END OF AN ERA
Mos Def And Childish Gambino Hang it up
“You’re driving in a hurricane and you see three people at a bus stop. One is an old lady and she’s sick. One is your best friend and he saved your life. And the third is the lady of your dreams. Now check it out, you only have room for one in your car, which one do you take?”
– Mos Def as Eddie Bunker in “16 Blocks.”
Life is peppered with arduous decisions, and riddles wrapped in conundrums that may lead to unknown paths. Is the decision to retire based off a feeling of uncertainty? Or is it tied to the deep-rooted human emotion of closure? Two of hip-hop’s most eclectic artists announced their retirement this year, each musician a pioneer and a paradigm for generations to come. Both Yasiin Bey (the artist formerly known as Mos Def) and Donald Glover, who got his stage name “Childish Gambino” from a Wu-Tang online name generator, are bowing out of the game.
Mos Def announced his retirement last year via a recorded freestyle that was posted on his friend Kanye West’s blog. At the time, Mos was being held against his will by the South African government, which had charged him for illegally living in the country. Mos and his family relocated to South Africa in 2009, after condemning the American government for using torture against imprisoned Muslims. In the recording Mos Def addresses the corruption within the South African government, gives thanks to Kanye, and then announces his retirement from music and film. To conclude his career as one of hip-hop’s most adept lyrical masters, Mos Def will play his last show at Atlanta’s ONE MusicFest.
Although he released his debut solo album Black on Both Sides in 1999; Mos had already amassed a multitude of classic material by that time. The groundbreaking group Black Star, comprised of Mos and fellow Brooklyn born lyricist Talib Kweli, departed from another galaxy and landed firmly on the rugged roads of hip-hop in 1998. Prior to Black Star’s legendary team-up, Mos created the group UTD with his younger siblings. Urban Thermo Dynamic released one album before Mos went solo, and gained the respect of the hip-hop underworld with an occult guest verse on De La soul’s “Big Brother Beat.” Hip-hop became Mos Def’s bread and butter, but a decade before we “Remembered to keep Mos Def in the mix,” he had already broken into Hollywood as a childhood actor. Arguably the first rapper/actor, Mos Def opened the door for a plethora of artists.
At the age of 12, the young virtuoso born Dante Terrell Smith enrolled in his first performing arts school. The Philippa Schuyler Middle School for The Gifted And Talented, located in the heart of Brooklyn, bears the name of a childhood prodigy from the early 1900’s. In a serendipitous chain of events, Dante/Mos/Bey would attain childhood stardom as well. Determined to chase his passion, he enrolled in The Talent Unlimited High School, where he landed his first on-screen role. From that point on, Mos never looked back. While young black men in Brooklyn were selling their souls to the crack game, Mos aspired to be an artist. As crack tore through his neighborhood, he assiduously infiltrated the dramatics. Bedford–Stuyvesant, forever immortalized as the hood that birthed The Notorious B.I.G., was dying. From 1984 to 1989, the homicide rate for black males between the ages of 14 and 17 more than doubled. The stereotype of the missing black father was invented during the crack era, as overdoses caused bodies to litter the brownstone halls of Brooklyn’s famed neighborhoods.
“I believe the projects were a social experiment; we were laboratory rats stacked on top of each other, and people just knew, inherently, that there was something wrong,”
– Mos Def
Through-out the late 80’s and early 90’s, Mos Def appeared in several television shows and short films alongside multiple icons. His big break came in the form of a reoccurring role on You Take the Kids while in high-school, and a year later he was playing Bill Cosby’s sidekick in The Cosby Mysteries. Then, in 1996, Mos was featured in Michael Jackson and Stephen King’s short film Ghosts. By the mid 2000’s both Mos Def’s acting and rapping careers hit a peak, a seamlessly intertwined pinnacle of meticulous verses and impassioned movie characters. In Spike Lee’s Bamboozled Mos Def stars alongside Jada Pinkett Smith and Damon Wayans as a militant rapper. A year later, Mos snagged a supporting role in the Academy Award winning masterpiece Monsters Ball, alongside Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thorton. Seemingly unsatisfied with minor roles, Mos further infiltrated Hollywood and landed prominent roles in 2003’s The Italian Job and 2004’s cult classic The Woodsman. By 2006, Mos was starring alongside Bruce Willis in 16 Blocks, where he gave an unforgettable performance as a scattered-brained aspiring baker who witnesses corrupt cops stepping outside of the law. Dante Smith, aka Mos Def, opened the door for black entertainers world-wide. Most notably, he would open the door for artists like Donald Glover.
“Like I feel like there’s gotta be a reason to do things and I always had a reason to be punk. Being punk just always felt really good to me and we always looked at ‘Atlanta’ as a punk show and I feel like the direction I would go with Childish Gambino wouldn’t be punk anymore. As much as ‘Redbone’ is a punk song because it’s a gospel song that’s on the radio, I’m like there’s only so far you can go before you just are the radio.”
Born Donald McKinley Glover, Childish Gambino is a jack-of-all trades who was raised in the predominately African-American suburbs of Stone Mountain, Georgia. Similar to Mos, Gambino/Glover attended a performing arts high school, The DeKalb School of Arts, where he was voted “Most Likely to Write for The Simpsons.” Determined to fulfill the prophecy that he was designated by his peers, young Donald applied for NYU’s world-renowned Tish School of the Arts and was accepted. The Tish School of Arts is responsible for birthing several distinguished actors and directors such as Mahershala Ali, Woody Allen, Anne Hathaway, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Alec Baldwin. In the presence of the prestigious and illustrious, Gambino/Glover meticulously built a name for himself and gained the attention of television producer David Miner. Miner, responsible for the hit television shows Parks and Recreation, Master of None, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, was initially impressed with a rough draft script Gambino/Glover had drafted and sent him for The Simpsons. After graduating NYU with a Bachelor’s Degree in dramatic writing in 2006, Gambino/Glover was employed by David Miner and Tina Fey to be a writer for the hit show 30 Rock. It was during this period of time that Gambino/Glover crafted his art. His assimilation into the writing world provided Donald with numerous prestigious cronies, and as his talent grew, so did his connections.
Two years later, Donald adopted the moniker Childish Gambino, and released his first mixtape entitled Sick Boi. While pursuing careers in acting, writing, and rapping, Gambino/Glover also indulged in stand-up comedy. Multi-talented, determined, and passionate, young Gambino/Glover landed roles on NBC’s Community, starred in two of his own stand-up specials, and got signed to Glassnote records, within six years. Camp, wildly regarded as the album that launched Gambino into the stratosphere of hip-hop stardom, was a conceptual piece that explored the plights of being a young black youth in white suburbia. Coming from white suburbia, I related to Gambino when he rhymed:
“This one kid said somethin’ that was really bad
He said I wasn’t really black because I had a dad
I think that’s kinda sad, mostly cause a lot of black kids
Think they should agree with that.”
Donald’s insightful rhetoric and colorful metaphors solidified him as a force within hip-hop. Now, fast forward to the present. Gambino’s “Redbone” is his highest charting single to date. He is playing both the live action voice of Simba for the Disney remake, and Lando Calrissian for the Han Solo Star Wars movie. Atlanta (a television show written, directed, and starring Glover) earned Gambino a Golden Globe for best actor. He was able to snag a supporting role in this summer’s Spider-Man reboot (not to mention, Gambino also plays the voice of Miles Morales, Marvel’s Black and Hispanic Spider-Man, on the Disney Channel). Still, the icing on the cake may be the recently announced joint show with Dave Chappelle at New York’s legendary Radio City Music Hall this August. Gambino’s success knows no bounds, which is why his retirement from hip-hop is so agonizing.
Childish Gambino performs live on stage during the 2017 Governors Ball Music Festival
Launched in 2011, the Governors Ball Music Festival in New York City is considered one the biggest stages in the world. This past June, Gambino took to the stage to deliver one of his most energetic performances to date, and surprised fans world wide with the announcement of is retirement. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Childish stated that he doesn’t think his hip-hop alter ego is necessary anymore. In the interview the young entrepreneur reveals that he feels like Childish Gambino is becoming stagnant.
“There’s nothing worse than like a third sequel, like a third movie and we’re like, ‘again?’ You know, I like it when something’s good and when it comes back there’s a reason to come back, there’s a reason to do that,”- Childish Gambino on retiring from hip-hop.
Mos Def is a generational fashion trendsetter
Fashion and hip-hop have a phenomenal history. Run DMC inspired the American youth of the 80’s to rock their Adidas, while LL convinced bachelors nationwide to sport Kangol caps. In the 90’s Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg cultivated the cuffed creased khaki conniption, while Method Man and Jay Z produced the du-rag and sports jersey pairing. When baggy jeans, over-sized jerseys, and fitted caps became fashion staples in hip-hop, Mos Def chose to refine his style and go hard left. In an interview with HypeBeast, Mos references Agi & Sam, Laurenceairline, James Perse, Acne, and Yoji Yamamoto as designer brands that he favors. Clean cut, tight-fitting classic pieces are popular in hip-hop now, a style Mos pioneered before it was a trend. When the Chappelle’s Show aired its second episode in 2003, Mos Def appeared in a chocolate colored fedora and an off white blazer. One episode later, Busta Rhymes tore down the Chappelle set in an 3XL Baseball jersey, backwards fitted cap, and sagging denim jeans. The disparity was clear, Mos Def was a refined gentleman who brought a more tailored fitted fashion to hip-hop, while the rest of the rap scene looked like it shopped at Big and Tall Men’s Apparel.
Mos Def’s unorthodox fashion statements opened the door for artists like Childish Gambino and his unconventional style. Infatuated with short shorts and colorful floral patterns, Gambino stands out from today’s hip-hop crown by mixing American suburbia flare with eccentric Asian and European flavors. Conspicuous ringer tees partnered with the simplistic flare of Nike Cortez sneakers was Gambino’s signature style during the Camp era. Once rappers started emulating his style (Nike Cortez’s made a comeback alongside Huaraches and A.P.C.’s) Gambino transitioned to a more mature and sophisticated appearance. While other popular hip-hop artist in the spotlight choose to rock Nike foamposites, Yeezys, or Jordans; Gambino prefers Tod’s loafers. Maison Kitsuné, Barbour, Battenwear, and Belstaff are designers that often compliment Gambino’s maverick wardrobe, names you won’t hear rappers brag about on your Spotify streams.
Mos Def and Childish Gambino have done more for black culture in the last decade than Jay-Z.. Yeah, I said it.
In the mid 90’s, a young Sean Carter began his ascension to the distinctive title of “hip-hop legend.” His raps reflected his borough, coincidentally the same borough Mos Def called home. Jay rhymed about treacherous drug deals, gorgeous women, and the acquisition of money, all typical subjects in hip-hop. It took Jay over a decade from then to become “woke,” maturing into a self-aware black king later in his career. In comparison, Mos Def was an unapologetic black artist from the jump. Entertainment Weekly praised his debut album, Black on Both Sides, stating that, “the Brooklyn legend spouts incisive Afrocentric reality that takes all sides into account.” Prior to his ground-shattering debut, Mos and Talib embraced their African heritage as the dynamic duo Black Star. Their only project, entitled Mos Def & Talib Kewli Are Black Star, was lauded by The Encyclopedia of Popular Music as, “a highly intelligent and searching examination of black culture.”
Whether he was on tracks with De La Soul, or within the Afrocentric group Black Star, Mos was keenly aware of his skin tone, his environment, his history, and his heritage. Black culture benefited supremely from Mos Def, a poet resolute to educate the masses and invigorate the culture.
“Skyscrapers is colossus, the cost of living is preposterous”
– Mos Def
Childish Gambino once rapped, “Can we try something new and not be suspect?” I know this may come as a shock to many, but not all black people are good at sports. Not all black people can dance, or have silky-smooth personas that exude confidence. Some of us like Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings. Some of us enjoy literature, and world travel. We even enjoy music that isn’t hip-hop, soul, or reggae! Crazy, I know! Childish Gambino was never afraid to address the subject of black autonomy, the freedom to not be controlled by the stereotypes portrayed by black males in the spotlight.
“Lovin’ white dudes who call me white and then try to hate. When I wasn’t white enough to use your pool when I was 8″
– Childish Gambino
Gambino and Mos are black men that reached the heights of success without perpetuating stereotypes. Mos Def’s crisp form fitting jeans and Gambino’s pastel colored short-shorts made brazen statements. They made it cool for black kids like me to be ourselves. They entered a hip-hop world that was over-saturated with gangsta rap, baggy clothes, and a fear of anything different, and turned it on its head. As both artists bow out of the game the impact they had on hip-hop, and black culture as a whole, can be viewed in its entirety. Their success in hip-hop is unprecedented; Mos Def opened the door, and Donald Glover reupholstered the building.