Childish Gambino has been nonstop creating, freely, and he hasn’t missed yet. Although his music simmered down, making it two and a half years since Awaken, My Love! started rolling out, his on the screen work has been exquisite, no gas. He’s carved his name into Hollywood history, attaching his voice and face to classic series such as Spider-Man and Star Wars, and premiere networks like FX. On the parallel side, Gambino’s TV show Atlanta turned out to be bigger than the city, as each episode is so pleasantly versatile that you cannot refuse to watch, even if you’ve already seen the episode. He has a writing style that hypnotizes, and his new film Guava Island placed us back in a trance we’ve already fallen in love with. It’s actually pretty simple. In fact, the movie doesn’t even teach you anything new. It’s filled with themes that we hear in our headphones everyday, creating the quintessential story of hip-hop and rap music.
Directed by Hiro Murai who has previously worked with Gambino on music videos for “This Is America”, “3005”, and “Telegraph Ave”, Guava Island tells the story of a young musician by the name of Deni who is eager to throw a festival for his community. Probably like Gambino in real life, Deni, played by Donald Glover, uses music to feel free, and freedom comes with happiness that needs to be celebrated. His girlfriend in the movie, Kofi, played by Rihanna is his musical inspiration and source of love. Painted with ebonic cartoons in the beginning, Kofi tells the story of how she met Deni, revealing how the two used music over the years to both fall in and maintain their love. Deni ends up becoming a musical icon to his community, but as we would assume, money did not come with the fame. The film begins with both Deni and Kofi going to work, reflecting an economic basement, the same place that birthed hip-hop.
The origins of hip-hop reads like a bedtime story. In the end, something so magical and beautiful has sufficed, but each bedtime story starts with how we got there, right? In the case of rap, it was monetary restrictions that urged colored people to live in low-income houses. New York City became concentrated with hoods and ghettos of people trying to get by, just like those on Guava Island. Living day to day surely lowers your mood but eventually, they got tired of sulking, using music as a way to celebrate as Deni does in the film. The island is so work heavy that neither the people nor the community can afford to miss a day of work. Red, the man who runs the island, played by Nonso Anozie, informs Deni that he cannot play his festival because if he does, no one will go to work the next day. Before slapping Deni’s guitar on the ground, Red slaps $10,000 on the table; wealth in the slum.
In this country, the average person can probably blow through that pretty quick, but on Guava Island, that was an upgrade to Deni’s job moving boxes on the dock. While at work, Deni tries to convince his coworker who is eager to move to America, that America is a concept, rather than a place. He explains that America is the only place that in order to get rich, you have to make someone else richer. It’s been the same script for decades once rap music began to move because it became less about the celebration and more about the money. Making good music meant you got paid, and getting paid was a way to make it out. Once hip-hop spread all over the country, labels suddenly wanted to sign a flood of black artist that could make them rich. As artist are commonly dripped in chains and designer clothes, the money stemming from working towards a company bigger than them attempts to turn them into puppets, and idea that present in pretty much any career.
On Guava Island, Deni agrees that he won’t play the festival to Red, but goes on to perform any way. In frustration for disobeying, one of Red’s alleged goons walks his way through the sea of screaming, smiling fans, and shoots at Deni inciting a rupture of violence and fear. Deni is tracked down, and shot to death, leaving an eerie aura that similarly is often the catalyst for rap music. In the eyes of business, violence sells. In the eyes of hip-hop, violence is the unfortunate reality. Deni’s death causes a harsh moment of reflection and disappointment, feelings that we often hold when one of our favorite rappers are shot and/or killed.
The following day, Red finds out that no one went to work, the very thing he tried to prevent. Instead, the entire island is jumping in happiness, creating rhythms that words couldn’t even propose. As the island celebrates the death of Deni, Red is disturbed by the solidarity of the people. That same solidarity is what makes hip-hop and rap so significant because they consist of these loyal communities that undeniably make an impact in the universe. Deni’s music on the island created a power that couldn’t be controlled, showing that there is fortune in being unfortunate, and beauty in pain, the genesis of rap music. As tragic as the moment was, the movie ends in peace and happiness, that songs have always created for us and our people.
Now, it is possible that Childish Gambino wasn’t trying to tell the story of hip-hop, and just had an idea for this musical, but I think it makes too much sense in comparison. As hip-hop and rap music plays essential roles in our daily lives, Guava Island makes you realize why it’s so necessary. It’s a visual affirmation that in the midst of struggle, we are still free and that’s a story we could easily hear or watch this over and over again…
Stream Guava Island now on Amazon Prime.