In the midst of Kanye West-Gate, as his typhoon of “free thinking” tweets and utterly ridiculous take on slavery has dominated headlines, it was refreshing to see Donald Glover take over the news cycle for the weekend for both his excellent performance on Saturday Night Live and the artful chaos that tackles American gun violence in his video for “This Is America.”
It would be irresponsible to reduce Glover as the Anti-Kanye or a simple palette cleanser because he’s much more than that. But, in these moments where we are flailing for some respite from the insufferable nonsense known as Kanye West, Glover provided a beacon of light and a much needed counterbalance at a time when West’s blissful ignorance is being used against us by the conservative right as propaganda.
In some ways, Glover is what Kanye is not. But Glover isn’t an answer to Kanye because Kanye was never really the question. Still, the timing is too impeccable to overlook.
While Kanye offers misinformation about Chicago being the murder capital of the world when being challenged by TMZ’s Van Nathan on his optional slavery comments, Glover created a high-art video that tackles gun violence in the United States. While Kanye’s celebrity has left him ill-informed and completely out of touch, Glover’s celebrity has allowed him to address a broader subject in a manner that isn’t reduced to one particular city. Gun control is a problem. But for African-Americans, the chaos has often played the background while we remain obsessed with entertainment and social media. We sing and dance to distract you from society’s ills while we are the victims of a cruel reality that this country doesn’t really give a damn about us. “This Is America” is equal parts “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and social commentary as performance art. It’s something that Kanye has tried to accomplish but just might not be talented enough to do at this point and time.
Glover has subverted the art of visibility by avoiding social media and instead relying on his art to create conversation. Meanwhile, Kanye’s affiliation with the Kardashian family and his own ego has prevented him from truly disappearing from the public eye. Not that he ever really wanted to, but he could have allowed his art to speak for him rather than opening his mouth (or unlocking his phone) and speaking for himself. In this day and age, there’s a way to create a buzz without going the mundane route of clobbering social media. If anyone could have done it, it would have been Kanye West.
Donald Glover also demonstrated how to be provocative without being offensive. When “Redbone” advised us to “stay woke,” it wasn’t accompanied by a typhoon of tweets explaining why one should be “woke.” There was no warning that preempted the genius that was the song’s psychedelic funk that would later be called upon to introduce the other genius of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Glover didn’t demand that you recognize the brilliance of “Redbone.” It just was what it was. “This Is America” traverses down a similar path. It’s not terribly on the nose but it’s just blatant enough that you should understand what it means. Just like the cameos from SZA (in the video) and Young Thug (on the song) aren’t thrown in your face, it’s those Easter Eggs that warrant repeated listens and viewings. If this was a Kanye video, you’d be beaten over the head with the guests, cameos, intention and meaning. If what Kanye is doing on social media is a marketing ploy to get us to listen to his music, it’s failing miserably. We’re talking about him, but not for the reasons that we should be talking about him.
Donald Glover is creative progression into your stream of consciousness while Kanye West is conscious regression against the grain of creativity. Neither is the epitome of either or, but both are fine examples that are in close proximity with one another.
What Glover accomplishes with “This Is America” is subversive because of the juxtaposition between entertainment and carnage. Just as you sink into Glover miming the numerous dances made popular today, he’s pulling out a gun and shooting a black man in the head. The smiles that are on the dancing children’s faces are juxtaposed with the all-out chaos taking place just behind them. It’s an eloquent observation of how close violence is to us but we’re too busy being entertained to care. You’re not supposed to recognize the man getting tossed off the upper level of the parking garage. The ever watchful eye of social media is observing the madness—both celebration and chaos—without doing much of anything to become part of either one. It’s a far cry from Kanye using social media to drum up interest in his album because, honestly, what else has he done before announcing that an album was coming?
Once again, the counterbalance is to be discussed because of the timing of it all.
There’s been a significant amount of growth that Glover has displayed over the past decade. He’s never been complacent with his art and has constantly grown in all areas. What was once a nasally rapper with cringeworthy one-liners grew to becoming respectable rhyme-slinger, and is now grown into a daring artist who has learned how to effectively combine all of his talents. At no time did he become comfortable with his talent and, instead, worked incredibly hard to create works of art that have had the world talking while he hasn’t said much of anything. The theme of Atlanta‘s second season has been dissected, broken down, questioned, ballyhooed and lauded without Glover uttering a single word on social media. That’s what thought-provoking is supposed to be. Not everything needs to be immediately explained and instead should marinate and allow the people to decide whether or not it is exceptional.
Kanye, on the other hand, might be looking at Glover as what he should have been. Perhaps he’s past his prime as a creative and is being desperate in his attempts to prove that he’s the musical savior that we once crowned him as over a decade ago. His yearning to be a multimedia creative was entertaining as hell on SNL; he dropped a thought provoking video; and is wrapping up a season of a TV show that nobody can stop talking about. All while keeping his private life private and only being seen and heard when he’s ready to be seen and heard. In some ways, this has always been what Kanye has had an inner struggle with. He has to be loud and boisterous about his art because he doesn’t think people will respect it. There’s a certain weight of insecurity there that he just can’t get off of his back. Even if Glover is an insecure individual, he’s not insecure in his art.
Glover was the talk of the weekend because of his art. Kanye is the talk of the town because of his actions.
Again, a much needed counterbalance.
One shouldn’t replace the other as this world is big enough for both to exist. But it’s refreshing to see someone being talked about because of the art they create rather than the controversy they are stirring in an attempt to ensure their art is being paid attention to.
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