Throwback Story: On Donald Glover, Weirdos, and the Myth of the Black Male Narrative
Happy day after Eat and Sleep day! I’m working on new stories but I thought today would be a good day to go back and look at some of my older work. This piece was originally published by The Huffington Post in 2014. Commentary after the story.
I was raised in the Bronx in the ’80s at the height of both the crack and AIDS epidemic. My neighborhood gave birth to Pistol Pete and the Sex, Money, Murder set of the east coast Bloods. I had guys I considered family deep in gang life as I had close friends deep in the drug trade. I came incredibly close to having my face slashed one night, something my parents will learn upon reading this. I would learn as an adult that the local precinct had a file on me because they thought I was the local drug runner (I forever wore a backpack and would literally run everywhere). With these facts in mind, popular American culture has a fairly defined idea as to who I am or at least should have been.
America loves the bootstrap ideal. The thought that a man can come from nothing and through his efforts become a success is the backbone of the American ethos. Black America is the ultimate example of this country’s history of pushing forward from nothing and with nothing. Hip hop is no different. The music is born of a people whose innovation was forged out of the need to make due. No instruments? No problem. Can’t sing? No problem. What has been a problem is the portrayal of the story of black America, especially when it comes to its young men. The diversity of the black male experience has been whittled down into a singular sensational and often inaccurate narrative. What’s worse, many of us have fallen for it.
Hip hop music has over the last decade-plus become more diverse than ever. The heaviness of the gangsta era of the late ’80s and ’90s has extended itself into a full spectrum of not only the black experience but a global one. Unfortunately, the persistent narrative of black males as drug dealers, gangsters, and pimps continue to mar what might be the second golden era of hip hop. We are a culture that would rather pretend to be Jay-Z instead of admitting that we are more often than not, Donald Glover.
Please know that I love Jay’s music. He is quite possibly the greatest rapper to ever step into a booth — an absolute genius. But somewhere along the line his story (fatherless child turned drug dealer turned mogul) became the only acceptable answer to what is the “real” black male experience. There is, in fact, more Donald Glovers, Kendrick Lamars, and Drakes than there are Jay-Z’s. Despite this, a search of @childishgambino Twitter mentions produces a vitriolic timeline that questions not just Glover’s musical ability but everything from his upbringing to his sexuality.
Glover, in addition to being an accomplished actor and stand-up comedian, is one of the most creative rappers in the genre today. His, however, is a style not born on an inner-city corner but a suburban cul-de-sac. His artistic angst is one of self-discovery instead of survival. For many rap fans, this is an invalid narrative. The irony in all of this is as Glover is dismissed as an inauthentic gimmick crafted for white American consumption Rick Ross, who was outed years ago for his fraudulent persona, continues to sell records while never deviating from miming a life we all know to be untrue.
I was one of the few children on my block with two parents, both of whom were middle-class blue-collar workers. I was loved, even if that love was at times dysfunctional. I spent the majority of my summers reading everything I could touch and writing my own short stories. I have been writing in one form or another since the eighth grade. I didn’t finish college but I would like to think that I am at least slightly above normal intelligence. Since high school, I have had all of five girlfriends. The last of which I have been with for fourteen years (married for ten) and have a beautiful one-year-old son. For all of this, my life has been far from easy. I have seen firsthand the ravages of addiction. I understand the trickle-down effect of physical abuse. I know the duality of racism as I was too black for the white children at my private school and too “white” for the black kids on my block.
Have some rap fans tell it I am a weirdo. I’m soft. I might even be gay. My experiences don’t count. My pleasure and pain aren’t born in the pursuit of fame or money. My moving from my neighborhood was not a life or death situation, and it wasn’t based on a get rich or die trying mentality. For many rap fans, I would be a horrible rapper. Not for my complete lack of ability (though it clearly doesn’t help), but for not living a life worth telling even as the large majority could probably identify with everything I would have to say.
Raps future clearly depends on its ability to accept that authenticity comes in a number of shapes and sizes. More than ever we need a version of hip hop that understands that the world consists of nerds, geeks, gays, and gangstas; that there is as much authenticity in a pair of dusty Chuck Taylors as there are in a pair of Timberlands. Rap will only go as far as its anti-heroes can carry it. To the Glovers, Drakes, Ab-Souls, Bronsons, Futures, Creators, and the rest of the rap weirdos I say good luck and Godspeed. Here’s hoping that my son gets to hear a dope sixteen.
Special thanks to the Where’s My 40 Acres podcast for pushing this conversation and inspiring this essay.
In the years since writing this story, the landscape has only grown more diverse. The musicians I named at the end have in many ways paved the way for a newer crop of “weirdos”. Lil’ Nas X, Chikka, Noname, Chance the Rapper, and others have provided new and interesting sounds and stories to the genre. Despite what older rap fans may believe there is a lot of diversity in hip-hop; or at least more than there was even fifteen years ago.
With specific regard to the myth of the Black male narrative, the one I spoke of feels like it is slowly becoming more and more archaic. A relic of Black men forty and above. For many of us, the want and need to not be pigeon held to a singular origin story has resulted in freedom for the generation after us. It is one that often makes us uncomfortable. Mainly because we don’t see ourselves as benefactors of this new freedom.
Hip-hop itself is now middle-aged meaning that those of us who saw its birth and subsequent machinations are now at least forty plus. In a culture whose innovation and relevance advances minute by minute, we have to reconcile with the fact that we are less and less so. We don’t get to walk the path that we forged.
It’s like graduating from college and returning for your fifth reunion and there are three new dorms and an athletic center you wish you could have experienced them but that time has passed.
We are historians and hopefully oracles to those who now drive the culture forward. Going from player to coach is never an easy transition.
My son is seven now. He has begun discovering songs and artist on his own. He sings the lyrics (or the approximation of the lyrics) in the back seat of the car. He doesn’t know a world of having to be tough to be taken seriously or to gain respect. He likely never will.
His world doesn’t traffic in that commodity. Instead, he's seeing the creators around him and making plans to create as well. He wants a YouTube channel, he’s asking when he can get on social media. His vision of what is possible is far beyond anything I imagined was possible at twice his age.
I’m jealous of him in that way. I’m also in awe. I imagined my parents felt something similar when two turntables and a mic changed the world.