With Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’, it’s hard to know where to start. Not only does this singer/actor/writer, born Donald Glover, cover poignant realities, but it juxtaposes them with uplifting music and dance—to great effect. Here’s a closer look at the song and accompanying video that’s forcing America to look inwards.
Childish Gambino / Donald Glover: A Brief Recap
Though only 34, Childish Gambino, who goes by Donald Glover when not singing or rapping, has seemingly done it all. He has written for and starred on television since 23-years-old, beginning with 30 Rock before gaining fame for Community.
Since then, Glover has directed and produced the award-winning show Atlanta. Not only does Atlanta delve into the hip-hop community in its namesake city, but it follows a largely African American cast’s struggles with modern-day relationships and financial survival.
In addition to directing his own work, Donald Glover sometimes becomes Childish Gambino, who has, to date, released three albums. Gambino’s last album, Awaken My Love!, was a massive commercial success, and was nominated for Grammy’s Album of the Year.
Donald Glover is the mind behind some of today’s most culturally-relevant material, especially when it comes to voicing the African American experience. ‘This is America’, released this weekend, is his latest ground-breaking work.
Depictions of Gun Violence Dominate The Video
The video begins with the repetition of “we just wanna party,” “We just want the money and “girl, you got me dancing.” In the first moments, it would seem that Gambino’s song is as lighthearted and superficial as a lot of contemporary hits.
The bridge stops as Gambino pulls a gun from his back pocket and takes an odd pose. Without a second thought, he shoots a linen-clad African-American man who had been strumming on his guitar. This man, who was the first to appear on screen, now has a bag over his head as he hits the floor. Who put the bag over his head? Has Gambino had a gun this whole time? The sense that you’re missing something pervades the whole video.
After he kills the man, Gambino says, “This is America.” The song morphs into something different, full of bass and ominous lyrics. Despite the aggressive shift, uniformed African-American school children start dancing with Gambino.
After a moment of powerful dance, Gambino enthusiastically dances his way into the next room with an eclectic gospel choir, clapping and singing “get your money, black man” over and over.
Then, he is tossed a machine gun which he immediately fires at the choir. The scene recalls memories of the Charleston church shooting.
Additionally, everyone shot in this video, including the chorus in the later scene, is African-American. Gun violence is an American epidemic that disproportionately affects Black men. As Gambino and a horde of other people sprints away in the final scene, the viewer is left with the reality of racial violence.
Competing For Your Attention
Throughout the video, it’s hard to know where to look. Your eye is drawn to Childish Gambino’s occasionally terrified eyes, or his big smile, and his rapid dancing. But how can you ignore the increasingly violent riot scenes in the background, or the school children, or SZA sitting on the hood of a vintage car?
All these elements come together to convey our contemporary ethos: everything is competing for your attention. Our culture of materialism and capitalism threaten, and sometimes do, overshadow more pressing concerns like gun violence and racism. Is the prominent message, “Get your money, black man,” liberation from financial uncertainty or a new form of oppression?
The Legacy of Slavery
Childish Gambino invokes the root cause of these issues lyrically and kinetically. Mentions of “the strap” and “the pad” conjure up images of slave brutality, according to Genius. Gambino seems to be saying that violence against African-Americans has merely taken a new form today. “Police be trippin’,” Gambino raps.
Moments of Gambino’s pose during his first kill, dancing and flashes of his facial expressions also conjure up the uncomfortable racist cartoons of Jim Crow. At numerous moments, Gambino makes his eyes big, both connoting fear and racial depictions from the earlier 20th century.
The style of dance varies throughout the video. At one point, it’s reminiscent of a South African style of dance, Gwara Gwara. At another, it seems to comment on Jim Crow minstrel shows.
Gun Violence, Racial Policing and Media in ‘This Is America’
With ‘This is America’, Childish Gambino proves that his artistry lies in his thoughtfulness, musical skill, and his knack for timing. Today, media and reality vie for our attention, just as they do in the video. Yet Gambino’s video is, in itself, media. Furthermore, camera phones have brought awareness to gun violence and racial policing.
In his careful weaving of contemporary issues and unignorable historical facts, of wry commentary and brute honesty, Childish Gambino leaves the viewer overwhelmed, but moved. And as he lights up a joint in the penultimate scene, before being chased down by cops, Gambino reminds us that the War on Drugs is racially-motivated.