Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino has become a cultural icon. From his comedic work in Community to his acting in both Marvel and Star Wars franchises to his writing and producing of the critically acclaimed show Atlanta, the versatile Grammy-nominated artist is a creative force. Throughout all of this commercial and critical success, Donald Glover has refused to frame his work as a product; instead he wants to offer a participatory experience, a religious experience even.
Glover is currently on his self-proclaimed final tour tied to his upcoming final album as Childish Gambino. The 35-year-old returned home for an opening stop in Atlanta and sent two unfinished songs to concertgoers in advance, telling them: "These songs are not complete. But it is important for you to be familiar with them in order to participate, and therefore fully enjoy the experience."
It’s not a typical move by an artist to simply send songs to fans, and it’s even more unthinkable considering that the songs were unfinished demos with missing and unpolished parts given away for free by email. To open the set, Gambino told the captivated crowd, "This is not a concert. This is f****** church. I'm here to have an experience with y'all. You feel me? If you're here to hear your favorite song, you might as well go home." Gambino moves away from an artist/audience binary and toward an idea of participation. He sings not for people to hear a hit or two; he sings to share and experience with the listeners, to make memory.
I was at that opening concert, or church, and it was quite an experience. 13,000 people rocking to the same beat is always an experience, and Gambino constantly pushing toward spiritual meaning through his narration between songs and his new work led me to think about the experience as a religious one.
This isn’t the first time that Childish Gambino has aimed to subvert music industry standards. He’s always been concerned with how his listeners should experience and participate in his music. In September 2016, Gambino mysteriously invited people to Joshua Tree National Park. Without any background information, all five available dates sold out, and attendees showed up to find a dome constructed in the desert landscape. For the church history nerd, this move is reminiscent of Anthony the Great or other forms of desert monasticism.
Glover played previews of the soon-to-be-released Atlanta and an entire new album which was later released as Awaken, My Love. The debut of the album as a listening experience in the desert is characteristic of how Gambino approaches selling his music. Instead of giving a tour after releasing the album, he chose to preview the album over three days in a National Park. The commercial success as a product is secondary to the experience of the music itself because Donald Glover views the music as a vehicle for experience.
Additionally, Gambino vastly shifted his genre. Aspiring to make music inspired by his childhood — much in the vein of Kendrick Lamar sampling songs from 1974 or 1975 in his astounding To Pimp a Butterfly — Gambino shifted from smart but often cynical rap (Because the Internet) and soul-searching contemplation ( Kauai) to neo-funk and soul on Awaken, My Love. He doesn’t care to stick to one genre for commercial safety; he wants to explore different modes of presentation and participation.
Childish Gambino’s willingness to prioritize experience over commercial success also leads to the stunning visual experience of “This Is America.” The viral video accompanying Gambino’s sudden release of the song on SNL draws the viewer in with its jerky turns between celebratory to disturbing scenes. Gambino walks through a warehouse through vignettes of black life. Exploring the extremes of black experience in America, Gambino invites the viewer to fluctuate between awe and anger at the violence that interpolates black culture in the United States.
Gambino has always been more concerned about the experience of those engaging his work, but recently he has turned that language of participation into religious language. In “Algorythm” — one of the unreleased songs sent to concertgoers and the opening number for the tour — he opens, “As we stand together, promise me that we’ll teach the children that we must be free. There is no joy in sorrow, no truth untold, and the cruel above us are tired and old. Mother infinity, why do you go away from me?”
He orients himself as a creative, channeling a message from the divine for others to hear and participate in. On another unreleased, untitled song performed on the “This Is America” tour, Gambino asks, “Holy spirit, do you hear me? Do you love me? Can you hold me up?” Gambino has only recently offered such substantive allusions to religious tradition, and with the most recent songs and performances, he is articulating his emphasis upon experience and participation as religious experience and participation. “This is f****** church,” as he said to the crowd in Atlanta.
As one who values the appearance of the religious in nontraditional contexts, I find Gambino’s emphasis rich but unreceived. No matter how much he pressed us concertgoers to live in the experience of the moment, refrain from taking pictures, and to really listen to him and his music, I still saw so many phones flashing and recording as he laid his creative spirit bare before us.
For Gambino to guide us into seeing his vision of the world, his insight into culture and its politics, we need to take him more seriously, not as a hero or a role model, but as a modern prophet of sorts. Gambino’s work, if experienced seriously in its religious import, struggles against modern constraints for the artist to produce products, and prods at vital questions about our communal life and what justice looks like in the world.