This is America by Childish Gambino
After the release of Grammy-winning R&B album Awaken, My Love, polymath Donald Glover AKA Childish Gambino recently released a music video on YouTube titled “This is America,” directed by Hiro Murai and written by Gambino and Ludwig Göransson. The Emmy and Grammy award winner tackles gun control, domestic violence, racism, new-generation ignorance and many other issues in this highly political video. The video went viral after a modest 2 million views on its first day. If you check the view count by the time you are reading this, expect to see over 400 million.
The popularity of the video is likely due to its complexity and heavy, interesting use of symbolism. In my opinion, this is one of the most artistic, ambiguous, and beautiful videos of this year.
First, let’s start with the music in general. The vocal layering and mixing are impressive. The track is influenced by African-American soul music, sung by the choir on several occasions. Childish Gambino also implements trap into this track, which is a genre he has avoided through his career even though he is from the Atlanta region. As a result, 808 drums and heavy bass are sometimes present. According to Genius, with his respected name and broad connections, Gambino recruited many other artists to assist him with the single, most notably Young Thug, who participated in several ad-libs and sang the outro. 21 Savage, Blocboy JB, Kodak Black, Slim Jxmmi from Rae Sremmurd, and Quavo from the Migos all helped with ad-libs, and I’ll talk about the significance of that later. The music contains multiple transitions and beat switches that accompany the video and message, which make the song special.
At the beginning of the video, a cheerful gospel choir is heard. Shortly thereafter, the guitarist starts playing his instrument and Gambino and Young Thug’s smooth vocals come in over the choir. Shirtless and wearing Confederate jeans (Confederates were pro-slavery in antebellum America), Childish Gambino starts absurdly dancing and making disturbing expressions as he walks behind the guitarist with a bag on his head. Catching everyone off guard, Gambino pulls out a pistol and shoots the man in an awkward pose.
Per sources, Childish Gambino’s pose alludes to the character of Jim Crow. Jim Crow was a fictional character serving as an entertainer for slaves during the 19th century. Childish Gambino brings across a point that entertainment and celebrities receive more attention and, more importantly, distract us from actual issues such as gun control. This is why Gambino dances absurdly while riots occur in the background, and the children imitate his every move, corresponding to the young generation chasing their idols, gossiping, and being uninformed about the world outside celebrities. This may also be the reason that all the other black artists are uncredited. Childish Gambino carefully places the gun in a red cloth, signifying that guns are taken more seriously than lives. The red on the cloth could also symbolize the blood shed by the dead, or, specifically bash the Republican party for ignoring gun violence. Synchronized with the gunfire, the beat becomes more distorted and unpeaceful, which signifies violence and riot. Childish Gambino points at the camera and says “This is America”. The themes of this music video are established as a result.
Gambino leads the kids to do popular online dances such as the shoot (created by Blocboy JB) and the Roy Purdy dance, and explicitly refers to police brutality and gun violence directed at African Americans in verse 1. In the transition, an African-American church choir appears, singing “get your money, black man…” This may be a reference to a stereotypical idea shared in the black community that money and fame define greatness. Childish Gambino proceeds through the room awkwardly moving in; he grabs an automatic rifle and guns down the squad of 9, alluding to the 2015 Charleston Church Shooting.
In verse two, Childish Gambino imitates those who are distracted from social issues by social media, memes, and devices, etc. For example, he mimics a flexer boasting his Gucci, a girl saying she’s pretty, and a rapper pointing a gun as if he was shooting a video. The camera shifts to children taking pictures and looking at their cell phones during a fiery situation, depicting the irony of how phones can cause one to become oblivious to real-world events and issues. The scene cuts to Childish Gambino in a crowd of old, broken cars, with SZA sitting on one, again an uncredited appearance. Young Thug delivers the only explicit line in the song, stating that he doesn’t have enough followers on social media, while he has over 5 million on Instagram, again reaffirming the idea that trivial aspects of pop culture can be extremely manipulative and distracting.
Young Thug delivers the outro, making a metaphor that a black man is nothing but a barcode. This may mean that no matter how talented or rich an African-American is, they are still forced to face the struggles of racism. The junkyard of cars may be a nod to this point. Young Thug then compares a black man to a dog who is kenneled/killed (unclear pronunciation, a Young Thug signature). A kenneled dog easily reminds the audience of an imprisoned black man, and a killed dog can refer to a victim of police violence.
In conclusion, Childish Gambino successfully portrays current problems in America, and calls for an end to gun violence, police brutality, and racism, mostly directed towards African-Americans. Many other black artists, such as 21 Savage who contributed to the project, have also released political work discussing these issues. Savage’s “Nothin New” describes his tie with guns at a young age and current police brutality directed towards African-Americans. Kodak Black is a victim himself of unfair treatment. Black faced multiple charges, and, usually, unfair sentencing. Joyner Lucas “I’m Not Racist” specifically discusses White vs. Black racism in America, set in an empty warehouse, similar to the exposition in “This is America”. XXXtentacion’s earlier song, “Riot”, talks about racism and hate speech, expressing X’s own hatred of the KKK. Many other artists have also included references to racism and police brutality in their music and music videos. Nigerian artist Falz even created a music video titled “This is Nigeria”. However, none of them have received the attention and views Gambino’s song has generated.
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