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Music in the Digital Age With Childish Gambino

Childish Gambino, also known by his government name Donald Glover, has always been for the Black kids who have been called an Oreo in their formative, childhood-teenage years. He says so himself in a lot of his early songs, “the only Black kid at a Sufjan concert” being one of my favorite lines of his. Erupting from an era of hip-hop and rap music that was struggling to find its grip after its increasing popularity and, in turn, the commodification of a genre so deeply rooted in Black culture, Donald Glover got his name from a Wu-Tang Clan name generator which, to me, would define his future and current role of an internet superstar. 

An internet superstar? You’re probably thinking: But Childish Gambino isn’t a TikTok singer or a YouTube sensation turned into a heartthrob overnight. And you would be correct if you were thinking those exact words. What I mean by internet superstar is someone whose career is rooted in the creation of the internet, someone who has been able to use the internet as a tool and is able to manipulate it, seemingly, to their whims. We have seen the way Childish Gambino uses his platform to further develop his art – from the stylistic music videos he made together with Hiro Murai for Because the Internet to the “This is America music video that broke the internet and then, even further, to the new GILGA Radio that sprung up on April 18th, 2024. He has perfected the art of the 21st century and therefore cemented his longevity in cultural relevance and music history. This article is about music and the internet, and more specifically, how Childish Gambino might be one of the few who knows its inner workings and has mastered it.

How the internet changed music

As a Gen Z born in 2004, I first found out about Napster and Sean Parker when watching The Social Network at a very formative time of my life. The whole Napster thing went over my head as a 14-year-old-girl who also, at the time, had no fucking clue what Myspace was either. The internet, as she knew it, was YouTube and, less significantly, Instagram. All the music that I listened to came out of my MP3 player and then, a little later on, my iPod 5 that I used an illegal Youtube-Offline to listen to Party in the USA by Miley Cyrus. I didn’t know that what I was holding in my hands was fairly new, and everything that I was holding in my hands was a direct product of Napster. It was music on the internet, in its very beginnings – back when the Internet was struggling to go from a lawless wasteland to something more respectable. 

So much so that academia surrounding its origins expressed the fear that was rising like bile at the back of most older people's throats. Steve Jones wrote in 2001 that “consumption of music via digital computer networks is of greatest concern to the music industry, insofar as it is the most clear way in which purchasing and listening practices are being reshaped by new technologies.” Thus, the transition of music into the digital realm was much like the transition from silent films to the talkies.

It was Napster who changed the game and created the rocky foundations of the music industry’s online monster version of its previous self. For those of you who may not know (those of you who still haven't seen The Social Network, shame on you), Napster was created in 1999 and it was an online streaming service where friends could share files upon files of almost any piece of recorded music. And it was all free. According to Waldofogel, music “did not develop an attractive legal method of digital distribution until Apple created the iTunes Music Store, four years after Napster. While this response may have been reasonably prompt by the standards of some industries, the four years between Napster and iTunes allowed consumers to grow accustomed to obtaining music without payment.” 

By simply adding CD drives to personal computers, it changed both music production (Jones cites Oasis adding various beeps and electronic computer noises over the iconic “You’ve Got Mail” notification) and the allowance for us to listen to more music more frequently. It made the creation and production of music easier than it ever had been in the past. It became cheaper because instruments and software could be found on phones and computers – big artists of our generation usually say that they started with GarageBand, making music out of their bedrooms. According to Waldofogel in 2015, for about $10, an artist can make a song available on iTunes and, even more so, artists have an opportunity to distribute and promote their music in more ways than just radio. They can post for free on Youtube and other social media apps. Steve Lacy produced Kendrick Lamar’s “Pride” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” was produced on GarageBand, M.I.A and Grimes both had roots with making music in their rooms and both found their fame through the internet. Thanks to the internet, barriers to music creation have diminished, resulting in a proliferation of diverse sounds and voices. This phenomenon has ushered in an era where music is at its most captivating, particularly during the internet's formative years. 

Hence the introduction of Childish Gambino in the online music scene. But first, we have to look at Donald Glover’s long history with being on the internet.

Donald Glover and the internet

I wouldn’t have started this article talking about the internet if Glover didn’t have seriously deep roots with it – but he does. He started his official comedy career with an online sketch comedy group called Derrick Comedy who made various videos of themselves that eventually went viral. Glover landed a role writing for Tina Fey’s 30 Rock where, on the side, he came up with his music stage name and dropped his first independent mixtape Sick Boi also on the internet. The first feature film starring him and his comedy troupe Derrick Comedy was also independently made and premiered at Sundance. Eventually, he landed his fan-favorite role on Community (which is where I personally first found him as well) during which he came out with his second, third, fourth, and fifth mixtapes Pointdexter, I Am Just a Rapper, I Am Just a Rapper 2, and Culdesac, a Comedy Central stand-up special, his first official music video Freaks & Geeks, his debut EP, and signed with Glassnotes Records where he also released his debut album Camp. All of this was released/accomplished in the span of two years from 2009-2011. The early part of his career, up until he landed a deal with Glassnotes Records, was released on various free streaming platforms and YouTube.

An important side note in his career was the #Donald4Spiderman fan campaign that led to the creation of Miles Morales. This doesn’t have much to do with his career specifically but shows not only the power of the internet but that the love the internet has for Glover is by no means new.

Lastly, you can’t talk about Glover without mentioning his grammy-award winning TV show, Atlanta which is an almost picture-perfect snapshot of everything that Glover has been leading up to with all of his work. The show is completely his and his friends/co-workers own. It is produced, written by, and starring himself, and his creative voice echoes through the show from start to finish. However, to keep with the theme of this article, I just wanted to cap this section by talking about how the show used social media both inside and outside of the episodes. Ibra Ake, known as a photographer, creative director, and writer for "Atlanta," plays a vital role in translating the show's essence into its promotional strategies. He explains that the initiative originated during brainstorming sessions among the writers, where they consciously opted to utilize social media platforms to foster a deeper connection with the audience. This approach prioritized creating online profiles that diverged from traditional promotional tactics. Instead, the focus was on crafting accounts that resonate with how people authentically interact on the internet. This involved adopting a tone that is casual, unconventional, and conversational—essentially, profiles that users genuinely want to follow.

Simultaneously as Atlanta was coming out, Glover also released his ironically titled album Because The Internet, which made him more than just an actor turned rapper or, even, a rapper turned actor. 

Childish Gambino and the Internet

Because the Internet (2013) was more than just the album. Pitchfork says that 2013 was the “year Donald Glover got weird.” He announced the album through a confessional series of Instagram posts detailing struggles with depression and fear, candid discussions about mortality in interviews, a short film "Clapping for the Wrong Reasons," and, to cap it all off, a 76-page, four-act screenplay sharing the album's title. At the center of Because the Internet’s script is "the Boy," portrayed as the future estranged son of Rick Ross, indulging in online celebrity trolling and hosting extravagant mansion parties that only serve to exacerbate a deep-seated loneliness. The narrative chronicles the Boy's inexorable, irrational spiral toward his own downfall. Seen through the prism of the album and screenplay, Gambino's pre-release theatrics might even be construed as a deliberate ploy to foreshadow the project's themes in the real world. He went on to say to Times that year that “the internet is everything”.

The 25-minute short film released on YouTube featured Chance the Rapper and cinematography by then-up-and-coming Hiro Murai. With a title borrowed from J.D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and made for an album that would later depict these feelings of isolation and loneliness that Gambino had been teasing prior to the albums release, “Clapping for the Wrong Reasons” was an interesting installment to this trajectory. The short film follows Glover’s day in the life, working on the album-to-be Because the Internet. The film is somber and surreal regardless of its context of “everydayness”. It plays out “like a series of small vignettes taken out of the pages of an ambling, early Richard Linklater movie. It’s dry, vaguely philosophical, and palpably naturalistic.” 

After the widespread, multi-media release of Because the Internet, Gambino came out with more and more projects under this moniker that were each as creative and as important as the last. However, there was nothing as big as Because the Internet until he came out with “Awaken, My Love!” which was a completely different sound from anything else that he had ever released before Drawing inspiration from 1970s funk, “Awaken, My Love!” came out as Glover was riding the waves of his Grammy award winning Atlanta, and it might also be Gambino’s best received album to date. It took fans, critics, and casual listeners by surprise. Pitchfork, nutritious for its harsh scores (giving Because the Internet a 5.8 rating), gave the album 7.2, praising the album’s production and saying that it is “majestic, aiming squarely for the cosmos depicted on its striking cover artwork.” The album produced hit songs like “Redbone”, “Terrified”, and “Baby Boy”.

However, his mass manipulation of the internet, to me, happened with the release of the song and music video “This is America” in 2018. Not previously super political in his musical character of Childish Gambino compared to his acting and writing work, and more specifically his work with Atlanta, “This is America” was a feat in writing, music, and cinematography in its own right. At the same time it led to a lot of conversation, specially on Twitter and YouTube. It also garnered enough attention to be widely reported on by magazines and newspapers outside of the regular ones that his work usually popped up on, such as Pitchfork and Reddit forums. The video led to a lot of praise and a lot of controversy, with some people loving it for the political stance it took at such a pivotal point in American history and others were critical for the way that it was making the killing of Black lives go viral. Nonetheless, the music video broke the internet and people kept on watching it, talking about it, posting about it, and tweeting about it. Utilizing the power of YouTube, of being able to slow down and speed up a video; the conversation that starts in the comment section; the ability to share and rewatch videos; how anyone has access to it at any time and almost anywhere, Glover managed to create something that could only work on YouTube. A music video like “This is America” would not be found on MTV due to its provocative violence but, even in an era where YouTube loves to censor everything except for the things that it should be censoring, YouTube is the perfect place to put something like this. 

Therefore it’s not surprising (at least it wasn’t surprising to me) that he came out with the aforementioned GILGA Radio and is choosing to roll out his last album with a bang.

GILGA Radio and Gambino’s Last Hooray

The last music that Childish Gambino (aka, Donald Glover) dropped was 3.15.20 in 2020, which received a few mixed reviews since it followed 2018’s Summer Pack, alongside the critically acclaimed song and aforementioned music video “This is America”. Other than a few more side projects such as the Swarm soundtrack and a few features, Glover has barely put on his fan-favorite mask of Childish Gambino for four years – that was, however, until April 18th, 2024.

After taking the stage during Tyler, The Creator’s opening weekend set at Coachella, Glover made another surprise appearance, this time on Instagram. With all traces of his prior existence on the app deleted, Glover's page became occupied by a singular post: a new tangerine-based logo with the words GILGA RADIO in orange and white against a black backdrop. The caption: “GILGA Radio ep. 1 is now available on sign up to catch episode 2 this sunday”.

With an excitement equal to the average white male rap listener after seeing the post, I immediately signed up for GILGA Radio. At work, I managed to listen to as much as I could and continued again later. Featuring voice introductions from people like Billie Eilish, Earwick, and Zoe Kravitz and songs from JUNGLE, PinkPantheress, Andre 3000, and Flo Milli, the radio moves and functions like a digital radio – no ads, only people stepping in every few songs to bring in the next. It also depicts the thriving industry favorite that Donald Glover has become. 

Near the end of the second half of the radio episode, in an interview with host Simone Beats, when asked where Childish Gambino went, Glover says that “he grew up… it was always a project that I wanted.”

However, Glover spoke about reprising the role of Childish Gambino for two more albums, Atavista and soundtrack Bando Stone & The New World, before he completely retires the name. Along with announcing the two albums, he also announced the New World Tour coming this summer. Already, with two new episodes of GILGA Radio being out, we have heard teasers to a few songs, including one featuring Ye seemingly called “Say Less” and another featuring Kid Cudi titled “War Lords”. Along with this information, it was revealed in the second episode that "3.15.20" has been remastered and re-released under its original title "Atavista," aligning with Gambino's initial vision. Additionally, fans can anticipate a special vinyl release of "3.15.20/Atavista." Excitement peaked with the announcement of an upcoming music video for "Little Foot, Big Foot," directed by Hiro, slated for release in a couple of weeks. Gambino is also expanding his creative endeavours into cinema by announcing his new movie, Bando Stone and The New World, which notably features his last album as the soundtrack. Further diversifying his portfolio, Gambino is venturing into the world of anime with a project alongside Zack Fox. Additionally, there's another unnamed animated show in the works, adding to the anticipation for what's to come from the multi-talented artist.

Gambino is a product of the internet – one act that would have probably existed in completely different ways if it wasn't for the internet being at the disposal of Glover’s creativity. From his early days with the online sketch comedy group Derrick Comedy to the groundbreaking success of his Grammy-winning TV show Atlanta, Glover has demonstrated a profound understanding of how to leverage the internet to amplify his creative endeavours. Now, with the launch of GILGA Radio and the announcement of his forthcoming projects, including the remastered "Atavista" album and the movie Bando Stone and The New World, Gambino continues to push boundaries and redefine artistic expression in the digital age. His trajectory serves as a testament to the transformative power of the internet in shaping contemporary music and culture, cementing Gambino's legacy as an internet-savvy innovator and a true trailblazer in the industry.