Childish Gambino’s Pharos event was something I’ll never forget. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I bought my ticket to the show—none of us fans did.
Being at the event felt like a look inside Donald Glover’s brain; an entire universe he created for a small group of people to experience together. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what this universe was and what it meant, but to me that speaks to how ambitious and innovative the event was. Art today, especially music, tends to come and go all too quickly, but with Pharos, Glover created something that will forever stick with the lucky few who were able to be there.
The journey from West Hollywood to Joshua Tree took a cool five hours thanks to the merciless Los Angeles traffic. Pulling up to Joshua Tree was surreal. We were a little late so most people had arrived ahead of us. The first thing I could see driving through the parking lot was a giant, menacing dome structure in the campground. After getting through security we walked through a tunnel of trees lit up blue in accordance with our “frequency color” assigned by the Pharos app.
Being at the event felt like a look inside Donald Glover’s brain; an entire universe he created for a small group of people to experience together.
We wandered the campground for a while and found a small amphitheater playing Donald’s new TV show Atlanta (now on FX on Tuesdays at 10 p.m.) before deciding to get in line for the performance in order to get good spots. Rounding some trees, the horizon opened to show the dome, camping area, and tall light poles casting bright green lights over a line of eager fans waiting for the early show.
We got into line and were herded through barricades and instructed to switch our phones to airplane mode. Once we reached the front of the line we were made to put our phones into Yondr bags which were locked by the staff and handed back to us, allowing us to keep possession of our phones but also completely restricting access until they unlocked them for us.
Stepping into the Pharos dome, I was met with a virtual reality esque display of flashing stars across the entire roof. The stage had small rock formations and a lit up triangle as seen on the Pharos app. First, a small choir, guitarists, a pianist, and a drummer took the stage. Soon after, the opening song began and Donald appeared in glow in the dark body paint with flashing hair extensions. My attention was soon stolen by the giant digital alien that descended on the audience via roof projections and began to dance overhead.
There were so many audio and visual stimulants going off at the same time that it was hard to know where to look. Donald sang and danced across the stage, the band played, lights flashed, the alien danced over our heads, teleporting from side to side in sync with the music. Soon the alien was joined by more of its kind, all dancing in synchronization.
The music was not strictly hip-hop, although in one of the first few songs Gambino definitely raps a verse. It was experimental but still had a very Gambino feel to it with elements of hip-hop, rock, and gospel. It seemed evident he’s been training his voice as his singing seems a level above past work on Kaui and Because The Internet. The choir and nimble guitar work backed Donald’s singing, which often stretched into screams and falsetto. The show thrived off improvisation—one moment Ludwig Goransson soloed for minutes, another Gambino ordered each instrumental section of the stage (drums, guitar, piano) to come in at a certain time.
As the music carried on, the environment projected overhead morphed several times. First was a black starry sky and rock formations with aliens swaying and dancing. A few songs later the visual rotated and seemed to take us underground where we were met by dancing skeletons. For a song somewhere near the middle of the show, the visuals lurched through a neon forest as skeletons watched, danced, and hung in the trees. The grand finale had the projection launch us through space past planets on our left and right until we collided with a giant blue sun and exploded into all white. Like a magician distracting his audience, Donald disappeared during the commotion. As the screen reset to the same flashing stars that started the show, a voice let us know our time in the dome was up and it was time to go.
Although overwhelming, the combination of music and visuals created an out-of-body experience. After escaping through one of the revolving doors I couldn’t help but smile seeing another few thousand people lined up for the late show with no idea what they were in for.
I was struck immediately by the way this show fits into the narrative of The Boy from Childish Gambino’s previous two LPs and how it reflects the level he’s reached in his career. The fact that he could put on six consecutive sold-out shows in the middle of the desert for an album no one has heard yet is a testament to his impact and fan base.
The fact that he could put on six consecutive sold-out shows in the middle of the desert for an album no one has heard yet is a testament to his impact and fan base.
Like almost everything Donald has done, reactions to the performance were mixed. Some called it Yeezus-level, others wrote it off as weird or just plain bad. Fans that never immersed themselves into the universe of Because the Internet were probably not expecting something as far-fetched as dancing aliens, but for those who have gone deeper than the music it wasn’t completely unexpected. In Gambino’s “Worst Guys” video there’s a hint of alien activity on his leg, if only for a few frames, but more obviously the "Telegraph Ave" video ends with Gambino actually turning into an alien.
The alien theories are a rabbit hole you can dig into for yourself, but it seems likely that on some level, the extraterrestrials represent being an outsider, something Donald has touched on in many of his creative outlets. In music, he’s referenced his outsider status frequently, especially as it relates to race. "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," he raps on “That Power" from 2011's Camp, for example.
His character Troy in Community was in the same realm, a goofy ex-jock who couldn’t handle the pressure of college football recruiters so he purposefully dislocated his shoulder. Donald’s 2011 comedy special is even named Weirdo. In many of his past roles, Donald has been an outsider trying to fit in. With the Pharos event, he was confident enough to bring people into his own world.
After a 2015 interview where Donald vaguely stated that Childish Gambino will have an ending, fans speculated that it had already ended, that Donald had moved on. Pharos is proof that this wasn't the case, but if it is Donald's final work as Childish Gambino, it's a stunning send-off.