All Hollow

What train do you want to take? he asks, but I don’t answer, because I have no idea where we are. Here, everyone is in face paint and glitter, wigs and stripper heels. Everyone is the Mad Hatter, or Captain America, or even Waldo, finally, we’ve found him, smoking a blunt and slumped against a parking meter; and they all fill the streets, not just the sidewalks, but literally, the streets are run over with them. No one can save us now, not even the slutty cops.

We have just come from hearing Angela Davis speak about Black women and writing, on using our creativity to battle oppression. After the talk, we’re walking down MacDougal, and there she is, blond afro and red purse, in the midst of a series of Michael Jacksons and Black Swans. Quickly, we snap a photo with her. This is how you’re celebrating Halloween? she asks us. We smile. Yes. Happy Holidays.

I look at my phone, and it’s later than I’d hoped: 9:08—which means Donald Glover went on eight minutes prior at Brooklyn Bowl. But that’s only in the alternate universe where things start on time. A world outside New York. A world outside hip-hop.

I ask myself why tickets to this show are $20, and only available at the door, as if advance tickets had already sold out. That’s unlikely. But when we get there, it’s packed. It’s packed with furries—or maybe they’re just avid cartoon fans. Donald Glover, a.k.a., Childish Gambino, comes on stage—I miss his entrance in order to pee—and the Crowd Goes Wild.

So I look. I’m looking, right? I’m waiting to be wowed, after having heard him spit a single whiny verse on Peter Rosenberg’s mixtape. I’m waiting for the punch-line. But I had already been informed by my date, many times before: He’s not a joke rapper; he’s for real.

Mmhmm. Who isn’t these days?

My first thought: Well, first, the first lyric I make out: “I love pussy and I love bitches”; or is it “I love bitches and I love pussy”?

I wish I knew.

My first thought: This again? I don’t know much about rap, so I’m not sure who the reigning emperor of pussy and bitches (what’s the difference?) is, but whoever claims the throne, they don’t need any more subjects.

Which is funny, because he should be their jester. Before tonight, I’ve never heard Childish Gambino’s music, but I’ve also never heard his comedy. I’ve just seen him on the side of a bus and thought he was cute.

Well, he’s not. The other first thing I notice is that he has shoulders for ears, i.e., he’s tense. His eyes are bug-open, his eyebrows are permanent surprise. This is called “emoting.”

His emo is priceless. His emo is slavish to Drake ish—just rounder-faced. He has on a button-up and tie, he’s accompanied by a full band, and he’s bouncing around on stage, ever so rhythmically, but he’s really sad inside. You can tell. He says he’s not white enough for the white kids, not black enough for the black kids, and he’s a nerd, and he’s awkward, but it doesn’t matter because he gets mad bitches and hoes now, and yes, this is his only subject, and that’s stupid, but so what? He’s poorly rapping about poorly rapping. Meta-foolishness. And that’s how I know he’s sad. Because of the irony of it. Because irony is the saddest form of humor.

The crowd just loves him, though. A pudgy white bunny knows every word, even the nigga parts. He smiles delightedly as he mouths each word in the back of the room, one ear flopping over, a dribble of beer on his chin.

And he keeps going, this one, this Glover guy. All I can think, as I suck the sauce off a hickory-smoked barbeque wing, is that Angela Davis would hate this. And how glad I am that we didn’t invite her.

Because he’s just so awkward, so uncomfortable in his own skin. In addition to his posture problems and unwillingness to blink is the fact that he’s so caught up on his childhood. Childish Gambino could be fudged into simpler terms to mean Babyish Baby, and that’s apt. Donald’s childhood, I glean, was very similar to mine: an ethnically black child who grew up culturally white because of the surrounding school system and neighborhood. The difference between him and me, however, is that I found something else to say besides Ow.

It’s amazing how pain can permeate. Soak. Completely overwhelm a person’s personality, goals, ability for rational thinking. If Donald Gambino weren’t so hurt by the split he was made to feel as a well-spoken, non-gangbanging little black boy, maybe he could find something to say besides, Gee, it really sucked being a well-spoken, non-gangbanging little black boy. It’s strange how genuinely funny he is, talking about hot Asian chicks at UCLA, and how people said he wasn’t really black, and how now, brown cow, everyone is riding his dick, because it’s really not funny at all. Not from back here. Not without more alcohol, a better get-up—not without the amount of distance it takes to laugh like that.

Somewhere, maybe in New York, maybe in a giant, gilded hotel suite, Donald is writing rap songs that are completely inaccessible as songs. The experience is true—didn’t Trey Ellis write about this very phenomenon, didn’t he call us all “cultural mulattoes” in the early nineties? He did. But in long lines of prose, not over snare and kick, not in front of whites who don’t—can’t—get it. Donald is staring out at the skyline, ordering room service, flipping channels, hoping he’ll catch himself—and then there he is, on stage, the hottest ticket in town, an almost-crown on his head, an almost-cape on his back. This is his dream, his dream as an unwanted black nerd, his reality as a cool-ass motherfucker. New York City. Just like he pictured it. Adoring bitches, dap for days. He is getting back at us for all those jabs at his tender pride, all those people who doubted him. This is for high school, for the cruelest thugs, for the clueless whites, for the girls who always said no. But not for anyone else.


Published on, December 7, 2013