It’s hard for a lot of people to get a handle on the real Donald Glover. As a stand-up comedian, former writer for 30 Rock, Troy from TV showCommunity, and upcoming voice for kids cartoon Adventure Time, it would be easy to see his rap alter-ego Childish Gambino as just another role he is playing, but it would also be unfair. In fact, labelling him solely as any one of these things would be far too 2-dimensional; it’s the combination of these pursuits that make up Donald Glover in his true form, and even then there’s room to move. We had a chat to him about all of this while he was out in Australia for Big Day Out.
Anna Horan: I was going to ask when we shook hands, but do you get asked to do the Community handshake a lot?
Donald Glover: I do, I do.
AH: Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to do it.
DG: (Laughs) I don’t really have a problem with it, but I do get asked all the time.
AH: Are people any good at it?
DG: Surprisingly not! I didn’t think it was that hard to do. It’s a pretty simple kind of handshake, I think. I guess it looks smoother than it actually is because it’s simple, but a lot of people have a lot of trouble. It’s got to have a certain rhythm.
AH: Maybe it’s the anticipation.
DG: Maybe! I think it is, I think it is.
AH: I can’t really see because of your hoodie, but I was going to comment on whether you were wearing your Rocco’s Modern Life t-shirt.
DG: Oh no, I wish. Was that a big show here? Because it’s a wallaby, right? And it had a lot of Australian type animals on it.
AH: Yeah, it was. I remember it from growing up.
DG: It wasn’t like huge in America, but I loved it. It was one of my favourite cartoons.
AH: Speaking of cartoons, you’re going to do a guest voice on Adventure Time.
DG: (Nodding) Uh-huh, Marshall Lee.
AH: What does that involve?
DG: Nothing… (laughs) just being a vampire. You know when they do the special episodes with the sex-changes and everyone’s the opposite sex of what they are, gender swap. I get to be Marshall Lee. It’s really cool, I like that show a lot. I think it’s probably one of the better shows of our generation. I feel like it’s right up there with Ren & Stimpy of what kids are watching now. Parents are watching it and being like, ‘we shouldn’t be watching this,’ but it’s fun, it’s a good time.
AH: It’s gotten such a cult following.
DG: Yeah, so many people love it. It’s a great show and it’s about real shit. I feel like adults watch it and they get it. There’s this episode where the Ice King can’t remember that he used to be friends with Marceline because the crown [he wears] keeps him alive but it also makes him forget and go crazy and stuff like that. They used to be friends, he used to take care of her when she was growing up and now he can’t remember – like alzheimers. It’s really beautiful but sad. That show’s really good at that, like toeing the line.
AH: So even though you started releasing music before you ever became a comedian or got into acting, it seems like, and mention it in your rap, you have some trouble with people taking you seriously. What’s that like?
DG: Mm-hmm. It’s been fine. It’s all a process. All that stuff got me to this place and I really like what I’m doing. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve always really liked learning. Like everything else, you just get better at it and you understand. I think it’s more about just getting people to see you as somebody who does stuff, as opposed to like, ‘this guy is a baker and he only bakes cakes.’ That’s it. I think it just takes time with anything.
AH: I think it’s a symptom of our generation too, not sticking to just doing one thing.
DG: No, I don’t think you can anymore. I don’t think it’s really about that. I never really saw it like that either. I don’t think you can do that anymore, it’s not really the type of world we live in. I think you really just have to define your aesthetic and, whatever that it, follow it in every direction.
AH: Having said that, because you do so many different things – acting, comedy, rapping – a lot of people would see Childish Gambino as kind of just a role you’re playing than you being yourself.
DG: Yeah, I think it really depends on who you ask. Younger kids don’t see me that way at all, they see me only as Childish Gambino, which is funny. I think it’s always on who you ask and where you ask it, which is kind of the point. Everything is about image and how someone sees you really says more about them than it does about you. Depending on who you ask I’m Childish Gambino, Donald Glover, Troy from Community. It’s fine though, it’s just cool I get to do whatever I want.
AH: You’ve talked about how rapping has given you freedom and power, and really it’s just about expressing another side of yourself. It kind of sounds like you’re trying to make sense of where you fit in as being a credible rapper.
DG: I used to think about it like that, like ‘what is rap?’ that kind of thing, but I don’t think of myself as a rapper anymore. I don’t think of any of that stuff as rap music. I think that’s confining. I don’t even see myself as a musician, I just see myself as an artist in the process. I feel like everybody is just in the process, learning what they want… (Swatting at a fly) Wow, these flies here are for real! Oh my gosh.
AH: (Laughs) It’s probably just the one fly.
DG: Oh, I’m sure it is just one. I’m very sweet… But I think it’s just about the process of learning what you’re supposed to do by following your voice, following who you are. It took me a long time to get to [here]. I knew for a long time that I wanted to be a writer, then when I started writing I was like, ‘maybe I really want to do stand-up.’ Then while I was doing stand-up, I really liked performing and I had been doing music, so they just kind of rolled into each other. I don’t want anybody to think I figured it out, or I know exactly what I’m doing all the time. I don’t, I’m just learning like everybody else. Right now, I’m enjoying myself.
AH: You’ve rapped about Tina Fey giving you confidence, and then on your last mixtape Royalty you had a feature on ‘Real Estate’. What was that like?
DG: I didn’t know if she was going to do it or not. I asked her to do it and she sent four different versions of it and it was cool. I think I just wanted to use her as… I don’t know, I thought it was funny. Vanity Fair picked up and all these women’s blogs because Tina was on it. The song is so crazy, it hasAlley Boy on it and he’s like a real, hardcore, for real Atlanta rapper. I just thought it was funny. I wanted to show the juxtaposition and the song’s about real estate, which is such an old money kind of thing. Tina Fey, she’s always talking about real estate and she lives in Manhattan.
AH: And you’ve done a couple of tracks with ScHoolboy Q. How does that come about?
DG: I just really like the whole TDE (Top Dawg Entertainment) crew; those guys are really cool, they’re really good. Him and Ab-Soul, I’m really impressed by them. We have a very similar background, so I felt like they were good people to be around ‘cos I learned a lot from them. And their writing and how their voices sound, they’re like cartoon characters or something.
AH: I like what you’ve said about how rapping gives you freedom and power, and how it’s about speaking the truth. Is there anything else, rapping gives you? Any underlying themes you’ve identified?
DG: I try and be vulnerable as much as possible; the good that comes out of it outweighs the bad usually. It’s kinda hard. I don’t like myself all the time. I’ve made mistakes, but everybody deserves to feel like they’re worth it, because everybody is as long as you’re working through the process of figuring out who they are. That’s kind of the underlying theme that I always try to do. Rap music, or just music, is a medium that travels really fast. The fact that I’m here [in Australia] for music is crazy. If you had have told me this last year I would have been like, ‘nah, that’s not going to happen.’ It’s just another expression of the process of becoming who you are. I never want to preach or anything like that, but I definitely want to be an example of doing what you feel is right. You’re always going to go up against stuff and people, but they don’t have to live your life, you do.
AH: Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask about Girls, you’re in the second season, and how you and Lena Dunham improvised the fight scene in the second episode.
DG: Yeah, we improvised a little bit. It was fully written, she wrote a script, and then we did it and in the middle we just start improvising and each time we improvised some different stuff, and she brought it together in such a great, cool way. She’s very talented.