Once when I was feeling lonely, I opened a notebook and doodled a small cube sitting on a flat plane. I added an arrow pointing to the cube and wrote, “This is how I feel right now.” No explanation, no knowledge of a reader, nothing other than what I was thinking at that moment. So there’s something a bit voyeuristic about reading Donald Glover’s (AKA rapper, Childish Gambino’s) open letter, which he posted to Instagram the other day. Social media, as it always does, makes whatever anyone says public. But it still feels like you’re reading someone’s diary entry. Scribbled on multiple notepad pages from a room at the Marriott Residence Inn, all seven messages are unedited and extremely personal.
What you see are a lot of anxieties coming from a person with everyday worries about his family, his career, his girlfriend. We see the ever-relatable sentence: “I’m afraid of the future” first on the list of things Glover is afraid of.
But he also explores a lot of anxieties that I feel like a lot of people in their 20s and 30s feel, namely, the anxiety that we don’t really know what we’re doing, but we’re afraid we’re being fakers the whole time, and people are just buying into it. He writes: “I’m afraid people hate who I really am,” “I feel that this will feel pretentious,” or later: “I’m afraid I’ll regret this,” “I’m afraid this is all an accident.”
There is the second tier of anxieties about being an entertainer and making career choices for himself, especially as a black entertainer, and especially with pressures of trying to do it “right.” He’s afraid people will think he hates his race. He’s afraid they’ll think he hates women. I remember watching “Bro Rape” on YouTube when Glover was in the sketch comedy group, Derrick Comedy. In 2006 it made for a mild chuckle. One minute they’re talking about playing Super Mario Bros and the next, one of the bros is holding a big black dildo (an obvious sketch comedy prop) amidst some awkward silence. Now, after having been a victim of sexual assault, I find that sketch has lost its appeal. How do you reconcile your identity with your entertainment persona? I think of the sketch now, and go “Yikes,” and then I think of this slip of paper, and wonder if Donald Glover is thinking the same thing, wondering: will his work do good for the world, or will it end up like “Bro Rape,” and make people wince?
There are issues of whether the audience likes you because they’re on your side, or if they like you because you’re a novelty. There are issues of whether the people working with you are actually working with you, or just taking advantage. Glover has said before that he wonders whether people will want to see that guy from Community rap, and how he worries about going from comedy to music means he won’t be taken seriously as a musician because everyone will be expecting a comedian. He talks about how he is pressured by his record label to release his album during a different time of the year. He touches on the way they treat him because he’s not a big artist. Similar anxieties have been expressed by black entertainers who have felt exploited and disrespected by fans and execs, like Dave Chappelle, who stopped a standup routine and read a book onstage when he was being heckled for not performing old material, and Kanye West, who explained how he felt dismissed by white executives just before having those concerns dismissed by Jimmy Kimmel.
I think a lot of entertainers fight this fight, but especially entertainers that feel they have something of a social responsibility to make their work both entertaining as well as not damaging (“I feel like I’m letting everyone down”). The Huffington Post asked whether we should be worried about Donald, implying that there’s a meltdown in the works. Celebrity meltodwns often come from those who have been in the entertainment industry since they were very young—we all remember Britney who shaved all her hair off, and even now, there’s talk of Amanda Bynes being the Britney of the present. There’s even more talk of Miley Cyrus and her antics going in the same direction. These entertainers rebel against execs who keep them from making life decisions for themselves because there’s too much money at stake for the celebrity to be a non-beautiful, non-robot. And they lash out at fans for not understanding who they are underneath their polished, robot exterior.
Glover, on the other hand, like lots of writers and comedians, is different. He has the skills to articulate his anxieties, and to make his fears understood and relatable. This is not his first open letter. It’s not the first time he’s reached out via social media and voiced his concerns instead of having a PR group do it. It’s important to note that despite Glover’s celebrity, these are normal problems. They’re family problems, relationship problems, career problems, success problems, problems with illness and mortality, problems with trying to be a better person, problems with racism, problems with sexism, problems with creativity, and problems with helplessness. They’re problems with being an adult. For every entertainer feeling alone in their struggles, and for every celebrity whose struggles (when made visible) are written off as “meltdowns,” there’s a writer or a communicator who can bridge the gap between sparkly celebrity and human person with human anxieties. Donald Glover can make a long, honest list of all the things he’s afraid of, and say “This is how I feel right now.”