Are all legends self-made?
I was indoctrinated into rap culture at an early age. My brother’s refusal to sacrifice the volume of his music after school forced me to memorize multiplication times tables and Kanye lyrics in unison. As the last-born, my hand-me-downs included the musical proclivities of my older siblings.
They were the gatekeepers of everything music and culture in my household. My baptism-by-fire included watching MTV Jams on replay (because body mass often dictated who was in possession of the remote). My iPod held all the Lupe Fiasco, Jay Z and N.E.R.D that my brother could download to our family computer from LimeWire.
My love affair with Kanye West started early, but unlike most middle school inclinations this was more than just a phase. I loved West more than he loves himself. Even though I couldn’t fully relate to him, I felt like I understood him. He eventually became my first musical choice. His work marked the development of my musical taste beyond what I’d been spoon-fed as a child. I had memorized his words from exposure but replayed his songs from desire.
When I was 15-years-old I discovered Childish Gambino. I had watched his standup and found his music a few internet searches later. I rewatched his “Freaks and Geeks” music video ad nauseam, forced my friends to listen to his Adele remix during lunch and scrolled through the Gambino hashtag on Tumblr as a pastime. I wallowed in self-pity upon learning his concerts were age restricted and I could not attend the adult only shows. He’d melded together both his identities by performing a stand-up set as “himself”, Donald Glover before giving a rap performance as Gambino.
My fascination with Gambino varied from that of my championing of West because I didn’t just understand him but related. My investment in Gambino was deepened by the belief that he understood me as well. I was the suburban black kid who appreciated the “Sunrise” shoutout. He did it for the black kids, at least that’s what he rapped.
I was a kid frustrated by the microaggressions of classmates and resonated with exasperation Gambino expressed following the #donaldforspiderman campaign backlash. When being interviewed about the backlash he’s raised, “It’s f*king 2011, and you don’t think there’s a black kid who lives with his aunt in Queens? Who likes science?” My high school attraction to West and Gambino culminated in their understanding of what it’s like to be “different”. They rallied against labels like every adolescent’s heart desires.
Hip-hop itself was born as a cultural phenomenon that spoke to the uniqueness of the Black American experience. Though, of course, we aren’t all the same. West and Gambino refused to be defined by monolithic archetypes imposed by both society and genre. They were my kind of “different” and made me feel seen.
This review of my black, male creative inclinations as a youth isn’t for the sole purpose of reminiscing. Instead, it’s a recent revelation that the artists I loved had increasingly marketed themselves as separate from their peers. They arguably didn’t want to be relatable and somewhat held a desire to be unliked. Their unique identity was and continues to be irrevocably linked to their desire for exclusivity.
As West said it best, “There’s a thousand you’s, there’s only one of me.”
But somehow his words echo beyond the traditional bravado, chest-beating lyricism of the rap game. He sold a message he had already bought into, that he was indeed the greatest to ever do it.
Both artists have molded their identities and paths of relevance to forge their legacies into that of “messiahs”, the saviors of both black people and culture. Gambino(who was raised a Jehovah Witness) has said, “I do feel like Jesus. I feel chosen.”
West has long referred to himself as a “genius”, emphasizing his creative intelligence as his redeeming quality. However, anyone can be intelligent and not everyone can be “a god”. Intelligence is subjective and humans are fallible but who can argue with a higher power?
So in true Sean Combs fashion, both West and Gambino have evolving monikers. West (although some of his plaques still say Kayne) eventually transformed from Ye to Yeezus, after the iconic of course Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ. He went from walking in his footsteps and trying to be him to eventually declaring himself “a god”. Gambino uses his birth name “Donald Glover” for acting credits and “Childish Gambino” musically. Although it isn’t always certain whose moonlighting as who.
The New Yorker profile titled “Donald Glover Can’t Save You” reveals like West, Glover seems to endure the same sense of self-importance. However, the trouble with convincing people of your own hype is that it’s never enough. Once your “creative” tendencies and urges become normalized, you, therefore, cease to become an anomaly and must continue to best yourself. Taking yourself to new heights, where you may look less like “a god” and more like a sacrificial lamb.
What’s more outrageous than one off-putting tweet? A thread. But, then again even that would be expected. Both artists seem to endure the identities they’ve created for themselves, but for whose sake?
Glover’s has expressed that, “Everyone’s been trying to turn me into their ‘woke bae.’ But that’s not what I am. I’m f*cked up, too — and that’s where the good sh*t comes from.”
While both Glover and West compare themselves to Christ, it appears he remains an entity they each fail to fully understand. Christ wasn’t just a God among men but a God of men. They’ve declared themselves to be something that they don’t want fully encompass, desiring the glory without the responsibility.
When West went on a pro-MAGA twitter spree last spring friend and fellow musician John Legend reached out, hoping to persuade the artist to reconsider his position.
Legend wrote, “Hey it’s JL. I hope you’ll reconsider aligning yourself with Trump. You’re way too powerful and influential to endorse who he is and what he stands for. As you know, what you say really means something to your fans. They are loyal to you and respect your opinion. So many people who love you feel so betrayed right now because they know the harm that Trump’s policies cause, especially to people of color. Don’t let this be part of your legacy. You’re the greatest artist of our generation.”
West rebuffed Legend’s sentiments in regard to his responsibility to his fans, replying, “I love you John and I appreciate your thoughts. You bringing up my fans or my legacy is a tactic based on fear used to manipulate my free thought.”
Which raises the question, “How can you be a shepherd of men when you seek not to lead them? And, if you are a savior where lies deliverance?”
It appears there is no salvation from self-lionization.