THIS IS AMERICA : Layered, Complex, and Worthy of Critique
I had posted to my Facebook on Saturday morning that Donald Glover was hosting SNL. The interesting twist was that the musical guest was none other than his musical alter ego, Childish Gambino. The immediate reactions to the post were pure excitement. Based Gambino's critically acclaimed last album, Awaken, My Love! , his role in Solo: A Star Wars Story as well as his hit series on FX, Atlanta, I knew that the polymath was likely up to something surprising and well-timed. I wasn’t prepared for the new single entitled THIS IS AMERICA.
Center stage, Gambino ,standing shirtless wearing a gold chain with plaid trousers, begins to sing the hook of the song somewhat stoic. Lively school children begin to play rock paper scissors then assemble into current dance crazes, counting and throwing cash, and hyping up one another. Gambino continues to rap and at points is dancing as well to the “catchy” tune and by the end you want to “Get your money” too!
At First Glance
I was prepping for my standing Sunday brunch when I noticed my social media timelines going into a frenzy. The video for This is America had released. I saw a clip of Childish Gambino dancing in a vacant warehouse with the same lively group of schoolchildren while the silhouettes of a mob run amuck in the background. I was stuck. Unsure of the interesting juxtaposition of pure chaos and violence amid joyful performance portrayed by Gambino and the school children’s dancing. I needed to see the entire video.
I desired to know more…
I quickly reached for my laptop and searched for the video and pressed play. I sat still and mostly startled and overwhelmed by the symbolism yet equally moved for the next 4 minutes and 4 seconds.
As I initially wrote on my Instagram:
“THIS.IS.AMERICA =WOW @childishgambino delivers a poignant anthem with layered imagery and an analysis on the current state of America.”
I thought of it as GENIUS.
The Jim Crow caricature he depicted while dancing uncontrollably in scenes. Chest puffing, crazy eyed, and body contorting only to find unison with the school children. The chaos erupting in the background: police brutality, protests and riots, school children seated atop the warehouse filming the incidents. The startling violence (Gambino shoots a man dressed in white with a pillow case over his head with a pistol and then proceeds to murder a choir with an assault rifle) while yet your focus remains on the "catchy" dance and what he might do next. The particular handling of the weapons with such care is contradictory of the care of black lives and black bodies. The use of old cars and not modern ones is symbolic in reminding us that none of this violence and death is new; VERY LITTLE HAS CHANGED. And like the mob that ensues at the end, you want more of him whether through entertainment or violence symbolic of America’s infatuation and insistent need of black performance and black death.
After thoughtful consideration, mixed emotions anyone?
I watched the video several more times over the course of the day. I must admit that with every view of the video, it became more and more triggering. I needed a break to unpack all the imagery and black violence so I ventured to see what conversations were taking place around the visuals and themes. The overall reaction was that the video was brilliant, captivating, and a thoughtful play on America, gun violence, misdirected media, and blackness. I agreed but I still found myself conflicted.
We can all agree that the critique of gun violence in America is quite apparent and very much needed. The imagery is thought-provoking, intense, cringe worthy yet heartbreaking at the same time. This is America demonstrates the entice and power that is Black Culture in the modern American fabric but the deafening contrast is how Black people are exploited, ill-treated, and continually killed in this same “modern” America.
Although captivating, it falls short of its true message. Gun violence is an American pastime. But the murder of black people, singular or in mass casualties such as Charleston, which he depicted are many times at the hands of white men, in uniform or otherwise. That is a major component that is missing and one that is very vital to the conversation. Additionally, the stark absence of visible black women (less SZA at the very end) in the video leaves room to question whether that was intentional by Gambino. And if so, why? One has to remember that black women continue to be both victims of gun violence as well as those working most persistently to fight against it.
Additionally, how can black art be tactful about such heavy messages as not to appear as mere sensationalism by recreating black trauma that black people deeply feel and live daily for mass consumption and the unconscious white gaze.
It is quite a fine line to tread.
And when it's all said and done, the unfortunate nature of this song and it's complicated visual work is that the two will rarely be experienced together to bring context and any sort of power into said messaging. Instead it will become part of the regular programming of current rap music that requires at best our dance moves and trance like attention with no added value or call action.