Childish Gambino is about to die.
It’s still unclear what, exactly, that means. The next Childish Gambino album, which has been repeatedly teased as the project’s last gasp, could simply be the death of a moniker; it could mean the end of Donald Glover’s music career entirely. Fam Udeorji, Gambino’s longtime manager, is absurdly calm about this, and won’t let on what any of it means.
“I don’t know if you want to hype a death up,” he says. “It’s more so this chapter is over. We don’t have to be Game of Thrones and have Gambino ice cream.”
He continues: “There’s just certain moments in your life, where because of the time it has real estate in your brain, and you know: This gives me a very specific feeling from a very specific time. When it came to the album, we were searching for that. How can you make a moment special when everybody gets everything so easily?”
Defiant, elusive and cerebral, the men of Royalty — the seven-member collective behind many of Donald Glover’s polymathic endeavors — are comfortable grappling with their role in commodifying these moments. Donald Glover, Fam Udeorji, Stephen Glover, Ibra Ake, Jamal “Swank” Olori, Chad Taylor and Miles Konstantin have spent the past seven years dedicated to creating and riding their artistic ideas in from the fringes to become an industry in and of themselves.
Creatively, their hands have touched Childish Gambino mixtapes (Royalty, STN MTN / Kauai) and albums (Because The Internet, Awaken, My Love). Google, Amazon, Spotify and Adidas write checks in the hope their cultural capital is transferrable. They created a critical and commercial hit for FX with Atlanta — then the rest of the TV and movie industry came running. Though the cult of Donald Glover is well-established now, for a group that was essentially formed in and by the rap blogosphere of the early 2010s, these were heroic, hard-to-predict feats. Speaking to Rolling Stone hours before Gambino’s headlining Coachella set, six of Royalty’s members tell me how they did it.
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The collective began in 2012, during the making of Gambino’s aptly titled Royalty mixtape. Donald’s brother Stephen met Swank in college. The two friends were struggling musicians in Atlanta, unknowingly building the material that would one day inform much of their work as writers on their hit TV show. “So much of Atlanta is literally, like, me and Steve’s whole life trying to figure out the music industry,” Swank says. “Those are all just backstories.” Donald called the pair up to come down to Los Angeles to work with him on music — what would eventually become Royalty. The three met Ibra, who became the group’s de-facto art director, and Fam, who would establish himself as the strategic mind behind the group.
“It was amongst the times of the MMGs and the Young Moneys, and everybody had all these collectives,” Swank says. “We just needed a name for ourselves, and we became Royalty.”
The self-proclaimed royal family makes art that is popular. This comes with a lot of money. This causes them some distress. The anxiety the group seems to feel about simply existing in America, especially when examining the intersection of capitalism and blackness, is a theme that connects their highest-profile work: Atlanta, Awaken, My Love!, “This is America,” Guava Island.
“I think it’s something that we as a crew, Royalty, talk about a lot,” Stephen says. “I think [with] a lot of people, like Nipsey Hussle, it’s this idea of capitalism in America and how it’s left people out over the years. But at the same time, it has the power to empower you if you can wield it. The idea of capitalism and the relation that black people especially have to capitalism is something that’s interesting to us.”
“The whole ideal of the American Dream, what they don’t tell you or what you don’t figure out ‘til later, is we all can’t live the American Dream,” Swank says. “If there’s somebody to be rich, somebody else has to be poor.”
Since 2012, the group dynamics have solidified, but the jobs stay fluid. There doesn’t seem to be a strictly defined leader, but Fam is the one who likes talking about the big-picture decision-making and, for lack of a better term, management strategies. He talks about trying “to understand everybody’s personalities and skillset” and “translate” those strengths into something larger. His speech is peppered with buzzwords like “consumption, honesty, anti-hype and awareness.”
“If there’s somebody to be rich, somebody else has to be poor.”
The others define their roles loosely. Swank is the self-proclaimed “heart,” Ibra the “creative producer,” and Stephen operates as the swing vote. All three, following Glover’s lead, have developed into producers and screenwriters in their own right. Chad Taylor handles “logistics and execution” for the group, which grew out of his role as Donald’s tour manager in the early 2010s. In 2013, he created the management company Wolf & Rothstein with Fam. Miles Konstantin rounds out the group as Royalty’s technical director; he ran a Childish Gambino fan blog before meeting the group in 2012. During the Because The Internet rollout in 2013, the website crashed, and he offered to fix it with the help of his college roommate. He leveraged the opportune work into a full-time job, handling technical partnerships and managing teams of developers for various projects.
To keep things running, Royalty hold an annual in-person meeting to discuss the future; between those gatherings, they communicate on Slack. Chad mentions that the first summit began after Donald finished Because The Internet and was preparing to fulfill his last contractual obligation to Glassnote Records with Awaken, My Love!.
“We spent about a week in Rio De Janeiro. We rented a mansion, and the whole collective had these brainstorming sessions every day,” Chad recalls. “We put up big whiteboards around the room and kinda draw out stuff and timelines and stuff and talk. By the end of that week we really had a 18-month, 24-month calendar. That’s when he went into making Atlanta and Awaken, My Love!.”
“When we go back to our respective empires and media, we’re like, ‘I know this person wanted to do that with their lives next,'” Ibra explains. “Maybe we can meet up in this way. It’s taken more effort. A lot of it is just communication and seeing where our goals overlap.”
The members of Royalty are naturally starting to splinter. It’s a byproduct of success, ambition and schedules, not a toning down of the familial atmosphere. Ibra is talking to Hiro Murai (director of Atlanta, Barry, “This Is America”) about directing more, and was the creative consultant to Spotify for their RapCaviar Pantheon event. Stephen and Swank are working on a LeBron James-produced House Party remake, and Swank is also developing a show with Mike Judge (Silicon Valley, King of The Hill, Office Space) for HBO. Everyone has a side project, and after Glover’s meteoric rise, the whole crew is finding new opportunities to stretch their legs.
The one place where they’re destined to keep returning is Atlanta. It’s the group project, where they contextualize their (mostly) shared experience of being successful black men in a world not engineered for them. For the last two seasons, Earn, Darius and Alfred’s stories have mirrored the low points of the friends’ journeys. In the show’s third season, Swank suggests the writers will start to share their stories of success — and the dread that comes with realizing a new tax bracket fixes very little.
“All the road stuff in the last decade of my life, none of that has gone into it yet,” he says. “I don’t want to say it writes itself, but everything that we want to do, essentially, we already know. It’s kind of just like our lives at this point. Especially with Donald becoming bigger now, the stories get more fun. At first, nobody cared, but now you have random people popping up at shows. Between the success of his music and the Atlanta stuff, you get people from both sides who are used to a particular world. Like Issa Rae might come to a show.”
At one point, Swank illustrates his position using the example of Jay-Z and the loneliness that can come with unbridled fame and wealth.
“At the end of the day, you’d think he’s probably the happiest person in the world. He should be, but it’s still things that make him sad. There’s still things that he has to go through that nobody understands,” he says. “I kinda don’t really have any fear of writing the success, because a lot of times you have to show things as being fun and cool for people to enjoy, but nobody wants to see that shit anymore. People want to know what actually happens. Those are the kinds of stories that we’re going to give. If anything, it excites me a little. It’s new.”
Fam, and by extension the rest of Royalty, is committed to moving in silence. Seven years ago, they built a “code that we all stood on” and eventually carved out distinct corners for themselves in multiple industries. Now, Fam seems to want to go silent once again.
“We speak less and try to do a little bit more,” he says. “I think looking forward to the next years, it’s more about that — obviously, I’m doing an interview with you — but saying as little as possible.”