Childish Gambino's ‘Awaken, My Love!’ Revives Funk As Protest Music Right When We Needed It Most
It’s the music we need in a post-Trump world
Photo: "Awaken, My Love!"
I happened to be at Pharos, his concert series held in Joshua Tree, California, where Donald Glover dusted off his Childish Gambino alter-ego to give us drops from “Awaken, My Love!,” his first album in three years. That jaunt to Joshua Tree National Park, with Gambino on stage, earnestly trying to get us to believe that the guy from Community could make us feel like Parliament would have was enthralling. His unironic effort gave everything brevity. With no phone to connect to the hive-mind searching for tongue-in-cheek dissidence or memes, I had no choice but to experience the concert honestly. I met people I still talk to. It was like I was thrust back into reality with both hands. In that reality, people across all kinds of spectrums shared a similar experience without a break—with no out—and we were better for it.
“Awaken, My Love!” feels like a revival. On “Terrified,” Gambino screams, “we have got to really stay together ... really love one another, it’s so hard to find.” It’s not tough to know who he means. The album, an exploration of humanity, love, children, and loss is completely devoid of irony. It’s completely devoid of the self-flagellation of ritualistic understanding that stings social media and the web. It brings us to a pause. A kind of, What the hell are we all doing?
The 2010s Have Been Strange
The 2010s have been a confusing, schizophrenic decade, riddled with deep shifts in the way humans interact with one another. Deeply bonded, stable ideas about romantic relationships (swipe right), politics (a black president, now a populist one), knowledge (the web often decides what we know and how we know), and so many others have been upended in gradual, capitalist shifts. Apps like Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram are becoming more entrenched in our lives, intensifying our need for collective understanding, but also causing fissures in our reality. We are cordoning ourselves off from each other in remarkable new ways.
Then there’s music. Rhythm and blues, specifically, was always about protest. It erupted from the art forms that came pouring out of the African slaves, now separated from their mainland. It spoke of the unbelievable cruelty of their imprisonment, but more texturally, it spoke of the beauty of the survivalist self. The deep well of heartache plumed in Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” had multiple themes. A top layer of pop—he’s trying to hitchhike to see his lady—and a descent into gospel, then the primordial sadness of being.
But music has taken a turn away from the segregation of people’s inner lives. The internet promotes this all-in-this-together paradigm. Gambino is protesting the internet through funk, and it’s glorious. With “Boogieman,” for instance, he deconstructs the fear of black men: “With a gun in your hand / I’m the boogie man / I’m gonna come and get you.”
Later in the song, he makes it visceral. “But if he’s scared of me, how can we be free?” These questions, between plunging guitar riffs, create an immersive universe. He’s not merely speaking to you, rather you become the protagonist of these records.
Funky, Personal, Protest Music Is Back
Now a lot of people hear funk and see George Clinton’s flowing locks, the magic of the Commodore’s “Brick House,” or the stank-faced groove of Rick James’s disrespectful “Super Freak.” But for every track that made you want to straddle the line between dancing and convulsing, there was Nina Simone’s rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” itself a poem by Abel Meeropol. Let’s not forget, either, the psychedelic-funk of Norman Whitfield’s “You Make Your Own Heaven and Hell Right Here On Earth.”
Hip-hop, itself an art form that straddles the dance-protest matrix, has sniffed out funk’s nascent maximalism. Scrounging around in there are the feelings of what Childish Gambino described in an interview with Billboard as “sexy and scary.” Feelings that were used to pierce through the fog of your constantly endangered reality.
‘Awaken, My Love!’ Excels as Protest Funk
Prince said something similar. In a 1981 Jet piece, Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson decried that his work was motivated by the “loneliness” and “despair” he saw around him. A protest against the world he felt did more censoring than much else. And while the ’80s saw the diminishing of the big-band ’70s funk sound, it remained prevalent in strains of Janet Jackson’s funky-pop and in the production of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. And of course, there was the continued dominance of Earth, Wind &Fire.
Funk is being used in much the same way now. Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed “To Pimp A Butterfly” was the first warning shot at the movement into “unapologetically black” music. Clinton actually worked on that record, and it used the driving forces of funk and jazz to push back against the rumble of tumultuous times. “We Gon’ Be Alright!” didn’t feel as relevant as when Donald Trump won this past election. Childish Gambino has now taken the plunge. On his third album, “Awaken, My Love!,” Gambino all but abandons the “very written” aspects of his earlier career to focus on what he calls an “exercise in just feeling and tone.” But he also acknowledges the revolutionary nature of ’70s funk and R&B.
“How do you start a global revolution, really? Is that possible with the systems we’ve set up?” asked Glover. “There’s something about that ’70s black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution.” The final record on the album, “Stand Tall,” puts a stamp on Gambino’s back-to-life ethos. “Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall … if you are strong you cannot fall.” It’s a bit idealistic, but we could use a little post-Trump idealism, I think.