On December 5, 2014, musician Childish Gambino was nominated for two Grammys, for his album Because the Internet (Best Rap Album) and song “3005” (Best Rap Performance). One week later, on December 12, FX ordered a pilot for actor Donald Glover’s comedy Atlanta. A month later, on January 13, the premiere date for the sixth — and “final” — season of Community was announced (March 17 on Yahoo Screen), without the character of Troy.
Amid all of this, I was dropped off by a cab at a house on a winding street in the hills of a neighborhood Google Maps calls Glassell Park in Northeast Los Angeles. Inside this house there was first a quiet dog and then three or four or six people, relaxing or recording music. Past them, a door, and past that door, an outside deck. On that deck, a table, and beyond that table, in the neighbor’s yard, a second dog that was not quiet.
At that table on the deck beyond the house on the hill off the winding street, Donald Glover and I sat and spoke. Twenty minutes in, I turned on the recorder. The second dog — the neighbor’s dog, the loud one — barked the entire time.
One thing I’ve had many conversations about with friends is this idea of writing for no one. Creating things for no one’s eyes. And how, now, the process of creating is directly aligned with broadcasting, popularity —
Yeah. With your come-up — writing, acting, music, just putting videos up on YouTube — what did it look like in practice before there was any idea of people seeing it or hearing it?
It’s so strange to even hear you talk about it that way, because you’re absolutely right. That’s so funny. I remember, me and Derrick Comedy had this podcast that we made. That we never released. And I still have it.
What was it about?
We would talk about movies, things we were working on, Mystery Team, events that had happened. And we would just riff. Because a lot of our sketches would just come from just hanging out, and then we would just riff and be like, “That’s a funny idea, let’s make it into a sketch.” But then we were like, “We do that together anyway, let’s just record them.” And I still listen to those. But I listen to it now and it’s just for me. And I’ve learned a lot from those. Oh, I do that thing. So much of being human is learning about yourself, self-control and all that stuff. And when you just get validation — that’s the good thing to do, that’s the bad thing to do — we don’t really know why we really fuck with it. But that’s kind of what it was, just doing it for yourself. I had a Talkboy,1 [and] I used to make audio movies for myself.
Are there still things that you make with the intention of never sharing with the public?
Everything is either zero or 100 now. You either don’t make anything and stay super-secret like Frank Ocean, or you put out a song every fucking day. And I realized that I had been doing a lot of things in public. So making songs now that I know aren’t going to be heard by anybody else, it is an interesting thing. Because I think you have to do that now as an artist. I really do. Because you start to manipulate your work based on other people, which is fine depending on what you’re trying to do. I’m 31 now, but I had a lot of friends that started off like, I’m going to make sketches every day, I’m going to do this, we’re going to do this. And now they’re like: I’m just trying to make this, and why do I like this anymore?
There’s an Internet fear that I think you have to get over, not tricking yourself into thinking people are going to forget about you if you don’t constantly remind people that you exist.
Reminding people, all the time, that you’re important. That I’m on the way up, squad going up, that feeling of “I’m relevant and I’m going to tell you my story before it’s even started.” Everyone wants to sell their story of “look at how I did it” at the beginning. They’re writing that story and they’re cashing that check. And to be real, at this point in history, it feels irresponsible.
It’s not sustainable.
Yeah, but mainly it’s really irresponsible. Culture’s so important. Honestly, there haven’t been that many big jumps in culture lately, because it just eats itself now. And we’re seeing some changes — I’m happy about this feminist movement, because it’s a human movement. But mainly the culture is just eating itself. And there are so many things that come out where it’s like, I just took that old video, this old thing, and made this. And that’s cool, I get it. But there’s no room for mistakes. Because everyone knows mistakes mean less money.
Mistakes mean you might not get another shot. You have to be super safe.
Yeah. You got to be safe because everyone’s freelance, so everyone’s like safe-safe-safe-safe-safe. And then you look around and it’s like, So what now? It’s scary to me. I don’t even remember what the question was.
Me neither. But I do have these moments, these existential moments, occasionally, of asking: Why do I do what I do?
Black kids are getting very existential. Jaden [Smith]’s existential.
It’s so beautiful.
And a lot of it, for me, is that I didn’t have a ton of older black prototype male figures to look at. Someone to look at and say, “I think something like that is the direction of what I’m interested in being.” Because what I wanted felt vulnerable. But being vulnerable is often the great black male Kryptonite.
And we can’t even really do it. People are like, “Drake’s so vulnerable,” but I’m like, he can’t really be as vulnerable as he wants to be, I feel sometimes.
Do you think about how certain things — your lyrics, how you present yourself online, how you dress, whatever — can be perceived as being bigger than you?
The funny thing is, no. I wish I could sit here and be like, “All of this was planned.” Or that I have a bigger thing in mind. But I really do have to be me. I’ve tried to be those things that I knew you could be. And I’m lucky that it happened really early. I went through that in high school. And then you go to college, and in the very beginning of college you’re like, “I’m going to be this black guy.” But then it’s like, “I’m not.”
It’s so hard to be this black guy.
And it sucks, because I don’t like talking about race. But what a lot of people don’t understand is that it affects so much of who you can be. But back to the question: I’m like, This will be cool to me, so I do it. But time and time again, the frustrating thing about it is proving that there’s an audience.
I can pinpoint moments where I could feel myself slipping back into the most convenient version of myself. And I can also pinpoint the moments when I got fed up and was like, “I just don’t have the energy to do that anymore.”
Yeah. But it’s hard.
For me, that’s made slightly easier because I have people in my life and it’s clear we want to navigate this world alongside each other, helping each other.
That’s what Royalty is.2 To be real, Because the Internet was my stab at existential rap. Not to say rappers haven’t been existential before, but it’s like, I wanted to make an album that felt like an existential rap album because it was perfect for Gambino at the time. But with these Internet kids, you start to realize, if I’m an ad and kids are cool with me being an ad, what do I represent? What am I? What’s at the end of this?
Because you want to control what you represent.
But so much stuff goes out of your hands. And everybody above you is like, “Fuck everything.” So it becomes “fuck everything,” but also, I’m supposed to matter? Like, everything on Twitter and Instagram is like, “I’m stunting,” but this matters? This matters, but fuck everything? And especially with black kids, it’s like we’re getting shot in the streets, so what does this mean? What is this for? Which is why, now, I feel like there’s going to be a movement of people who behave like, This stuff is for us. You’re going to have your writer friends, and you’re going to write together, because at the end of the day, who are you making it for? And do you make stuff for yourself? We have to.
The “Sober” video is for me. That wasn’t for anybody. I wasn’t trying to get tweens between 13 and 17. I wasn’t trying to get Hispanic men between … I did this shit for me. That was a thing I’ve always wanted to do since I walked into that Zankou Chicken.3 So that’s where the mistakes will come. And the mistakes are the things we really need right now.
Does something like the public validation of getting nominated for two Grammys confuse all that? Is it complicated? Is it something you strive for? Or is it just a very cool thing?
It’s all very schizophrenic. And I know I have schizophrenic tendencies with a lot of my art. And also, just my personality. So it feels like all of that. But also, who doesn’t want a Grammy? Who doesn’t want to be nominated for a Grammy? But then again, there’s that “Well, now they can say ‘Grammy-nominated’ in front of my name” [thing]. And that’s what’s so hard about putting art out there. Especially now. But it’s a weird feeling, because I don’t react the way I think anyone wants me to react about it, but that’s what it is. How are you supposed to feel? But some of my favorite artists have Grammys. Kanye has Grammys. Jay Z has Grammys. Beyoncé has Grammys. It’s validating, but at this point in my life I kind of realize it’s dope, I’m happy about it, but mostly because it allows me to do more of whatever I want.
That’s the thing. Because when good things like that happen to you, you’re able to do what you really want a little bit more, and people can step to you less. And you can continue to be yourself.
I mean, it’s not a coincidence I got my pilot right after I got a Grammy nomination. [Laughs.] You think the people were like, “Wait, what? He got a Grammy too?”
It’s harder to turn down a Grammy guy who also writes. I know I’m in a unique position. So I take that very seriously. That’s the thing, it isn’t for naught. Going back to your question before, when you were like, “Do you feel like you have to do this for everybody?” I just know I’m in a unique position. Last night at [a Golden Globes] party, I was talking to some 30 Rock people, talking about how writing for 30 Rock was like being in the Marines. You don’t want to fall asleep, and you know the job’s on the line and they’re pushing you. And the scripts are like, this is a joke that’s a setup for another joke, which is really a setup for Tracy [Morgan] to come in. It was like, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. And I was talking to [writer] Matt Hubbard, and he was like, “Do you remember that night when we were at Tina’s house and we were all so tired and it was hot in there and you were looking at the screen and then you almost passed out but then caught yourself?” Matt was like, “This kid isn’t gonna give up.” Yeah, I’m not going to be that. I’m not going to be the runt. I’m not going to be the one who drops it. At least I’ll give it everything I have.
Because of the success you’ve had, and in different fields, have you felt the need to almost stunt your growth or your popularity as a way of holding on to some normalcy?
People always wonder why famous people buy these ranches to be far away from people. I hate being famous. Fame is not really cool at all. People don’t realize how dangerous it is. Everyone knows what TerRio looks like. And he’s a kid. Everyone knows who he is. And for some reason, people still equate fame with money. So people think this kid has a bunch of money. When, really, his face is everywhere and people are making money off his face by making TerRio T-shirts. It’s scary to be famous. They know everything about you. They know what your house looks like. They know you shoot all your videos in your house. So, I guess, yeah — I do look for normalcy. Because red doesn’t show up on red. Red shows up on white. So in order for you to make something that is really visceral on an art level or anything, you really have to have an idea of how do regular people live, for real.
Being from Atlanta, how did it feel to get asked to be a part of the Outkast festival in Atlanta, ATLast?
It was dope. But to be honest, what was cooler was André [Benjamin] coming to my show. There had to be a reason for him being there. I was very honored, because Outkast played a really big part in Atlanta culture for me. But him coming to my show, because his son is a fan. And then meeting his son. That’s what was really cool. It was a cool moment.
That was a good weekend. It was very Atlanta. Also, speaking of, the first track on the EP that you put out last year, STN MTN, starts with “I had a dream I ran Atlanta,” followed by a DJ Drama narration. It feels like an inside joke for anyone from the city.
It’s super, super specific.
Exactly. So with that song, that festival, a TV show in the works called Atlanta, you seemed to be pushing to be associated with Atlanta, without trying to market yourself as an Atlanta artist. And, on top of that, a large part of the listening public doesn’t think of you the same way they think about Migos. Are you actively trying to force your Atlantaness on the public? Do you just want people to know where you’re from?
Here’s what it is. There are two sides to every story. When I went to college, everybody was like, Oh my god, you’re from Atlanta … fucking Lil Jon … is it like this … oh so my friend’s going to Emory, that shit must be off the hook all the time. People forget Atlanta is a very black city. Again, not to get on —
There’s a lot of black people in Atlanta.
There’s a lot of black people in Atlanta. And it affects you when you’re a kid and everybody around [you] is black. You’re like, “Oh, OK, cool, there’s people and we’re kind of in the shittier positions, but there’s a lot of us.” And then you go everywhere else, and it’s like, oh yeah, Atlanta is a black Mecca. But publicly, you only often see one type. And I just started seeing that as a microcosm for everything. So I need people to understand, I see Atlanta as a beautiful metaphor for black people. For a black person. Because Atlanta — everybody knows it as something. And it’s supposed to be a bunch of things for a lot of people. It’s tried to be everything, but it’s in the middle. And at the end, what it is? It’s all these things. It’s crazy.
It has the capacity to handle everything, but it’s never really figured out how to handle everything.
There’s subsections and different groups, but there’s also the version that people think, Well, this type makes money. It’s not some evil thing. I’m from America, too — I get capitalism. I understand what’s going on here, I just think there’s actual money on the other side. People give Tyler Perry a lot of shit, and whether that’s your taste or not, I get it. But that audience is there. There’s an audience for that.
So, I guess to shorten this, I have taken Atlanta on my back, but only because everybody’s like, Where are you from? That’s where I’m from. And people have a “huh?” reaction. So I just think it’s important. And it’s a metaphor for who I am. Or maybe I’m a metaphor for Atlanta.
Yesterday I realized that one of the earliest things I’d ever written at Grantland was about Camp.
Yeah. And then I realized I should probably reread it for the first time in three years, which is always a terrifying prospect. Do you go back and listen to or read old work? Do you revisit old stuff when you’re making new stuff?
It’s crazy, I haven’t listened to it in a minute. But Childish Gambino’s so interesting with Camp because that album is heavy to a lot of people. And people hold it really close to them. But it’s weird — each one of the albums is kind of a diary or a time stamp that you have with people and then people make their own emotional connections to them. So you have to be careful. But I don’t just put them away. I usually go back and listen to them. But sometimes it is hard to go back and listen or read — if you kept a journal or you keep a Facebook, and it’s like, “ugh, April — that was a breakup.” But I’ll look through that. It’s all emotions. But I don’t really ever leave them, because I do think they help later.
Hearing you talk, sometimes you’re talking in third person or you’re actively talking about a different part of you. Is that how you treat it in your head?
Rappers are all like wrestlers. That’s the world now. Even kids are rappers. When you go on Vine and you see a white kid and he’s like, “Thug life, fuck you” — that’s not David. That’s his rapper version. No one has a problem with Rick Ross, because that’s what it is. So Childish Gambino, I’m not going to even put labels on it, but I always looked at it like, I always wanted to be like Harry Potter. As in, we grow up with this thing. I do look at it like “he” — he has his own thing and his own stuff, and yes, those things are tied into my things and things I observe, but I know what I am at the end of the day. I’m a storyteller.
There are definitely people that know you only as Gambino and have never heard of Community, and there are definitely people that know you as Troy and would scoff at the fact that you’re out here making songs with rappers like Fredo Santana. Going back into this first world, the television world, is that something that’s exciting? Does it even feel like going back and forth?
Because it’s still the same part of your brain.
People always ask me, which one do you like doing more? I don’t see the difference, which is why I feel like I’m valuable. That’s why it’s valuable to put out all this stuff. Because when you go to a Childish Gambino show, you’re going to see a lot. Yes, there are 15-year-old white girls there, but also really hard white guys that are like, “I listen to Atmosphere, but I also like this,” then you’re going to get the older black dudes and you’re going to get moms — that’s the mass culture. And I don’t like being niche. I felt like a lot of the early 2000s were n----s trying to be niche and make the cream that way. But that’s fucking bullshit. So, Childish Gambino, Troy, Donald Glover — they exist how they need to exist.
I give my life to art, man. I don’t feel like I’m going to be here that long. But I know my role. I know what I’m supposed to do. That’s how I feel. I exist in all these different planes, because that’s the only way I feel there is to be big anymore — you have to show the connections. People are like, How is that possible that you’re rapping about this, but you do this, and then you say this about women, and then I see this, how is this all making sense? I have to be a little schizophrenic just like you. And you have to talk to people about it. Actually talk. Not get online, actually talk.
I remember having a handful of conversations with people after you wrote those notes in that hotel that worried people. And I remember reacting like, “It kind of looks like my drafts folder.” It was very reminiscent of any conversation where you begin to worry about how you’re portraying yourself, which is very real in this ever-public world.
A few years ago, I was at Lollapalooza. And had two or three guys come up to me, white bros, if you will, and it was flattering because they recognized me. And then they brought up something I’d written about race — and their takeaway was that I wasn’t angry. And that I didn’t see race. And they needed to tell me how awesome that was. Which was the exact opposite of what I was trying to say in the piece. When they left, I had an anxiety attack and left the festival and drove to Wisconsin. And in the car, my thought was that I was never going to write in public again. Because my great fear had come true, that my beliefs would just get twisted and that I’d fully lose control over what I was saying.
When I was a kid, I had a friend — a white guy — and we were really close. And then we went to a mall, an affluent mall, but there were some black kids hanging out. And they walked by and kind of laughed at my friend’s shorts. They were like, “Yo, look at that dude’s shorts.” Kind of just laughing. And then my friend, who I had known for a while, was like, “See, there are, like, black people, and there are n----s.” And it was this weird thing, because then we had to drive home afterwards. And right there, I didn’t know my essence anymore. It’s that sadness. People don’t realize this cake has so many layers that we deal with. It shouldn’t be, like, “Black people look at Vine differently.” It’s like, everyone looks at Vine differently. We all do. The difference is, some people have to take the good and the bad. And some people get to just take the cream.
I can’t just laugh at TerRio.
You can’t just laugh at TerRio. You can’t. Because it’s like, “TerRio’s like my little cousin.” I know him.
It’s too close to home.
It’s like, there’s this really charismatic black gay kid and everyone’s laughing and making fun of him, but that kid’s got to go to school. And that kid has to go to church. He’s still a kid. I just want people to understand we’ve got to eat the crust of this shit, too. We can’t just eat the stuff we love. We all have to eat all of it and understand. It’s a weird thing, my friend saw that situation totally different. And then everything we’d done before felt totally different.
And then there’s the mindfuck of him thinking you’d find that funny. Like, you agreed.
Yeah, and then further, it’s a Chris Rock bit. That’s a fucking Chris Rock bit that Chris Rock does in a world where he’s like, “But I eat all of the pie.” But then even he stopped doing it. Because people weren’t eating all of the pie.
That’s the Chappelle example.
It’s the exact same thing.
I completely understand why he turned down everything, because he’s like, “This has to stop. In this form, this has to stop. Right now.”
So the philosophy there is, you can’t let people off the hook. If you’re going to be a politician about this stuff, that’s fine. But we’ve got to call it that. We can’t be like, “This is art if it’s politics.” We can’t be like, “This is religion if it’s capitalism.” That’s all. I don’t care — I have no problem with all this shit. You watch my stand-up, I’ve seen some fucked-up shit. But that’s part of life. That shit is complicated. And to sit here and pretend that critical thinking is happening in the most complicated time in human history is ludicrous.
We are a society that clowns people for making mistakes.
And we get off on seeing that stuff. It should be a thing where you can look back and get better. And I think the next generation totally gets that. Hopefully they’re doing it for themselves. And then hopefully they will look at it later. I still listen to that Talkboy. And I’m like, “Yo, that thing I did when I was 11, that was a good device I did. That was cool.”