Donald Glover Interviews Donald Glover
Donald Glover is a man of many personas, phases, eras, iterations. There’s the comedy writer, who cut his teeth in the sketch group Derrick Comedy and honed his craft in the 30 Rock writers’ room. There’s the actor who became a star as one half of a goofy bromance on the cult sitcom Community, and who dripped charisma as Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story. There’s the musician, better known as Childish Gambino, who started as the rapper you loved to hate on albums Camp and Because the Internet, and then silenced his critics on the funky, sultry Awaken, My Love! There’s the auteur who created and stars in Atlanta, the consensus Best Show on Television since it debuted in 2016. And then there’s the architect, who sees all facets of artistic expression as part of a larger world of influence into which he’s eager to seduce as many as he can. From his farm, where he’s putting the finishing touches on his upcoming Amazon series Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the 38-year-old father of three unspools his Willy Wonka mindset to someone who knows exactly which threads to pull: himself. —ADAM WRAY
DONALD GLOVER: Okay, where are we right now?
DONALD GLOVER: On my farm.
Yeah. I love farms. I love produce. We’ve got all these fruits, bees. Our cow is pregnant so we’ll have milk for a little while. It makes me happy.
What’s this on the table?
A tangelo. I love them. These and the black mulberries might be my favorite. Which won’t be ready for a while. But they’re really good. My kids sit underneath the tree and go nuts.
With this backdrop, you look like a baron or something.
It’s this one piece from Bode doing that. I gave it a French flair with the hat. They just opened a spot in L.A.
I heard. Is this how you dress most of the time?
When I’m here. I like being functional. My partner, she paints a lot so you might brush up against some color. And with kids you have to wear things that look better as they get dirtier.
Yeah, so first question, why’d you want to do this?
I guess I don’t love interviews and I asked myself, “Why don’t you like interviews?” And I think part of it is that the questions are usually the same. This way I can get questions I usually don’t get asked.
You don’t think this is contrived?
I don’t think it’s more contrived than any other interview.
Alright. I wrote down some things I’ve been thinking about. I’m gonna try to not have a ton of follow-up so we can go quickly. Cool?
Great. Who do you see yourself as?
In what sense?
Who do you model your career after?
Oh. Willy Wonka. That’s the world I like. You have your factory, you make something, put it out, and then close shop to the public for a while.
Is that why privacy is so important to you?
I don’t think life is real unless some things are just for you. Things that should not or cannot be shared. I think the younger generation is going to have a hard time distinguishing whether something is for them or for others, and I think it could play out as a diminished sense of self. You really have to know what you would do if no else was watching.
Like the story about Robert Redford when the elevator door is closing and someone asks him, “Are you the real Robert Redford?” And he said, “Only when I’m alone.”
Exactly. I mean, how do you know otherwise?
What’s the last poetic thing you’ve seen or heard?
I was putting my son to bed a few nights ago and asked him what he was thinking about. He said, “I’m thinking of the last long dream I’ll ever have.”
I thought it was beautiful.
Are you still making music?
Oh yeah, all the time. I’ve been rapping a lot. Producing. It’s fun again. Doing features.
Any you can talk about?
I did one that I don’t think is gonna come out. I think the artist, or the artist’s management, thinks the verse is too controversial.
Are you worried about getting canceled?
I think that’s the game. A lot of people out here are celebrities. So their value is in people liking them. I believe my value is in my vision. So I have to make something good enough and just be human. You can get torn apart for anything, true or not.
What do you think of “cancel culture?”
Yuck. Can we not?
I just … ew.
Well, you said something about it in your tweets. You’ve tweeted a lot lately.
That wasn’t about cancel culture. You think it’s a lot of tweeting?
I’d say more than usual. You’re not an internet-er.
No. I suppose I’m not. I think artists are supposed to interpret the world around them. And the internet isn’t the world to me.
Did you intentionally shift your approach to social media?
I was kind of intentional. I was born in the ’80s, so I had a good context of how I felt without it. And I felt better without it, so I stopped. The internet moves like a drug. An accelerant. I don’t know.
How do you think your peers feel about their relationship with it?
Everyone I meet who’s active on the internet looks tired as fuck in real life.
People say that you’re “woke” now.
I’m not. I just grew up.
Maybe, but your work seemed to have a sociopolitical slant around the same time as that started becoming more popular.
I don’t think that’s true. People don’t think of life the way we used to. Because we communicate online and everyone has a personal brand. If Malcolm X was alive right now and lived the same life, people would say he “rebranded himself.” No, he just was Malcolm X. He evolved through his experience.
Speaking of Malcolm X, you hear what Dr. Umar said about you?
What did you think?
It’s old footage. I think he has some interesting ideas, but I disagree with him on that one.
I do think it’s interesting to separate marriage as a political act.
Yeah, I guess. But then where does it end? How would I know if something’s for me if it’s all a political act?
Are you afraid of Black women?
Why are you asking me that?
I feel like your relationship to them has played a big part in your narrative.
I feel like you’re using Black women to question my Blackness.
Alright. Are you gonna teach your kids how to be Black?
[Laughs] Well, yeah? Should someone else?
It feels as though your thoughts on race—
Can I say something? I hate talking about race more than five minutes unless it’s with other Black people and/or we’re laughing.
Can I ask one last one? Then I’m done. Do you think “Black” has lost its value?
In what way?
In whatever way you think it means.
I definitely think it’s diluted in the marketplace. Because everyone can do it and it doesn’t have to be authentic. It happens every 10 to 15 years. I think we’re at the tail end of it now, though.
Do you have any advice for being at the tail end of this cycle?
I think just focus on your perspective, not your “Blackness.”
I guess in a vacuum it’s easier not to focus on your Blackness. But the world will dictate how important it is to you in some ways, no? Like, do you want your kids to not focus on their Blackness?
In some ways I don’t. But I also don’t want them to be the light-skin kid saying, “I don’t see color.”
What do you want your kids to be?
I guess I just want them to be good men? But they decide what they are. I’ll love them regardless.
What’s a good man to you?
Someone who knows themselves. Who loves themselves. My father was really gentle with us. Physically and mentally. It felt radical at the time. I really miss him.
Why was it radical?
It felt radical. Probably because he was the only man I knew like that growing up. There’s physical danger in men-love. If someone doesn’t understand what they’re feeling, it could get violent. I don’t think women usually have to deal with that, unless they’re dealing with men. But to be clear, this isn’t me saying men are bad, but the worlds are just different.
Speaking of men and women, you’re working on Mr. and Mrs. Smith right now. Is that why you shaved your head?
No. I didn’t have to be Earn anymore.
What happened with Phoebe Waller-Bridge? She was supposed to be on Smith, right?
Yeah. But classic creative differences.
Are you and Phoebe still friends?
What does it mean to be a friend? I still like her. I assume she still likes me.
Who’s Mrs. Smith now?
From Pen15? I love her.
Yeah. She’s dope. It’s exciting. I really love the show. I’m writing the finale now.
Cool. What does “culture” mean to you?
The word is overused. But I think, in its essence, culture is just us telling stories to each other we all remember from being god.
You mean like stories we’ve all forgotten as god? I’m confused.
I think culture is just us telling each other the truth. Being present together. I bring up god because I think there’s no “we.” And that’s how I make things now. I think of the moment I wanna give someone. But I make sure that someone is me, not “us.”
With niche culture, why be relevant?
I hate niche. When I was really starting to make stuff back in the early 2000s, niche was the wave. Because it was safe and you can eat off it. Back then you could eat off it a lot. But I think it didn’t challenge people to figure out if they were great or not. This ain’t a job to me. I’m in the influence game. And I think my world is better than most people’s. So I’m trying to make the most people believe in my world. That’s relevancy.
Yeah, but who’s always relevant? I don’t think it’s something sustainable.
Maybe it depends on what you value. Ye always seems relevant. But at what cost?
Does anyone stay relevant? Who’s had a career with the most sustained relevancy?
You kind of asked me this already.
I mean a real person. Not fictional.
Tarantino, I guess. You make high quality shit for a large audience, you own it, and you go at your own pace. But I’d rather be influential than relevant.
Are you basing this answer off of success or autonomy?
You define success. Just like you define failure. So it’s really about autonomy. A lot of people you see on the internet HAVE to be on the internet.
Thoughts on Joe Rogan, Chappelle, China, ADOS?
Jesus. Choose one.
Well, wait. I’ll answer them all: You are who you are.
I think you know I’ll say what I think, you’re just milking me.
Well, that brings me to my next question: What role does criticism play in your life?
There’s good takes, there’s bad takes, but most of them are just untrustworthy takes. I liked it more when Camp just came out and it felt like everyone hated me. Because there’d be some actual good insight and it was easier to see who was dealing with their own identity problems, who really hated me, and who just didn’t like me because I didn’t dislike myself. But you can’t believe the good or bad stuff now because it’s all just the economy around you. There’s money and clout in loving and hating you. You have to sift through and try and see if someone is debating in good faith. The internet doesn’t provide a large-enough amount of that. You know what? I’ll tie in my Joe Rogan and Chappelle answer now, too. A lot of people believe both of them are doing what they do in good faith. It’s not cynical. It’s not CNN or Fox. It doesn’t feel to most people like they’re trying to sell something. People are looking for other people to interact with in good faith. Because a lot of this rage is artificial. People have emotional diabetes and don’t even know it.
Criticism seems to be a big engine in your career.
Any of it affect you personally? Like, do you regret making Camp?
Not at all. I like parts of that album and I learned so much. Mostly that concept doesn’t outshine content. But when they’re in equilibrium, it’s extremely potent. I don’t think I was clear on that album, and the songs weren’t catchy enough for me. Made it feel like novelty. Because I wouldn’t bop any of the songs in the car now. Maybe a couple of the hooks. But it allowed me to make Because the Internet, which I think has proven itself to be a classic.
You think BTI is a classic?
It’s the rap OK Computer. It’s prescient in tone and subject matter and it’s extremely influential. And I know no one’s gonna give me that until I’m dead. But it’s true.
In some recent tweets of yours you reference Dave.
Do you dislike that show?
No! I like that show. But it does bother me when Atlanta’s compared to it.
You have to think of it like food.
You mean it’s a different flavor.
No. Although I do feel like the flavor is artificial in some sense. The organic show should be about a white rapper who’s more successful than his Black peers from the jump. Because he’s more accessible. But what he actually wants is to be part of the culture, but his success keeps him from that and a lot of his Black peers and friends resent him for it but also feel like they have to fuck with him because it’s good for them. That’s the internal struggle I see. Anyway.
That’s the Donald version of Dave.
Yeah. It’s sadder. What are you gonna do?
So you think Dave should be your version of the show?
No, it should be what it is. Like, people think I’m pretentious. I can be a snob. But I think in entertainment or art it’s important to know the difference between things. Like, Anthony Bourdain wasn’t pretentious, but he definitely knew the difference between a dry aged wagyu and a smash burger. Neither is better or worse than the other. They’re just different experiences. And I wouldn’t want to have either every day. But I would never confuse the two. I expect the same of my audience.
That seems like a lot to ask of a large audience, no?
I don’t think so. You have to be honest. Especially with other Black artists. Because I think we all think we have to support each other, which we do, but sometimes supporting each other is telling someone, “This isn’t good, to me.” And you have to know why, and not be a hater, and they have to take that criticism in good faith. Then we can grow together. Then we can help each other’s recipes. You’re not helping them if they think they’ve made a “sophisticated” beef patty and it’s really a homemade tuna sandwich. Again, both can be good.
So if it’s all food, what is Dave?
It’s a good burger you should eat fast because the ingredients are fresh. By a guy who didn’t study at a culinary school, but paid close attention to other burger spots and has the plug on good ingredients.
Burgers Never Say Die.
Right. It’s a great burger.
What food is Euphoria?
A really good butterflied chicken in the restaurant attached to an old hotel having a resurgence. It tastes really good and you feel guilty eating it because it’s got foie gras. But after going there for six months, you realize you always leave a little hungry.
You like Euphoria?
I do, for what it is. But I do think it’s time for Zendaya to choose up and leave Sam to come to Death Row.
What are your favorite shows right now?
How To with John Wilson and Abbott Elementary.
What foods are those?
Lemme think about it while I eat this [tangelo].
What food is Atlanta?
Give me a sec though.
I’ve got a good one. Is Atlanta still for niggas?
[Laughs] You know that Kodak Black meme?
DONALD and DONALD: [Laughing] “I hope soooo.”
I really hope so. The barber episode of season two got the lowest score on The A.V. Club, but I was getting texts from everyone from home like, “This is the best one.” It reminded me we still gotta do both.
Do you watch a lot of television?
No. I get bored. Farming is where it’s at.
I mean farming everything. Talent, ideas, moments. You ever heard of Bauhaus?
I started reading a lot on them and Black Mountain College. It got me more interested in farming from the ground up, specifically culture. If the internet is the open wilderness, I built a greenhouse. A safe, organic place to grow talent, ideas, and product to place in the ecosystem. See if it thrives on its own.
You talk a lot about how things should be.
I hope not in a dictator sort of way.
No, but do you have an ideal of how society should function?
I don’t know. You remember that movie about Tonya Harding that came out?
I think it was I, Tonya?
Yeah. There’s a scene where she’s not getting scored correctly because they don’t think she represents what America is. And she asks, “Well, can’t it just be about skating this time?” I relate to that. I think language, especially in the U.S., has been destroyed. In France you gotta go through the fuckin’ court system to change a word. I don’t like when something is really about promo, but it’s being advertised as really about the art, or the culture around the art. I think that’s why awards shows have been having trouble. They don’t reflect what they actually are.
What are you most afraid of ?
Losing my mother.
That’s hard. Because that’s gonna happen someday.
I think it’s not even that. I think it’s more I’m just in love with her right now. It brings me a lot of joy to give her joy. Our relationship now is something I’ve never known. I get to be the caretaker. She’s teaching me how to be old. I think I’m seeing her as a woman and not my mom for the first time.
Is there anything you regret?
Are you being honest with yourself ?
I’ll come back to it. Who’s the last person you had a deep conversation with?
Now you’re being trite.
I’m serious. Sometimes you have to meditate on what you really want and what’s really happening. You know how with kids, when they experience a traumatic event, you’re supposed to go over it again and again when they bring it up to help them process it? We need to do that with ourselves. Life is incredible and traumatic. So sometimes I just sit alone and go through it: “You were born. You lived on an air force base. Your first memory was your mother giving you a peach…” You account for it all to yourself to remember you’re not Donald, you just are.
Are you afraid of death?
Yes. In a good way.
In a way like you’re scared for the first day of school. It’s something new we all have to do.
So what are you up to now?
Just making sure Atlanta’s good. Working on a project with Dominique Fishback, Damson Idris. Chloe Bailey, too.
You tweeted that only Atlanta and The Sopranos are touching each other. You still stand by that?
One hundred percent. Season three is really good, but season four is even better. Me and Hiro talk about it a lot. I’m not saying this to be pompous. I’m saying that because we deserve it.
The people. The people need to know this is high-end shit. I’m saying Atlanta is osso buco served with risotto, prepared by a chef who studied in New York City, spent five years on the road, worked at a Michelin star spot for three years, and used the money to buy a small farm. He invites you over to try out some recipes he’s been working on with his friends using the produce they grew together. Even if you don’t like it, you can’t say it’s not high quality. The quality is undeniable.
Good. Well, thank you f—
Oh! I forgot to say I’m opening an actual invite-only food spot this summer. It’s real. Meaning, not metaphorical. I love it.
Great. Am I invited?
Thanks for your time.
Grooming: Jade Perry
Skin: Autumn Moultrie using Is Clinical
Set Design: Patience Harding
Production: Art Partner and Connect the Dots
Tailor: Gayane Mnatsakanyan
Animal Trainer: Mike Morris
Photography Assistants: Charles Brown, Luis Ramirez, and Colin Smith
Fashion Assistants: Isabelle Fields and Sage McKee
Manicure: Barbara Warner using CND Silver Chrome
Set Design Assistants: James Breyer, Sydney Hogdahl, Jesse Keating, and Ehman XRay