Donald Glover, (aka Childish Gambino) has achieved astonishing success both as an actor and musician. This year alone he has won two Emmys, a Grammy and a feature role in Star Wars spin-off ‘Solo’. But it is his latest musical release, ‘This Is America’, which has really got people talking.
Gambino uses his platform to voice just some of the troubling social problems endured by black communities in Trump’s America. In just 4 minutes it references prevalent issues from gun violence to police brutality. Having racked up close to 150 million views on YouTube, ‘This Is America’ has proved to be a huge success, predominantly because of its power to provoke political conversation. With one video and one rap Gambino has highlighted many of the hardships within USA.
Directed by Hiro Murai, “This is America” juxtaposes both overt and subliminal political messages with huge visual impact. The video explicitly references topics such as America’s gun violence epidemic and the relentless massacring of black people. The video features the shooting of gospel singers, which is most likely a reference to the 2015 Charleston church shooting which killed nine African Americans.
What is most striking about the video is Gambino/Murai’s attention to detail. It opens somewhat peculiarly, with Gambino’s movements awkward and unnatural. However, some have commented how the rapper’s posture resembles Jim Crow, a 19th century stereotype constructed to justify contemporary Caucasian oppression of African Americans. Jim Crow was played a white man in blackface and dressed in rags to portray an ethnic depiction of poverty and inferiority. Gambino’s reference perhaps therefore suggests that he himself is a white man in disguise. As the only killer in the video, Gambino’s Jim Crow-style caricature could more broadly be interpreted as a comment on the racist persecution of black people.
The repetitiveness of the ‘This is America’ chorus could be a reflection […] of America’s power as a force dominating and oppressing black culture
The video also draws on different styles of dance, ranging from South Africa’s Gwara Gwara dance to BlockBoy JB’s shoot dance. By using popularised moves, the video highlights the issue of people enjoying black culture without actually acknowledging the suffering which produces it such as systematic racism and police brutality. Amidst scenes of chaos, Gambino and several schoolchildren continue dancing as if nothing has occurred.
Although this upbeat dancing seems misaligned with the explicitly dark themes, there are several different interpretations. For one, the dancing in the foreground distracts the viewer from the chaos unfolding in the background. The dancing is therefore a deflection from the brutal realities of America, and more broadly illustrates society’s tendency to selectively choose aspects of black culture. Alternatively, dance here could be a form of escapism, as the lack of interaction between the dancing and violence is an attempt to avoid what is going on and instead retain a sense of false normality. The young ages of the dancers, all dressed in school uniform, is also striking. This suggests child-like naivety or ignorance to what is unfolding around them, or rather the young age at which black children are immersed into such a hostile and brutal world.
Another political message can also be seen through the treatment of the guns. Once fired, all the guns are removed in a red cloth before the massacred bodies are taken away suggesting an emphasis on concealment. Here Gambino highlights America’s shameful moral compass, as weapons are valued over human lives. The graphic way in which they are massacred further emphasises this immorality, losing all dignity when hurriedly dragged away.
Murai juxtaposes chaos with the passivity of bystanders who are occupied on their phones. This can be read as a subliminal dig at social media. More specifically, this offers a commentary on our ability to be so distracted by social media that we cannot see what is happening in reality, and the way in which social media can desensitise us. For example, if news of terrorism and police brutality are appearing frequently on a social media feed, it is easy to become accustomed to this and desensitised to the shock of the event.
By juxtaposing the title of the song with the troubling issues explored, it is suggested that the two are deeply intertwined
Similarly, if such news is broadcast amidst pictures of friends and so on, one may not think much of what is happening. By embedding news items in these social media platforms, it normalises them to an extent. However, somewhat ironically, it is through the social media platform of YouTube that this video is accessed and its political message promoted.
The power of the visuals conveys dark themes, and clearly if you isolate the music from the video these political nuances will be missed. That said, its fundamental political message is also apparent in Gambino’s use of music. The track features backing vocals by American rappers Young Thug, Slim Jxmmi, BlocBoy, 21 Savage and Quavo, and draws on a number of musical styles. The opening creates a fairly upbeat atmosphere, using acapella singing followed by Spanish-inspired guitar playing. The lyrics ‘We just wanna party’, played over a light drum beat, further adds to the relaxed musical feel. This is abruptly shut down after the first gunshot, at which point Gambino declares ‘This is America’. Suddenly, the music becomes darker and heavier. The syncretic melodies, trap cadences, and repeated bass note creates a brooding and unsettling atmosphere. The repetitiveness of the ‘This is America’ chorus could be interpreted not only as the relentlessness of what is going on in the US, but also America’s power as a force dominating and oppressing black culture.
Whilst ‘This Is America’ seems to be have more of visual impact than a musical one, it is undeniably a track with political resonance. By juxtaposing the title of the song with the troubling issues explored, it is suggested that the two are deeply intertwined. Issues of police brutality and gun violence are presented as vital components of America’s past and current identity, offering a powerful social commentary. For Childish Gambino, as is the case for many, this is the real America.