The Pharos concerts numbered four in all and featured one act: Donald Glover. Most people know him from his acting — in his acclaimed show Atlanta, his lead role on the wonderful Community and performances in The Martian and Magic Mike XXL, and his recently announced turn as Lando Calrissian in a future Star Wars installment. But since he was in college, Glover has been making music under the name Childish Gambino, building a fan base full of the kinds of obsessives who’ll follow him into the desert. His last album, 2013’s Because the Internet, posted 992,000 equivalent album units, according to Nielsen Music, and his on-demand audio and video streams total 1.1 billion. Until now, he has leaned toward confessional, hyper-referential rap. At Pharos, Glover unveiled songs from his forthcoming album, Awaken, My Love!, in which he leaves rap behind for trippy funk rock indebted to ’70s visionaries like Funkadelic and Sly & The Family Stone. In an era of relentless digital distraction, when music has been reduced, in Glover’s unhappy estimation, to so much ephemeral “content,” Pharos was about introducing his music to the world within an atmosphere of focus, introspection and positivity. “There was a layer of sacredness,” says Glover — no irony — as he recalls the weekend. “It was amazing.”
Glover, 33, is sitting shoeless in a rental house on Los Angeles’ Eastside. It’s an October afternoon, two months after Pharos. He’s wearing a black T-shirt that looks extremely soft and brown corduroys that look even softer. His black Tesla Model S is parked out front. This house serves as headquarters for his management team, an occasional crash pad and a writers’ room for the FX series Atlanta, the unclassifiably excellent post-sitcom sitcom that — alongside Pharos and Awaken — absorbed Glover’s creative energies this year. Glover, who grew up in Atlanta, created the series, oversees its scripts and is one of its stars. Nominally about an MC trying to capitalize on a regional hit with his buddies, Atlanta, FX’s highest-rated comedy, feels like nothing else on TV. Exploring issues of class, family and identity as they relate to four black Southerners, Glover and his collaborators mix social realism (The Wire is an avowed influence) with eerie fantasy (Twin Peaks is, too); linear storytelling with postmodern play. “Donald made his own weird, original thing — sometimes it’s hyper-real, sometimes it’s surreal, sometimes it’s unreal,” says FX president John Landgraf, who likens Glover to Louis C.K. (another Atlanta influence) for his “ability to bring about everything he wants to create” and who calls Glover’s series “a whole picture of what it is to be young, gifted and black in Atlanta — in America — today.”
Glover raises a lighter to a bowl loaded with stinky weed, then supplies me with an Oculus virtual-reality headset loaded with footage shot at Pharos. I find myself in an enormous dome. Twinkling galaxies and a giant animated witch doctor are projected overhead. Virtual Glover works a stage with a live band and six-piece choir. He’s wearing a yellow grass skirt and furry yellow booties, his face and chest bare save for streaks of iridescent paint: an Afrofuturist priest whipping his congregants into a fervor. In crafting the concerts, Glover took inspiration from Mmanwu, traditional Nigerian masquerades in which tribesmen don masks meant to embody the living dead — a motif consonant with what Glover characterizes as his belief “in the infinite,” which extends, he elaborates, from “the Periodic Table” to “pyramids and shit, where it’s, ‘Well, that really took some foresight.’ That’s the spirituality of just existence. Or just earth. How well it works.” It doesn’t matter if this makes complete sense to you — it makes enough sense to him and, as Atlanta has proven, when Glover follows his mind wherever it leads, the results are worth watching.
Glover’s big idea was for people to enter an entire alternate reality of his oddball devising: As his ever-expanding résumé illustrates, he has a head full of ideas that can’t be contained by any single genre, much less any single art form, and for all the hyphenates that are attached to his name, he wants to be known, above all, as a builder of worlds. This ambition is as evident in his concept-heavy music-making as it is in Atlanta, and it stems not from mere whimsy but from lifelong feelings of alienation. When he’s describing Pharos — when he’s describing anything, really — Glover drifts into abstractions that can verge on inscrutable. But the weekend, at its core, reflected a profoundly simple desire: He wanted to create a weird place where he felt like he belonged. “It’s cool to be able to make a home for a little bit,” says Glover. “If you don’t have a home, you make one.”
Awaken, My Love! began for Glover with a childhood memory. “I remember listening to songs my dad would play — albums by the Isleys or Funkadelic — and not understanding the feeling I was feeling,” he says. “I remember hearing a Funkadelic scream and being like, ‘Wow, that’s sexual and it’s scary.’ Not having a name for that, though; just having a feeling. That’s what made it great.” Abandoning straightforward sense-making intrigued him: Whereas previous Childish Gambino albums featured verbal acrobatics and a constant deluge of similes — “very written,” as he puts it — he approached Awaken as “an exercise in just feeling and tone.”
Thinking further about the ’70s, Glover saw potent parallels between then and now. “It felt like people were trying to get out of their minds, with all the things that were happening — and that are happening right now,” he says, alluding to contemporary uprisings like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. “How do you start a global revolution, really? Is that possible with the systems we’ve set up? There’s something about that ’70s black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution.”