Donald Glover, Wabi Sabi, and Empowered Art

Text : Madhav Dutt


Hit play: Adele's 'Rolling in the Deep' (Jamie xx Remix) ft. Childish Gambino.

Adele won the awards, but at the recently concluded 59th Grammy Awards, Beyoncé was winning hearts. Since her long form visual album Lemonade came out, she's put more work into projecting a skilfully crafted, very deliberate public persona. Her Grammy performance not only furthered what she was trying to so clearly do with her Instagram pregnancy announcement.

Listen: A fan mashup of Beyonce's 'Sweet Dreams' and Childish Gambino's hit 'Heartbeat'. Courtesy: YouTube

Through (her) art, Queen Bey has come to be the paragon of femininity and power, wearing her blackness on her sleeve, channelling the Afro-diaspora in how she dressed (and wore a crown on) her fully pregnant self. On the other hand though, here's another African American artiste, tackling and voicing many of the same issues but in a most un-curated way. Donald Glover (AKA Childish Gambino), actor, comedian, rapper, and singer is all over the place. His public persona is littered with some saddening, intensely personal Instagram posts made around 2013. (His whole Instagram account has been wiped out, since.) His art embodies the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi (侘寂), an aesthetic philosophy that looks at imperfection and transience as things of beauty.  My older brother, an industrial designer, captured Wabi Sabi in one image: that of an immaculately trimmed, well-kept, well-swept garden that’s gently shaken by a gust of wind. It’s that random, final act of natural imperfection that elevates the beauty it affects into another, universal level. 

As Gambino, Glover regularly makes Buddhist references in his raps, adeptly infusing wabi sabi into his life philosophy and work—  a celebration of the vulnerable, flawed makeup that makes us human. His critically acclaimed TV series Atlanta, for instance is interweaved with some searing, powerful images of the region's paradoxes and of life as a black African American in the south, while being replete with moments that leave you in splits, others that leave your shocked, and some that are just soul-affirming. Glover distils into it moments of dialogue and cinematography, bringing out the beauty of intimate bedside conversations, teasing out the spirit of adventure in getting high with friends, and the inherent Buddhist concept of dukkha behind the frustration of living from paycheck to paycheck. 

This year's Best Debut Artist at the Grammys, Chance the Rapper too has collaborated with Glover. They had to, for thoughtful, aware minds flock together. 

Glover, who's suddenly emerging into mainstream cool— not only will he be in the latest Star Wars franchise as Lando Carlissian, but he's also set to join the cast of Jon Favreau's upcoming reimagining of The Lion King as Simba. As someone had exclaimed on a Facebook post— "DONALD IS FINALLY EVERYWHERE!"

Glover's eclectic fields of interest that make him stand out. Listen to his album Awaken, My Love, and you'll find yourself privy to a tasting menu of his personal favourites. The album, as an artistic whole, reflects an extremely introspective, constantly questioning voice. His unfailing unique ability to bring out the human condition in small, bite sized snippets never lets up. 

The release of this album though, marked him out not just as a philosophical bard, but as a pioneer as well. It was preceded by a fairly impressive VR concert called The Pharos Experience. The concert was held in So-Cal’s low-tech Oasis Joshua Tree, but fans world over could tune in by downloading his free app “Pharos”. This heralding of the next paradigm shift in information distribution/consumption, will be remembered as a radical jump in time. “It seems the more I try to connect with the world, I am feeling more alone than I have ever felt before,” said Glover, talking about the tech age, the consequence of which a lot of his art critiques.

This is why I leave you with a music video from one of his pivotal, thought-provoking albums, “Because the Internet”. In an ensemble of thoughtful vignettes, “Flight of Navigator”, a track from his Grammy nominated album Because the Internet, expresses the existential vacuum technology can lead to perfectly. His work is empowered because it is truthful, or at least seeking truth. 

2016 was really the year of Gambino. The unabashedly existential superstar rapped, directed, acted, sang, and cracked jokes anywhere and everywhere.  Now more than ever, society is at loggerheads with itself: fractions and divisions tear at our social fiber, and Glover, with his diverse, thriving art, is shining a light in this dark.


Madhav Dutt is a student in Duke University, North Carolina. He isn't sure which artistic medium he enjoys the most, so he's trying them all.

Thumbnail image of Donald Glover sourced from Eli Watson on Flickr