“This isn’t a concert. This a m************ church.” On Tuesday, September 18, in the 76ers’ Wells Fargo Center, backlit by an extravagant display of lasers, projectors, and screens, Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) attempted to give the thousands of fans filling the arena an experience that could not be replicated by only the sound of his music.
“Did you know y’all came to the last Childish Gambino concert?” he announced during a short monologue after playing the first song of his set — a lively, unreleased song titled “Algorythm” off of his upcoming final album. “Put your phones away,” he said, attempting to sanctify the performance and ensure that the audience mentally focused on what was displayed right in front of them. “YOU bought tickets, THEY didn’t buy tickets.” Replete with a live band, striking visuals, and passionate dancing, the concert did not fail to amaze, yet the intention of Gambino’s more recent music (and his TV show, “Atlanta”) stood in stark contrast with an aspect of the concert perhaps best represented by the rowdy, white fan in a basketball jersey doing a wildly aggressive shoot (a dance move popularized by rapper BlocBoy JB) directly in front of where Gambino performed.
I myself am three-quarters white, and grew up in a majority-white environment in San Francisco, so my own relationship with rap confuses me. Yet in multiple artistic mediums I have been an avid fan of Gambino for a long time. For whatever reason Gambino’s first album, “Camp,” is the only rap album from the last fifteen years that my dad owns and “Community,” where Gambino found his breakout acting role, was one of only a few TV shows that my little sister and I both enjoyed when I was younger. My interest has sustained throughout his transition from comedy, in both music and TV, to his more recent thoughtful and political work. So when tickets went on sale in May, I bought one immediately. It happened to be the first concert I independently chose to go to, rather than my parents or friends bringing me.
The tour is titled “This is America” in honor of the highly political song and viral music video of the same name released earlier in the year. The opener for the show was popular rap duo Rae Sremmurd, made up of Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi, a pair well known for making fun music with little meaningful content. Slim Jxmmi is one of a handful of popular rappers who have ad libs on “This is America,” suggesting that Gambino’s choice of them as an opener was an active pursuit of including more mainstream African-American rappers than himself. Gambino’s upcoming album has not yet been released, and as such the performance consisted of mostly his greatest hits. His outfit for the evening was strikingly similar to that of the “This is America” music video: white pants, no shirt, and a small chain. Another similarity was his full-bodied dancing and intense facial expressions, staring into the camera with his body rhythmically rolling and writhing, he seemed almost possessed. Given the name of the tour and the popularity of the video, one can only assume these choices were intended to keep the ideas of the video in the forefront of the audience’s mind.
He followed up his short talk with a few crowd pleasers and a couple of mellow songs from “Awaken, My Love!” Another short break ensued during which, kneeling in an ethereal beam of white light he advocated the power of belief and prayer. In a somewhat cliché manner, Gambino told the crowd that they can do anything, describing the “little prayers” that got him where he is today.
The second half of the show immediately set the tone as more soulful and theatrical. During “Terrified,” the two enormous screens behind Gambino displayed two hauntingly gorgeous, slow-motion videos of him and an unidentifiable woman drowning in water, beset on all sides by explosions of red, orange, and yellow. For “Summertime Magic,” a hazy, looped video of an apocalyptic city street with palm trees passing by was played, reminiscent of the song’s new music video. He followed with a soulful performance of an achingly beautiful unreleased song the internet has been calling “Spirits” — my personal favorite of the night. “We shine brighter in the dark,” Gambino called out during the chorus, advocating a message of the durability of human spirit as well as black beauty and excellence. As the small section of the stage that he occupied rose slowly several feet off the ground, the song finished with a repeated plea: “Oh great spirit, do you hear me? Do you love me? Can you hold me up?” His prayer to God fully realized the promise to the audience that they were attending church.
Breaking into the final song of the main set, the namesake of the tour, Gambino announced to what appeared to me to be a majority-white crowd that he just wanted to see them dance — a choice that seemed to be part of the routine, yet I was still taken aback by, given the song’s original message of criticizing the troublesome use and view of African-American culture by most (and especially white) Americans. In the white conception of African-Americans, police brutality and many other outlets of systematic oppression are often overlooked, and African-Americans are often stereotyped as hip-hop artists or athletes. In the context of the video, therefore, the viral dance moves’ essential connotation is that hip-hop culture as pop culture can distract from institutionalized racism, a distraction that can be relieving for Black Americans but when enacted by white Americans is an ignorant use of a culture that is not theirs.
Given the enormous amount of thought and intent put into all of Gambino’s latest work, from “Atlanta” to the “This is America” music video, to even how well engineered the concert was, I was forced to wonder why he didn’t wait to tour until the release of his new album. If this really is Gambino’s final tour then why not perform his final work? It initially seemed to me as if the message of his latest music was muddled and contradicted by what appeared to be pandering to a mass audience. This seemed exemplified best by the encore, which consisted of ultimate fan favorites (“Sober,” “V. 3005,” “IV. Sweatpants,”and “Redbone”) to which the audience screamed every word. Yet after reexamination I realized the importance of Gambino’s presentation of the show as a church rather than a concert. Religion has a long and important history within the African-American community as a respite from the difficulties of everyday African-American life and, through his concert, he seemed to be offering up a similar respite consistent with that of the dancing in the “This is America” music video. The concert was a celebration of African-American culture, of spirituality, and in Gambino’s own long standing tradition, of himself.