Republished from MOVE Magazine
As a blonde white kid hailing from Midwestern suburbia, I’m probably not exactly raking in terms of street cred. Sure, I do spend my summers working at a Steak ‘n Shake where someone was murdered a couple years ago, but other than that, I’m pretty much as un-thug as they come. So I guess it really shouldn’t be surprising that I like Childish Gambino.
I say that because Childish Gambino, the Wu-Tang Name Generator-dubbed rap project of comedian Donald Glover (you might know him from NBC’s “Community” or his Derrick Comedy YouTube videos), has been tagged by many as the black rapper for white kids. Glover, whose label debut Camp drops a week from Tuesday, doesn’t exactly do much to rebuke this pigeonholing.
Sure, he still raps chauvinistically about partying and phallic savvy like any other rapper, but he also drops references to cracker culture fixtures like “Meet the Parents,” X-Men and e.e. cummings (use your imagination). Gambino’s overtly personal lyrics address his off-white status: “They tellin’ me I’m the rapper for these white kids / ‘Cause black kids can’t possibly like the same shit.”
Glover makes a good point. There’s nothing about being a human with relatively low pigment levels that makes you like Wilco. And there’s nothing about being black that makes typical rap fodder like sexuality or violence inherently attractive.
While Glover’s large nerd following might not exactly work wonders toward proving his theory (although he is slowly forcing his way into the rap community. He’s done a verse with J. Cole, for example), Childish Gambino is an intriguing case that requires we take a look at racial boundaries in musical culture, something we really haven’t had to do since Eminem hit the scene. In the way that Marshall Mathers makes us wonder if a white person can rap about “black” things, Gambino makes us question whether or not a black person using a historically black medium to talk about “white” content can find a place in our culture.
Perhaps the most useful and reassuring part of Childish Gambino’s steady rise is that he answers that question in the affirmative. And though he might be the clearest indicator of this evolution, he’s certainly not alone. 2011 lends us “white-friendly” rap genres like stoner rap (Wiz Khalifa), skater rap (Odd Future) and, if you will, Gap-rap (Kanye West).
The act of accusing Childish Gambino of pandering to white nerds is really just an instance of finally realizing how diversified rap culture has become. White people don’t have to worry about being called “wigger” or acting like they’re being ironic to be a fan of rap music anymore. (Hell, our President is even black, not that that has anything to do with anything.)
You see, as much I like Childish Gambino, I’m an even bigger Drake fan. And although he’s half-Jewish, no one seriously accuses Drizzy (who, appropriately, also has a new album dropping Nov. 15) of being a white boy’s rapper.
While much of Gambino’s appeal rests on his ability to churn out clever and comedic lines, Drake has been a rap pioneer in utilizing R&B tones and production. Yet what they both share is the talent of sucking in listeners with their intimacy. Gambino lets you enter the typically off-limits zone of struggling with confidence, and Drake can break your heart with tales of his own heartbreak. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see how any of that is racially distinct.
While racism is obviously not extinct in the good ol’ U.S. of A., we can certainly view this expansion of culture as a plus, with its biggest push coming from younger generations. Our mindset toward music can easily serve as a blueprint for how to approach larger issues. We’re comfortable programming our Pandora stations based on what music we enjoy, regardless of the culture that birthed the genre.
We should be comfortable bringing this approach to our everyday lives. All we have to do is hear the music.