Aint That America?
I want to believe that Donald Glover is a good dude. I want to believe that he is someone who values other creatives. I’d like to believe that he wants to live in a world where myriad citizen laborers–whose greatest hope is to transcend a life of meaningless servitude and live according to their own unique sense of inner purpose–are able to overthrow the capitalist system that besieges their unique sense of inner purpose. But I also recognize that what I want to believe is driven by my values, my personal experiences, and nothing that has anything to do with Donald Glover. As much as I want to believe that Donald Glover is like me, he makes his living in Hollywood: a world where a lack of values is infinitely more profitable than a refusal to compromise on your values. His entire discography consists of middling music that does little more than noodle coherently while standing on the shoulders of cultural giants who prepared no less than 10 courses of divine and previously unimagined elegance. His music isn’t bad, but it’s also not the work of someone whose life is dedicated to realizing greatness in sound. So, when my buddy Corbin–known across the webs as @catf1sh–hit me up and shared Jase Harley’s 2016 song “American Pharaohs”, the similarities to Glover’s critically-acclaimed “This is America” raised a lot of red flags.
In the coming months Glover’s validity as an artist will certainly be called into question in a way that it has not been previously. For his entire career he has been presented as the perfectly inoffensive black guy making a quirky music product that you can totally consume with your woke millenial buds while you wait for Postmates to deliver your gluten free vegan pizza. There’s a lot about Glover that is indefensible from the standpoint of culture. But at the same time, Glover has never positioned himself as someone who is a great musician specifically, or even a great artist in general. He is someone who has taken advantage of his situation as an actor and made a name for himself through high profile media exposure. He is a well-recognized brand, selling a product to consumers with disposable income. What makes his music bland is exactly what makes it successful: it’s not sonic experiences for people who are following the history of human music culture, Glover’s music is a premise for shared cultural experiences. The fact that these shared experiences revolve around music is merely incidental. Glover’s music is marketed to people who are seeking shared culture experiences. Whether those experiences are going to festivals in foreign lands on radical drugs, or asserting a counter-cultural identity in the midst of a militantly oppressive social regime, Glover has proven himself as a tremendously recognizable touchpoint for these–and other similar–groups of consumers. So, as much as I may not like his music at a personal level, I recognize that he creates work that people find tremendously valuable, and I don’t want to diminish that.
But, in this instance of overreaching liberties Glover’s validity as an artist or a musician isn’t even in question. I’m not here to diss his art, nor do I have any desire to shame his fans. The important thread of this conversation is the one that is spun from the experiences of two young black Americans in very different positions: Donald Glover and Jase Harley (aka Jason Christopher). Donald Glover has become rich, and empowered by Hollywood. Jase Harley is so far removed from the machinations of Hollywood that his only response to our inquiry on the songs’ similarities was: “Yea I agree the songs share a similar vibe and composition..would love if this song helped influence it. . .”
Donald Glover is a brand, using “This Is America” to position himself in the public eye. His positioning has everything to do with how much money he can or can’t ask for in exchange for each episode of the next season of Atlanta, and it has everything to do with how much of a guarantee he can demand on each stop of his next tour. Jase Harley, on the other hand, is an artist using his creative skills to enhance a life that is limited by his role as a citizen laborer. And no matter how famous Jase Harley’s ideas may be, Jason Christopher is only going to be paid 20% by Society6 if you purchase his art there, and Bandcamp will still take the same fee when Jason Christopher sells a single download, and Instagram will still charge Jason Christopher the same fee to market his music to his own followers.
When Christopher has an idea that could have a tremendous impact on his community it’s up to him to bring it to life. In order for Christopher to get paid a small amount, he first has to generate a tremendous amount of revenue for someone in Glover’s position. Then Christopher takes the money that he earns, and pours it into a project he believes in. And when Christopher invests that money in his project, and invests that money in himself, the same corporations that exploit his labor are also turning a profit on every dollar that Christopher spends on realizing and promoting his project. It’s a terribly oppressive systems that guarantees that rich people in Glover’s position get richer any time virtuous people like Christopher decide to invest money into themselves or their community. Conversely, when Donald Glover has an idea for a project WMG and Fox write a check, and if Glover wants more money he can negotiate a better deal. Donald Glover is the elite capitalist living high on the hog, and Jason Christopher is the citizen laborer whose only recognized value as a creative is the fees he pays to services like soundcloud, bandcamp, Distro Kid, Society6, and other similar services.
And so, the relevant story here isn’t about Hollywood stealing from unknown creatives. The relevant story here is: one of the most outspoken and intelligent black men in mainstream media is about to show us how he values a young black man. After all, Glover wrote the song with Ludwig Goransson, so it could be that Goransson traced Harley’s music without Glover’s knowledge, and now Glover has become complicit by association rather than intention. Or it could be an instance of pure coincidence as is likely the case with Can’s 1972 “Vitamin C” and 24-Carat Black’s 1973 “24-Carat Black Theme”.
Regardless though, the only way that Glover can come out of this positively is if he is able to use this instance as the impetus for a social action campaign that actualizes what he philosophizes about on Atlanta. Make no mistakes, my take on Glover’s work in music is far from my take on Atlanta. Atlanta is one of very few mass media products that genuinely addresses and interrogates our contemporary society in a meaningful way. Everything that I love about Atlanta is tied to its undeniably urgent dialog about the black experience, and to a secondary degree the experiences of many young people, in the United States. But, Atlanta is a fictional drama based on real life; Atlanta is not a documentary about Glover’s actions in black communities around the United States. And so, this is an opportunity for Glover to articulate the undeniably urgent dialog of Atlanta in a documentary setting rather than a scripted one. This is an opportunity for Glover to offer a powerful statement on the value of young black men in America. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is waiting with baited breath to hear whether that translates to Glover reaffirming Hollywood’s exploitative treatment of black men, or if Glover will use this incident to call attention to the ways that capitalist institutions employ major media outlets to erase the value of citizen laborers–especially when those laborers are black. One thing is for sure: we will have a full article on this curious incident in Issue 2 of Stoke Much.
Much thanks to Corbin Hicks for bringing this to our attention, and working with us to create a meaningful dialog around such a potent issue.