Kanye West and Donald Glover: A Tale of Celebrity, Fame, and Race

Two artists have dominated the news cycle in the past few weeks, for vastly different reasons, and have garnered vastly different reactions, but they’re tied together in more ways than one.

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During these last few weeks, two figures — not named Donald Trump or Stormy Daniels — have dominated cultural headlines: Kanye West and Donald Glover. The reasons why they’ve garnered so much attention, however, are vastly different.

Kanye injected his name into the zeitgeist when he rejoined Twitter in late April after a one-year break and sent out a series of tweets in support of Donald Trump. “The mob can’t make me not love him”, he tweeted. He also showed off a picture of his very own MAGA hat, signed by Donald Trump. Oh, and he also said, on live TV, that he thinks black people being enslaved for 400 years was a choice.

People were…not pleased. We got headlines like “Wake Up, Mr. West!”, John Legend had to intervene (which was then made public after Kanye posted screenshots of their conversation), and Twitter came to the conclusion that we had lost Kanye to the Sunken Place, which Kanye responded to with a picture of his house that was meant to come across as a brag, but actually kind of proved Twitter right with how empty and white it was.

On the other hand, there’s Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, who’s been heaped with nothing but praise in the last week, primarily for the multi-layered, symbolically-dense and highly political music video for “This Is America”, a song from his upcoming album. Views for the music video, directed by frequent collaborator Hiro Murai, have already broken records, and also spawned a tidal wave of analysis pieces.

This comes after he served as both host and musical guest on last weekend’s edition of Saturday Night Live, which included a skit poking fun at Kanye; this past week’s season finale of Atlanta, the commercial and critically-successful TV show he birthed; as well as the upcoming movie Solo: A Star Wars Story; and the aforementioned album. This is his moment. People are saying he’s the only Donald making America great again, which cannot be said for Kanye (and not because his name isn’t Donald).

This stark contrast is fascinating, because less than a decade ago, Donald Glover was the butt of jokes and Kanye was a commercial and critical darling. Glover’s first album, Camp, was given reviews that featured descriptions like “preposterously self-obsessed”; his follow-up, Because the Internet, was better, but was still viewed as Glover “trying too hard to stand out.” What’s particularly interesting is that many of those reviews include comparisons to Kanye: “a part-time Kanye West impersonator”; “fictional version of Kanye West being played for laughs.”

In retrospect, the comparisons between Donald Glover and Kanye West are more apt in regards to their personas, and this is another place where our perception of these two artists have flipped. When Kanye introduced himself to the world, he was quickly viewed as a nascent talent. He eventually reached a point where he can call himself a genius and it won’t be dismissed. Now, he’s increasingly viewed as a weirdo, a rapper who seems more interested in fashion than music, in fame rather than the People.

Donald Glover has followed that trajectory, in reverse. He started as a writer on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, then a role as a past-his-prime, lowkey-nerdy jock on Community, all while being a so-so rapper. But then “Redbone”, a grammy-winning song from his 2016 album Awaken, My Love!, changed things. Atlanta brought him to another level, and everything has culminated to this current moment. He started as the weirdo —often labeling himself a nerd, different, and unique — and has now reached a critical mass where his name is often prefaced with “genius”, a place where he can say “I feel like Jesus. I do feel chosen” — something Kanye can relate to — and not be completely ridiculed.

So…what happened? It feels like these two artists are traveling past each other, going in opposite directions. How did these two artists seemingly switch positions? More importantly, how can that change be explained? The answer is fame, and specifically fame as it relates to being non-white.

If you’re black, or Asian, or any minority, and you “make it”, you quietly become a representative of your community, whether you want to or not, and because there’s not a lot of you, people expect you to make it count. Each success is a triumph for your community, and each failure a letdown.

Issa Rae, creator and star of HBO’s Insecure, believed that “if [Insecure] didn’t work, I’d have closed a door for a lot of other people. It had to be great.” Kenya Barris, creator of the hit comedy series Black-ish, also hints at this: “Every time you do something and it fails, it’s not just an episode of television that didn’t work — you have failed the culture.”

It’s a sentiment often heard from members of minority communities that capture mainstream-level fame and commercial success. And as their fame continues to elevate, so does their cultural significance. To some, it becomes a burden. This might be the case with Kanye. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in an insightful comparison of West to Michael Jackson, notes the following:

“There is no separating the laughter from the groans, the drum from the slave ships, the tearing away of clothes, the being borne away, from the cunning need to hide all that made you human. And this is why the gift of black music, of black art, is unlike any other in America, because it is not simply a matter of singular talent, or even of tradition, or lineage, but of something more grand and monstrous. When Jackson sang and danced, when West samples or rhymes, they are tapping into a power formed under all the killing, all the beatings, all the rape and plunder that made America. The gift can never wholly belong to a singular artist, free of expectation and scrutiny, because the gift is no more solely theirs than the suffering that produced it.”

Coates also notes that Kanye’s apparent desire to be liberated from this perceived burden, masquerading under his justification of being a “free thinker”, is not just a desire for freedom, but a desire for a “freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant”, or: white freedom. He wouldn’t be the first. O.J. Simpson comes to mind. So does Tiger Woods.

It’s not a coincidence that these men are all so famous that any stranger you stop on the street would very likely recognize their name. Kanye is just about on that level, if not for his music, than for his infamous declaration that “George Bush does not care about black people.” Donald Glover could potentially get to that point. “Redbone” has reached cult-status. Atlanta is a rumination on the black experience. “This Is America” takes aim at guns. It helps that he’s a multi-medium polymath.

Maybe it’s just coincidental timing that Kanye’s recent stumble has aligned with Glover’s rise. Some seem to think that a torch was quietly passed this week. Both men have albums due soon. It remains to be seen if our collective perception of them will change after their albums drop. What if Kanye drops a classic? What if “This Is America” is the highlight on an otherwise forgettable album? Let’s come back to this in another five years.

I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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