Donald Glover’s Pharos Earth project was nothing short of transcendental. He utilized brilliant marketing and mysticism to build up the hype around his latest album release into mythical proportions, and the show absolutely delivered. The “Tribe experience” outlined in the pharos.earth app remains unexplained; he described the concert as a new beginning and a “new human religion” without ever explicitly stating why.
The app was required for entry, as your app and your app alone held your ticket. The tickets were non-transferable and screenshots were not allowed. It was also stressed throughout the series of email updates sent out prior to the concert that attendee’s cell phones would be crucial to the overall experience, with the implication that the phones would be used for more than just the ticket. I was expecting an interactive concert using the app.
This is where the brilliance of Pharos began to shine through. In the festival village (a few white tents with ping pong and cornhole beside a series of food trucks), The Hub is filled with rows of electric sockets, wide eyed and ghostly, and largely untouched except for those conspicuous souls who sat beside the ping pong and conversation staring at their phones while they charged.
It became apparent that there was to be no interactive app experience. In line for the 9 PM show, the only one of the night and final performance of the three day album unveiling, the staff announced that our phones would be locked up in magnetic pouches for the duration of the show, and that anyone found filming or taking pictures during the show would be ejected. Pharos, as they said, was meant to be experienced as a moment in life rather than through the evermore opaque lens of social media.
Donald Glover and his team revealed themselves at Pharos to be artists in every sense of the word, unfettered by anything. The goal was immediately apparent: to create an experience so immersive, so tribal, so visceral, so human, that it could not be ignored, that it could penetrate the brick-walled psyche of even the most devout worshiper of the megalithic new era of mindless, TMZ-centered entertainment.
The show was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life, and in later conversations I found that, anecdotally, everyone else felt the same way. The show was held in a white dome that stuck up out of the California desert like an outpost on Mars. When, after almost three hours in line, we were finally admitted, our bags searched and our phones held temporarily at bay, the excitement was palpable. The dome was an enormous 360 degree IMAX screen which was filled with pinpoint stars stars falling towards the floor against the deep blue backdrop of deep space.
The room filled gradually as people filtered in behind those of us lucky enough to be in the front few rows. On the stage, a full set of instruments and a glaring lack of a DJ booth or a mixing board. A white, rocky moonscape was set up between the drums and guitars. This was not going to be a traditional Childish Gambino album.
The energy of the crowd was reaching a fever pitch of excitement; at one point, the lights changed color and everyone lost their minds for about a minute. Finally, after three hours of standing and months of speculation and preparation (and, in my case, five days of driving), the band members began to walk out onto the dark stage beneath the falling molasses stars.
They wore hooded robes like druids, and the effect they created when they silently took up their instruments and stood, heads down in the direction of the crowd, was enough to draw a temporary, expectant silence over this room that was in that moment unlike any other in the world.
Then, from the shadows, he emerged, and the only way I can adequately describe it is to say that he walked onto the stage like a prophet returned, and the crowd received him in kind. The lights turned to him and the band. The other members, excepting the gospel choir and the pianist, wore tattered tribal prayer robes, bright white and interspersed with vibrant, chaotic patterns. Childish Gambino himself looked otherworldly. Long braids hung from his cornrowed head, and one shaped like a lion tail and just as long flicked around by his waist. Blue and pink war paint striped his face, and he wore a grass skirt with grass leggings in the tradition of Maasai tribaI dancers. He walked to the front of the stage, holding a wooden offering bowl, never breaking his gaze from the artificial heavens, and then he drank ritualistically, a throwback to the pagan rituals of our forefathers. He returned the bowl to its place in back of the stage and then the drums began to play.
Musically, Pharos is a complete deviation in style from Donald Glover’s other Childish Gambino projects. It is not a hip hop album. It is a funk album, circa 1970s. At one point they performed Funkadelic’s Hit It and Quit It. His vocal range is incredible. Every high note, every sudden mechanical hip gyration, every choreographed pause and start as electronic lightning smashed the IMAX screen and the drums made thunder, brought to mind an acid-fueled dream of a James Brown concert.
While he glared and spasmed and danced, the screen behind him and all around us came alive with dancing Anasazi nightmares, skeletons and skull-headed desert fiends. At another point in the show he drank from the bowl again, liquid dripping down his chin as he mouthed wordless prayers away from the microphone.
He never broke character. There was something hypnotic about it, a group experience that, whether purposeful or not, seemed to be exactly how a shaman or medicine man would engage his tribe.
Pharos was the beginning of a larger movement, one which has been fermenting in our hearts for a long time now. Pharos is a mainstream attempt at a return to earthly spirituality and experience in an age of ubiquitous technology and separation from the world.
After the show, which was predictably held at a compound designed by Frank Lloyd Wright called the Institute of Mentalphysics, the first three episodes of Glover’s new FX show Atlanta were screened. We went back to our tents a little dazed and unusually brave, bonding with strangers over common interests. My friend went to sleep and I met a pretty girl, and the rest is just life.