We don’t normally cover artists as big as Kanye West or Donald Glover’s musical alter-ego Childish Gambino. However, the two of them have recently dominated the attention of the musical world for two differing reasons.
West has made headlines recently for the very public reiteration of his affection for Donald Trump and what he represents. His Twitter feed has been littered with polarizing takes on Trump’s policies, as well as endorsements of even more radical right-wing figures and controversial statements. He has made these declarations and justified them by claiming he is a “free thinker.”
After that whirlwind week, Glover made a statement of his own this weekend, dropping the video for his newest song “This Is America” after his appearance on Saturday Night Live.
The video itself has been met by universal praise for the themes it tackles, including gun control, police brutality, and social media. But primarily, much like his show Atlanta (whose main director Hiro Murai, also directed the video), it is a musing on what it is like to be black in America.
In a deeply insightful profile on Glover from The New Yorker back in March, Glover spoke about grappling with being different than other people. Not only different because of how extraordinary he is, which is reflected in the way he presents his art, but also different because those interests often didn’t align with societal expectations of “blackness.” Those are issues he struggled to reconcile in his head and often still does. Early in his career, he faced both being accused of not being black enough because of how he presented himself to land a job in the writer’s room of 30 Rock and also knowing that he partially landed in that writer’s room because he was black.
West, early in his career, also faced accusations of not being “black” enough. He pursued his art anyways, even though the music he produced often defied conventional expectations of what rap and hip-hop were and where they were rooted in the African-American experience. For pushing those boundaries, he gained acclaim even as he was criticized.
If the idea of a hip-hop artist’s authenticity is grounded in his or her upbringing and what’s “real;” an image of tough circumstances and struggle, then neither West nor Glover’s childhood can be described as inauthentic. However, their personalities often didn’t fit that expectation and both likely struggled with that. The fact is, that experience isn’t, and shouldn’t be the image of a person of color in America, and yet for many audiences, both white and non-white, it is, and artists of color are judged by it.
The difference is that Glover has confronted those issues and continues to do so. West has not. In his essay for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that West is continuing to strive for the privilege that white artists enjoy, the relative freedom. He hasn’t confronted his own identity and the comments and backlash that have resulted have shattered his notoriously fragile ego and led him to increasingly unhinged rants.
Ostensibly, both are seeking to capture people’s attention by advancing a view and using it to sell their music. After all, “This is America” is the first song off of Childish Gambino’s next (and perhaps last) album and West’s comments have come in the lead up to his next project coming in June (as well as a rumored bid for Trump supporter Peter Thiel’s attention in relation to West’s clothing line). However, it feels different between the two. In fact, music is often a reflection of person’s identity and one’s politics are often intrinsically a part of one’s identity. That’s reflected in statements, musical (Glover) and non-musical (West), and in the conscious or unconscious decision to speak out or not.
Many artists, both big and small, choose to speak out in their music. And many artists choose not to. But choosing whether to speak out or not is not a reflection of our current political climate. It’s happened in the past, plenty of artists spoke out during the Vietnam War era and even during the more buttoned-up silence of the ’50s amplified the voices that did stand out. It affects how we think of artists and their music because artists are people and music is a reflection of their identity and identity is intrinsically tied to politics.
We see that happening with both Glover and West. And by both speaking out, we are forced to reckon as a nation with the identity they represent as people of color. That’s a good thing, even if West’s statements are far more damaging and Glover’s are far more effective. By reflecting a reality that both men have struggled with “otherness” and how they react to it today, we understand the effect of it on them through their music and their public persona. And perhaps, by understanding it, we can also do something about it.