Inside Pharos—The Music Experience Of Childish Gambino

This whole journey started back in June of 2016. After an extended period of radio silence on all social media fronts, Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, suddenly tweeted a link to download an app.

Once downloaded, the cryptic app described a “full album experience” with new music, and limited space available in Joshua Tree, California. After discussing with two close friends, we all purchased tickets for a Friday night show that would be followed by camping on the concert grounds for this mysterious venue in Joshua Tree. In the spirit of keeping it cryptic, once purchased, we then received a rule set to follow on the campgrounds, a color frequency to dress in (blue), and a live personalized ticket that that was a spinning prism shape—all contained within the app. After receiving our access for this mystery show most of the info surrounding the concert remained extremely vague, but we were driven by fandom and committed to diving in to whatever this experience would bring us.

Fast forward to the start of that September, and after meeting my friends in LA and a leisurely drive to Joshua Tree we found ourselves on the PHAROS campgrounds. A sprawling layout in the middle of the desert that took place at the Institute of Mentalphysics off of Twentynine Palms Highway. As the sun went down and our showtime approached, everyone was still unsure of exactly what was going to happen at the concert. We lined up to be ushered into the centerpiece of the entire event—a 60 foot inflatable dome. Our phones were placed and sealed in Yondr pouches and given back to us to ensure that not only would no recording take place, but also that we would all be present and in the moment during the show. What happened once the show started was a complete audio and visual assault. Glover took the stage in a grass skirt and bodypaint with his live band and choir, and proceeded to perform his album Awaken My Love in its entirety for the first time. Awaken My Love was a dramatic and startling sonic departure for Gambino, as the multifaceted artist primarily known for his rapping presented us with a funk album, the likes of which could have been plucked right from the 70s. The rich instrumentation and soulful singing was paired with 3D graphics and a next-level light show projected on the dome above the crowd. The music and visuals complimented each other in perfect synchronicity. After the concert was over, the crowd dispersed back into the campground to spend the night partying and processing the show that had taken place. PHAROS was undoubtedly the best, most unique and original concert experience I had ever experienced—that is, until November of 2018.

Inside the tents at Pharos, clearly living my life. It was very wet.

Inside the tents at Pharos, clearly living my life. It was very wet.

An open clearing where films by contributing artists played.

An open clearing where films by contributing artists played.

 
I was frequently and fervently asked by my friends “what can we expect?”and while I would have loved to been able to give them a straight answer, in actuality I couldn’t.
The Pharos Village sign.

The Pharos Village sign.

Early February, last year, I got the notification on my phone. Gambino was hosting a second Pharos experience in November, but this time it was on the other side of the world. Tapapakanga Regional Park, on the North island of New Zealand to be exact. I thought about it for a handful of hours that day before purchasing my ticket through the app again. I didn’t even look at plane tickets, because it didn't really matter how I was going to get there in that moment. If I was going to experience even half of what I saw in Joshua Tree in 2016, the trip across the globe would be more than worth it. It didn’t take much convincing to talk three of my friends into coming with me, and before long I had a group and a plan for the entire trip. We would arrive a week early, explore as much as we could of what New Zealand had to offer and then finish the trip out with Pharos before heading home shortly after. Because this would be my second time around, my role in the group transitioned to a sort of de-facto concierge for all things Pharos. I was frequently and fervently asked by my friends “what can we expect?”and while I would have loved to been able to give them a straight answer, in actuality I couldn't. As cliche as it sounds, the only thing I knew to expect was the unexpected. All I could do for them was recall what had happened in 2016, which more often than not would only raise more questions.

After an amazing week of galavanting around the very Northern tip of New Zealand, exploring the geographically diverse landscape, and lounging on one pristine beach after another, the climax of the entire trip finally approached. We crashed in a hostel in Auckland the evening before, and the morning brought us a three hour drive south east to Tapapakanga Regional Park. The park itself seemed innocent enough, as cursory Google searches before the trip never really turned up anything significant about the park itself or why Donald had chosen to host Pharos there. The landscape around us on the drive shifted from urban, to extremely suburban, to rural as we headed further and further south. At a certain point, we even joked about “what if we get all the way out there, and there’s nothing there?” which was met with nervous laughter, if only to hide the fact that we all were actually wondering that on the inside. After venturing out deeper and deeper into the rolling grasslands of New Zealand’s coast and spotting more sheep than we could keep count of, we finally arrived to an unassuming dirt road. A humble sign read “PHAROS PARKING”, and a local with a welcoming smile waved us in to park in a grass field. As we rolled into the makeshift lot, the dome came into view for the first time letting us know that we had finally arrived exactly where we needed to be.

The lines of tents that we were accommodating.

The lines of tents that we were accommodating.

This second iteration of Pharos was bigger and felt more organized than the first. Unlike in Joshua tree, being the first of it’s kind, this time around they offered a camping option for those who didn’t want to bring their own equipment. Since we were international we opted for this option, and after checking in our belongings we were escorted to our four person, lilac colored North Face tent. The tent was nestled amongst dozens of other identical tents, and the energy was electric as attendees arrived and set up their belongings. Adjacent to the Pharos tents was everyone else who brought their own gear, and as the sun shifted into the mid afternoon a small tent city was slowly erected on the sprawling open plains of Tapapakanga Park. We were surrounded by beautiful rural farm land and patches of forest, all while being nestled right next to the coast. To the west was lush rolling hills, and to the east the beach—truly an amazing place to host such an event. My friends and I all donned our appropriate green-colored attire (per the request of the app) and got into the main event grounds as fast as we could.

The main concourse, referred to as “The Village”, hosted a variety of food vendors, drinks, special merchandise and a DJ. Just north of the main area was an outdoor theater showing Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika”, along with the occasional trailer for Glovers film “Guava Island”. A little further in was an Adidas booth that was showcasing Gambino’s recently released shoe collaboration. It is worth noting that all three pairs of canvas-colored shoes were displayed in holes in the earth under clear acrylic where people could walk over them. The shoes weren’t clean or pristine, but dirty and appeared well worn in which made it hard for me to tell if I liked them or not. At the time the presentation didn’t make sense to me, but with the April release of the shoes and the accompanying ad campaign some clarity was offered. Glover’s Adidas collaboration was intentionally marketed as shoes not to be put on a pedestal, but to be worn and lived in. Donald and his team made a conscious effort with the Adidas release to convey that the value in what you choose to wear isn’t in the cost, but the experiences you have in the clothing. “Value in experiences” is a theme that would show up more than once over the course of the night.

The app that was set up for Pharos was designed much like an app for any other festival you can attend these days. Inside you could find a map of the grounds, shopping for merchandise, a schedule and F.A.Q’s. What really set this app apart, though, was the guidebook . Inside the guide was a kind of mission statement for the event. It read sort of as an existential manifesto, and touched on things such as human disconnectivity despite access to infinite information, and larger experiential questions—Who are we? Where are we from? Why are we here? Further on in the guide, it would boldly state in four perfectly kerned rows of text: “PHAROS-Is a holy place-Is a shared vibration for human progress-Is a gathering of the five intuitives of the human experience.” The intuitives followed on the next page: Tribe, Ritual, Experience Abstraction, Architecture, Language. After that came the page for the rules which stated “All beings are invited who wish to participate and can abide by our gathering rules”. 1. Be helpful. Do not be a detriment. 2. Dress in frequency / wavelength color 3. Do not disturb anyone’s vibration unless their vibration violates rule 1. 4. No irony. 5.Communication is vital so please avoid small talk.

Donald’s inner clique "Royalty", left: photographer and and art director Ibra Ake, right: friend and co-writer of  Atlanta , Swank.

Donald’s inner clique "Royalty", left: photographer and and art director Ibra Ake, right: friend and co-writer of Atlanta, Swank.

All of this comes together as a lot to digest, and maybe even a little pedantic and confusing for someone who isn’t necessarily a steadfast fan such as myself. But all of this information, all of this existential question asking and exploration plays into a bigger picture that Glover has been painting since 2016, and potentially even before that. Infact, these rules were the exact same as the rules from the first Pharos in J Tree, the only difference being the frequency color. That year it was blue, this year it was green. Pharos shouldn't be classified as a music festival like your Coachella or Outside Lands, but more so a personal exercise in world building for Glover. The only shared features with with those festivals is the fact that musicians perform.

After checking out what The Village had to offer we headed back to the main grounds where Tierra Whack performed a brief opening set an the outside stage. By the end of her act, the energy in the air was at peak anticipation as everyone was ready for the main event in the dome. People had begun lining up to enter, and the crowds followed suit as everyone shifted like polite cattle to get ready to enter the structure despite the show not starting for close to 45 minutes. The vibe in the crowd was pretty great, as far as crowds go. We made conversation with everyone around us, and the shared hype had everybody in good spirits with no shoving or aggressiveness to be found. We met a surprising amount of people from the United States, and made friends with a group from New York who had also been at the first Pharos in Joshua Tree. I especially had fun chatting with them about what was different with the event this time around, and speculating what we might see once we got inside. We took great pride in letting those around us know that they were about to have their minds blown once we all entered the dome. The crowd zigzagged around barriers to the front door, where we finally had our phones sealed in Yondr bags like the 2016 show as we prepared to enter.

Gambinos management team Wolf+Rothstein partnered with Brooklyn based 2n Design, and Wellington based Weta Digital for the creation of the visual portion of the concert. 2n Design specializes in interactive digital design vis-a-vis VR and AR, and Weta Digital is a special effects company with a sprawling portfolio that includes works such as “Game of Thrones” and “Avengers: Endgame”. The fusion of VR and industry-standard CGI is a big part what sets the Pharos experience apart from any other concert. The visuals were designed as a virtual three dimensional space in Unreal Engine 4, the industry standard for game design engines. This allowed the designers to take the visuals further than 2D projections on the ceiling, and actually craft digital landscapes that the crowd got to “move” around in. Due to the nature of the dome venue the artists and designers were able to transport the 2000 plus people in the concert to a new world for every song, as if everyone in attendance was in a shared VR headset - all with seamless transitions and high definition graphics. Furthermore, what’s even cooler than that is all of the visuals were handled in real-time by an employee of 2n by using a MIDI controller much like a DJ would, and this allowed for a unique synchronicity between the musicians performing and designer who controlled the graphics. The show wasn’t a series of cues for the band to line up with, but more an ebb and flow between the band and visual controller that we the crowd was caught in between.

The show opened with a booming and bouncing track entitled Algorythm, an all-too-danceable track with sobering lyrics that touch on the human experience in modern times, and reference “Mother Infinity” and “the algorithm being perfect”. As the music started to ramp up, the ceiling above us transformed into what I could only describe as a cathedral from space - complete with stained glass and vaulted arches - which promptly came crashing down around us as we zipped off into outer space. Gambino repeatedly urged the crowd to come with him and be present, and frenetically expressed to us how he wanted to take us to church. Over the course of the show, the dome above us transformed into a vast array of fantastic and vivid landscapes - some familiar and some completely alien. One moment we were in space flying by planets and galaxies, the next we were floating in a matrix amongst the tiniest bacteria and tardigrades. We bounced between lush infrared-colored forests and deep sea coral reefs, and went spelunking deep in caves that were brimming with neon-lit invertebrate critters of all shapes and sizes. During his performance of “This is America” we drifted through a decrepit prison yard during a storm as thunder and lightning boomed and clapped above us. During the track “Boogieman”, a seemingly innocuous grove of trees we were in transformed into tree people with bioluminescent flesh who all grooved to the rhythm and danced above our heads.

My personal favorite moment came during his performance of his 2013 hit “Worldstar”. A forested landscape we had come to rest in during a break in music went up in flames as volcanoes we could see on the horizon erupted and spewed fire and rocks down from the sky. As the trees became completely engulfed in fire and the dome glowed bright red, through the smoke and ash gigantic hundred-plus foot figures strided up to the edge of the venue and surrounded the crowd. Their flesh was very literally magma, and bright orange and red hues glowed from their eyes and between the cracks in their skin. The hook of the song began to build and rumble through the venue as the crowd joined in, “Woooorrllldd Starrrr, WOOOORRRLLLD STARRRR”. The giants began to bob their heads and swipe at the crowd with every passing kick of the bass until the beat finally dropped, and the magma-men broke into full dance around us as Gambino masterfully delivered his verses. The animated figures during the show moved so fluidly and were so lifelike it was almost unsettling - an effect im certain was achieved by utilizing motion-capture technology on real humans.

After the roughly hour and a half show came to a close with his hit single “Sober”, the crowd dispersed from the dome back into the village. The hook for “Sober” sings, “and now that it's over, I’ll never be sober / I couldn’t believe, but now I’m so high” and to me it felt appropriate to end the show on that song. We had all been transported to this fantastic, rich and vibrant world curated by Donald - and then abruptly had to come back down to earth when it was all over. The combination of music and visual art was so awe-inspiring and impressive to behold - for a fleeting moment in time I completely forgot about everything else in the world and just became part of an experience. It seems to me that moments such as those are harder and harder to come by these days, and that’s partly why I knew I would be attending as soon as this second Pharos was announced despite it being on the other side of the earth.

Post-show, my friends and I re-grouped by the camping area adjacent to the hundreds of tents and set up blankets to lay out under the stars. We had met up with our friends we met from New York, and began to play music and talk about what we had all just experienced together, and before long more and more people began to show up and add more blankets to the kick back. My friend Dylan I travelled with brought out his light up poi and began spinning to the music we were playing which attracted even more people to join us, and before we knew it we had a sizeable area of blankets and people lounging around that it began to resemble a small section of Dolores Park on a Saturday. We discussed pop culture and our favorite bands, and sang along together to old Kanye tracks and Kids See Ghosts with complete strangers. We reflected on cultural similarities and differences between New Zealand and the US with some locals named Taila, Cal and Brad, and had an especially fun time sharing our different slang with one another. At one point Cal made a remark that Taila had “a real Duckwrth thing going on” with his outfit and braids, to which Taila replied “Aw thank you man, Duckwrth is like my spirit animal”. I needed to clarify - “Wait, you guys mean Duckwrth Duckwrth? Like you mean ‘I’M UUGLY’ Duckwrth?” To which they responded with an emphatic “yeah!”. Indeed they were referring to burgeoning hip-hop star and Bay Area alum Jared Lee, aka Duckwrth - Even 10,500 kilometers away from home across the globe, a little bit of the Bay managed to show up.That night we stayed up conversing and sharing as much as we could until 4 am, and only finally retreated to our tents because it began to rain.

Friends and I waiting and shuffling to get into the dome.

Friends and I waiting and shuffling to get into the dome.

Pharos, to me, could be defined as an extension and manifestation of Gambino’s ever-evolving creative modus operandi, and a reflection of his personal artistic zeitgeist. Since his 2013 album Because The Internet, Gambino has progressively explored and reflected on themes like existentialism, and human connectivity, and during media interviews he has consistently referred to something he refers to as “the algorithm”. This “algorithm” seems to be his objective perception of life and our reality, and acknowledgement of the patterns theirin - along with how to consciously break those patterns. During his 2017 acceptance speech for the Emmy for outstanding directing for a comedy series, he starts off by saying “First, I want to thank the great algorithm the put us all here”. In a February 18th New Yorker interview, Glover is quoted as saying “When i was ten I realized, if I want to be good at P.E., I have to be good at basketball. So I went home and shot baskets in our driveway for six hours, until my mother called me in. The next day, I was good enough that you wouldn’t notice I was bad. And I realized my superpower.” While that view may seem like a gross oversimplification of how life actually works, it would seem that the multi-award winning musician  / actor / writer / producer / comedian really has figured out how to crack life’s code - and he wants us to understand how to as well. In a day and age where countless aspects of our lives are influenced and even dominated by curated algorithms both digital and social, Donald Glover wants to show us a way out.

During the concert, the few times that Gambino addressed the crowd he thanked us for coming and being part of the experience with him. In his words, he wanted to host Pharos in New Zealand because “it just feels cleaner” down there, and I couldn’t agree with him more. The clear skies, pure blue ocean and lush rolling hills were the perfect compliment to the ethos that Pharos invited us to join. Combining the environment with the music and art, as well as the rules in the app guide book that nearly everyone abided by, it all comes together to set Pharos apart from any other experience out there. There were no hashtags shoved in our faces in order to gain social media traction, or copious amounts of corporate sponsored promotions à la Chase Sapphire Lounge at OSL. There was no exclusivity or separation of attendees because somebody paid more money, or had the right kind of credit card to get into a VIP area. Rather, the Pharos experience is set up for concert goers to be more conscientious of commodification, and encourages everyone to engage in face to face connectivity and genuine interaction. The willingness of most concert goers to abide by the rules put forth in the guide book makes the overall experience extremely special. Pharos was a call to be present, and a time for reflection. Through the unique power or art, music, and Donald Glover's vision, my friends and were able to share connections and valuable experiences with people we never would have otherwise.

After the first Pharos in 2016, there was no word or indication that it would happen again. It came and went as a surreal encapsulated experience, and the 2018 Pharos was no different. Both times I arrived with intense curiosity and little idea of what I was getting into, and both times I left with memories to last a lifetime. Donald Glover is slated to release his supposed final album this year, and has stated that he will be retiring his Childish Gambino moniker. But, I don’t personally believe that this next album will be his last musical venture, or that it means there won’t be another Pharos. “Childish Gambino” is a name that came from an online Wu Tang Clan name generator that he adopted when he went to school at NYU, and it’s a name I feel he is ready to move on from. Just as his acting career has matured from sketch-comedy on Youtube, to sitcom television, to being immortalized in the Starwars universe, his music has drastically evolved both sonically and conceptually from when he began. In his early lyrics, Glover used to speak about needing two different monikers to keep his work separate as to not muddy the waters between the two careers. On his 2010 track “The Last”, he raps “people tell me I should spit under Donald Glover / but i try to keep my real name undercover / ‘cause if you hear my name, then you think its jokes / and I can’t go for that n***a ; Hall and Oates” . Glover has proven himself time and time again to be a multidisciplinary phenom who is serious about all of his crafts, and at this point in his career it would make sense if he wanted to move on from a name that is associated with his earlier, and admittedly less mature bodies of work. But I don’t think that the end of ‘Childish Gambino’ is an end to his music in any capacity, or the end of Pharos for that matter.

Future iterations of Pharos may grow to include a greater variety of musical acts, more art installations, more beautiful locations, and even could act as a film festival of sorts if the past two are any indication. It’s hard to speculate even though I’ve attended both events. Hopefully, this forthcoming album will provide more insight to the bigger picture that Donald is painting. Until then I’ll be eagerly waiting for the reveal, and ready to trust the Great Algorithm.

// Photography by Hunter Hess.


Born in Norfolk, Virginia and raised on the East Coast and out West alike, San Francisco based illustrator Hunter Hess has possessed a life-long interest in the arts.


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