childish Gambino and Atlanta, so maybe he’s on to something bigger and better.
Glover has traditionally shunned the braggadocios self-promotion that some of his contemporaries have engaged in, but he has openly admitted to The New Yorker that he believes he has an ability to be good at anything he puts his mind to. With his current track record, though, who can doubt him?
There’s good reason to believe that this is early days when it comes to Donald Glover’s time as one of pop culture’s important personalities, regardless of whatever project he devotes himself to next. After years of honing his act a bit removed from the mainstream, Donald Glover is ready to let us bask in what appears to be unfettered creative genius. More importantly, though, we seem ready to listen and watch what he has to offer.