Childish Gambino’s Message to Millennials
Turn Off and Tune In to The Pharos Experience
I had been waiting in the desert for six hours and finally I was next in line to enter the large, dome-like structure in the middle of nowhere. A woman handed me a small, grey cloth bag and told me to place my phone inside and proceed forward to a man who clipped the bag shut with one of those tags you see on clothes at a clothing store. The bag was completely sealed and stashed away. I no longer had access to my phone. To a Millennial, this can seem like taking away a limb.
Next, I walked through a revolving door and into a makeshift room where a small stage, one you might see at a concert in the park, was set in the back. I zig zagged my way to stage right. I threw one arm over the the toprail of the low fencing separating the audience from the state and slumped onto one knee. So far, no more than 100 people had made it inside, barely filling up one quarter of the room, pushing close to the stage. This is the moment I’d been looking forward to for months, counting down the days and then the hours as I waited while the hot desert day turned into a cool desert night.
This past June, rap artist Childish Gambino announced a three-day event sheduled for September 2–4 in in Joshua Tree, California, called Pharos. The performances sold out in six minutes through a smartphone app created for the shows. Attendees were encouraged to camp out in the desert next to the venue o the night of their show. The concerts followed a long musical hiatus for the Gambino — who goes by the name Donald McKinley Glover when he works at his day job as an actor, comedian and writer. Glover is best known as a writer for 30 Rock, for playing a college student in the short-lived series Community, and as the creator and star of the FX series Atlanta. As Childish Gambino, he’s known for his 2011 album, Camp, and the 2013 release Because of The Internet. Though both albums were successful enough to earn Gambino a dedicated cult following, rumors swirled that the rapper may never come out retirement.
The Pharos sign-up app gave no definite details about the event, nothing about the direction of the show, whether it would feature new music, guests — only time, date and location. For his young audience, the $100 ticket was something of a gamble. Would he hand over the mic to guest artists? Would he play the hits? Would he focus on untested material? Would we be guinea pigs? Still. with out any clue or hint as to what would happen, fans counted down days, drove countless hours, hung around the desert for hours all in hopes to catch Gambino for one of his only live performances of 2016.
When I arrived on site, the venue was unlike anything I had experienced. Nothing but sand and cactus for miles. In the middle of nowhere stood a white dome, where I assumed Gambino would be taking stage later that night. The low- tech conditions made me question how the concert would play out. My phone app had been programmed on the day of the event to open with my name and the time I would be let into the show. While waiting for the venue to open, attendees were treated to screenings of Atlanta, which debuted September 6. Anyone over the age of 21 was invited to spend the night in tents pitched next to the dome. Clearly, organizers were attempting to create a community in which fans could come together and experience a new world together.
As Gambino stepped out onto the stage, his outfit was the first thing that caught my eye. He wore neon yellow fur slippers matched with a bright yellow and pink stripped skirt. The artist had painted tribal markings across his chest, back, temples and for arms. His hair braids touched the floor. The effect on the audience was immediate — we knew we were in for something different. Without saying a word of introduction, Gambino launched into a 70-minute set, moving from song to song with no indication as to when one ended and the next began. During the set, he debuted 12 songs from his forthcoming album, “Awaken, My Love!”
The dome was built to make the experiance intimate — regardless of where you stood, it felt like you had a front-row seat. The venue hosted a couple thousand per show, but it never felt much larger than a living room. The dome’s wall were made of projector screens on which played animated 3-D visuals to accompany the music. Dancing skulls and aliens would appear through space and in the middle of the dark, rainy desert. Each scene was perfectly sequenced to match the lyrics to each new song. For the audience, the effect sometimes felt as if we were traveling through space, through a black hole and into another world not of their own. Planets passed by — speeding up and slowing down during the song’s final moments. The visuals were breathtaking.
“I realized that while I’m busing with my phone in my face trying to record the perfect moment, there’s a life passing me by.”
Stripping the Millennial-heavy audience of its access to electronic devices enhanced the experience. Having no access to cell phones forced concertgoers to converse with each other while we waited for Gambino to take the stage. Artists these days often complain that they no longer peform for fans, but to cellphone cameras. With no Snapchat, Twitter or Instagram to worry about, we had to confront our signature mental illness — the need to post everything. Our desire to record everything derails us from actually being present. Gambino decided to not give us any choice — he took the pacifiers from the babies’ mouths — creating an atmosphere in which everyone could be in the same moment together.
Ricardo Robles of Fullerton was one of the couple thousand who attended Pharos the same night I did. When asked how he felt when he found out he wouldn’t be able to take his phone into the show. “I was freaked out at first,” he said, “I had been to so many shows before, but I’d never heard of anything like this before. I was immediately a little disappointed, I had hoped to record one of my favorite rappers live.”
Months later, though, it appears Gambino had the effect he was hoping for — creating an experience that lives in your memory, not on your phone. “Now that I look back, I’m happy I didn’t have my phone,” he says. “I wasn’t busy trying to record the perfect moment. I was actually watching with my own eyes — taking in every moment, still-by-still imprinting the images into my mind. I have never been so fully immersed like that before in my life… Now when I’m sitting in the car listening to Gambino’s album a smile comes across my face as I’m instantly transported back inside that dome. Not having my phone was the best thing that happened to me that night. It opened my eyes in so many ways. I realized that while I’m busing with my phone in my face trying to record the perfect moment, there’s a life passing me by.”