Childish Gambino Is Trying To Be A Grown-Up

Nov 15, 2011
Originally published on November 14, 2016 12:22 pm

Donald Glover is a truly multifaceted talent. He is a stand-up comedian. He has written for the NBC show 30 Rock and Comedy Central's The Daily Show, and has attracted significant attention for his role on the NBC show Community. As if that weren't enough, he also raps under the moniker Childish Gambino, and has just released a new album called Camp.

In an interview with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, Glover says he made the album for his 13-year-old self. "The things that I said on the album," he says, "I wish I knew when I was younger." He writes from the perspective of a kid who is dismissed as a nerd.

He says that idea makes him a "Woody Allen-esque rapper."

"Everybody is kind of a kid," he says. "I personally don't believe people really grow. They just learn stuff when they were a kid, and hold on to it, and that affects every relationship they have. So the album is about learning the good stuff and taking away the good stuff, and continuing to grow — as opposed to staying 12 years old forever with relationships, which sometimes I feel like I still am."

Glover covers some standard rap topics, plays standard characters (people who are tough, who survive, who think they are "awesome") in his songs, but some of what he tackles is unorthodox for hip-hop. As a rapper, Glover is constantly vulnerable. A lot of Camp addresses the struggles of a black kid trying to find his own identity without succumbing to external social pressures.

It's similar to how he approaches his comedy. "I feel like that's the only reason I'm allowed to do rap and comedy," he says. "It's that they're kind of the same person."

Glover says it can be difficult for young black kids to find their own identity because so much of black popular culture has become uniform. "Black kids are told every day who they are. Every day," he says. Straying too far from the norm, he says, can get you ostracized.

"We put stereotypes on ourselves. Everybody does that. But I think it's just a little harder for black kids to just be who they are," he says. "Television's telling you who you are. Everybody is telling you who you are and who you can be and what your limits are." Including your classmates, black and white.

"It's really hard when you're a black kid and you like a certain thing, but then there's no other black kids like you," Glover says. "And you might even get picked on for who you want to be or who you are — but you're just figuring it out. I felt like high school for me was like a big whirlpool of me trying to figure out what was OK for me to do."

Glover broaches the topic in his song "Hold You Down," an attempt to reveal the absurdity in the predicament:

The black experience is blackened serious,

'Cause being black, in my experience, is no one hearin' us.

White kids get to wear whatever hat they want,

When it comes to black kids, one size fits all.

Of Camp he says, "Hopefully making this thing will make it easier for little Donalds." Childish Gambino isn't your run-of-the-mill rapper; Donald Glover isn't an artist with many peers. He's succeeding in many different venues and doing so while remaining candid.

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There's something different about the music of Donald Glover. He's a comedian, a TV writer and an actor in NBC's "Community." He plays a community college student, a former athlete who discovers his inner nerd.


DONALD GLOVER: (as Troy Barnes) (Rapping) Kingdom Anamalia, phylum Chordata...

INSKEEP: And at one point ends up rapping with a friend about the human species.


GLOVER: (as Troy Barnes) (Rapping) ...primate, family, Hominity, the genus is full. But you know you're into me, 'cause I am in the species known a sapien. Dogs used to hate me, but now they bring the paper in.

DANNY PUDI: (as Abed Nadir) It's going to take a lot to get me away from you...

INSKEEP: Now, Donald Glover has put out an album with lyrics from the perspective of a kid who is dismissed as a nerd.


GLOVER: (Rapping) All right, it's childish, baby, Mr. Talk-About-His-(bleep) again nerdy black kid. Whatever, man. I'm sick of him. That well-spoken token who ain't been heard, the only white rapper who's allowed to say the N-word. I buy a bunch...

INSKEEP: The album is called "Camp." He put it out under the name Childish Gambino. And amid the jokes, Donald Glover is seriously thinking of awkward kid he used to be.

GLOVER: I made this album for me when I was 13. Like, the name of it, I said in the album I wish I had known when I was younger.


GLOVER: (Rapping) Am I serious? I don't even know. Are you hearing this? It's laughable. I ain't trying, I'm doing. These other rappers are foolish. I got fame, my A&R is a computer. Is there room in the game for a lame who rhymes? Who wears short-shorts and makes jokes sometimes?

INSKEEP: If I think about other rap lyrics that I've heard, I mean there are few kinds of standard characters who appear with standard messages. Which might be, for example: I'm really great, I'm really tough, I'm a great rapper; or life is very hard, life on the streets is very tough and I'm as tough as I need to be to deal with it.

You, however, take the approach of a young man who is just constantly vulnerable. He's a loser.

GLOVER: Yeah, I mean...


GLOVER: ...totally. I mean like - first of all, thank you.


GLOVER: Second of all, like yeah. Totally, you know, I never, I never really felt like I was like cool or anything like that. And I - also on the album I say all those things that like, you know, quote-unquote, "like regular rappers do." Like, you know, I'm great, I'm awesome, I have sex all the time. I do - you know, like that's there too. But it's all part of the id of just like, you know, everybody feels like they should have the best.

But everybody also constantly feels like, ugh, I'm the worst. Why am I doing this?


GLOVER: I don't like myself. Like - and if they don't, then like, you know, that's me.


GLOVER: (Rapping) This rap stuff is magic. I used to get called Oreo. I used to get more laughs when I got laughed at. Oh, you got a mixed tape? That's fantastic. But everybody thought it was jokes though, they half right, the joke is I got flow so don't act like...

Childish Gambino, I guess would be me, like my failures and my triumphs, ten-fold, you know.

INSKEEP: This is a theme you pursue in both your music and your comedy.

GLOVER: Yeah. Yeah. I feel like that's the only reason I'm allowed to do rap and comedy, is that they're kind of the same person. I've said this before - if I came out with like a rap thing and then it was like, yeah, man - I'm going to shoot a baby. Like it's like people would be like that's not you at all. You know? And it may be right.

INSKEEP: I want to play a clip from a Comedy Central program that you did, where you're talking about black nerds. Let's listen.


GLOVER: The best part about Obama is that he's a black nerd. I love that junk.


GLOVER: 'Cause I'm a black nerd and that (bleep) was illegal until like 2003.


GLOVER: It's so awesome. 'Cause it's like there's black nerds everywhere. You know, like it's awesome. It's just like they're everywhere now. But it was just hard for us growing up. Like, you know, I remember I was the only black kid at my school for a while. And white kids were excited. They were like, oh, we got a black kid, this is awesome.


GLOVER: We got a black kid. They be like, oh, hey. Donald, what kind of rap music you into? And what kind of sneakers you like? And I was like, oh, I don't really like rap music. I really enjoy the soulful stylings of the Cranberries.


GLOVER: We can talk about that. And they were like, no, man. You like sneakers and you like rap music. And you're going to tell us which one you like. I was like, oh, you're hurting me, Steven. You know...


GLOVER: No, that's my life. You know?

INSKEEP: You're playing with stereotypes. And we think of stereotypes as being something that, for example, white people would apply negatively to African-Americans. But what you actually have happening there is white kids who are excited about the stereotypical black person they expected to meet, and they're a little disappointed not to run into that kid.

GLOVER: Oh, yeah. I mean it so happens today, like probably 'cause, you know, I'm not intimidating. Like I'm just talking about, you know, my own stuff.

INSKEEP: You also talk about African-Americans who apply stereotypes to themselves; for example, the stereotype that a black kid is not likely to have a father around the house.

GLOVER: Yeah, I mean black kids are told every day who they are. Like, every day. The thing is like I talked to my dad about it. My dad didn't like really like himself or figure out, like how do I - like, how am I balancing who I am, until he was like, a father of three already. Like, he was just like that's crazy to me.

And, you know, we put stereotypes on ourselves - like, everybody does that. But I think it's just a little harder for black kids to just like, you know, be who they are, because there are people on both sides are telling them who they are all the time. Television is telling you who you are. Like, everybody is telling you who are and who you can be, and what your limits are.


GLOVER: (Rapping) This one kid said something that was really bad. He said I wasn't really black 'cause I had a dad. I think that's really sad, mostly 'cause a lot of black kids think they should agree with that. If you're a father you should stick around if you could. If you think you're bad at it, you get Tiger Woods. MJ. We warriors, we all need sensei's...

It's hard I feel like as a black guy or a black kid, to connect with everybody because the thing is it's just like the only thing that has really been given to us to connect is negative stuff.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to ask about one more lyric that you rap.

(Reading) I always wanted to get picked on the cool team, but alone is exactly how I should be.

Listening to it, I wondered as an adult now, are you comfortable with who you are?

GLOVER: Ah, I don't know. I mean like, I like who I am. Like, I feel like I'm a good person. I work hard - I definitely feel like I do that. But I feel like, you know, I make mistakes all the time. And, you know, I think that line was just like hopefully making this thing will make it easier for little Donalds.

INSKEEP: Well, Donald Glover, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks very much.

GLOVER: No, thank you.

INSKEEP: His album "Camp," under the name Childish Gambino is out today. You can hear in full until the end of today at NPRMusic.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.