When Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, debuted “This is America” on SNL last Saturday, the Twitterverse went bonkers over this four-minute spectacle of symbolism and chaos. It’s easy to see why: The ongoing war for Kanye West’s political soul has created a vacuum for another artist who can at least approximate his cultural prominence and accumulated goodwill. “This is America” is a dreamy and profoundly disturbing rumination on police brutality and gun violence, and the way such serious issues clash with the shallow adoption of black art into white-imposed boundaries.
A sharp snapshot of America’s cultural landscape, it’s the first music video in ages to warrant, and reward, repeat views: Everything is in perfect discord. Watch it once, and your eyes will be naturally drawn to his erratic dancing and wild-eyed facial expressions, as Glover bounds, high-steps, and capers his way through a mostly empty warehouse. Watch it again, and you notice chaotic scenes from America’s ongoing national meltdown reign in the background. Watch it a third time, and the striking juxtaposition of his alternating bursts of goofball dancing and startling explosions of violence become increasingly clear.
America’s moral compass is broken, Glover seems to be saying: We’ve cultivated a culture that emphasizes the trivial, while pressing life-or-death issues are all around us. This video dropped at a particularly interesting time, following a week-long cable news hysterical meltdown, in which journalists took offense to comedian Michelle Wolf’s smokey eye joke at the black tie Sycophant’s Ball. In a weird display of allegiance to money and power, pundits rushed to the defense of a press secretary who spends her days non-answering questions and normalizes a president who almost reflexively assaults and undermines the media’s credibility and pledges to use state-sanctioned violence to discriminate against religious and ethnic minorities.
“Flint still doesn’t have clean water,” Wolf not-so-subtly pointed out at the end of her set, a reference to the one of many daily and oft-ignored aspects of American life that the media could be covering instead of the all-Trump, all-the-time format that pads the bottom line. Five topics accounted for two-thirds of media coverage in Trump’s first 100 days in office. As “Dear White People” creator Justin Simien tweets:
Cultural exchange comes with a history of killing and enslaving, with those power imbalances reflected in minority groups conforming. In the early 1900s, the Cherokee, or any number of indigenous tribes, were forced into boarding schools and forced to talk like, walk like, look like, dress like white Americans, and were still mistreated.
The word “America” had always assumed polyvalent characteristics, one of those a lofty mirage of universal liberty that always seems to elude the lasting impact of its founding sins. Created by guns, overflowing with guns, and wounded by guns, its star-spangled greatness was always used as a rhetorical weapon to cudgel people of color whenever they reach for their bootstraps. Trump’s rise to the Oval Office signaled a blowback to the rising tide of ethnic plurality, a nation reduced to looping back toward its initial promise: All white people are created more equal. Black entertainers matter; black lives not as much.
“This is America” opens over South-African-sung melodies as L.A.-based artist Calvin the Second sits in a chair strumming some easy-going guitar tune. A shirtless Glover approaches and slowly circles, pulls a gun, mimics a Jim Crow pose, and delicately shoots a masked prisoner point-blank in the back of the head. One verse later, a 10-person church choir joyfully sings the refrain — “Get your money, black man, get your money” — while Glover slips out from behind a door and dances in front of them. He is handed an assault weapon, machine-guns all of them, and walks away — evoking the 2015 Charleston church massacre.
Both instances of hypermasculine flexing mark two abrupt and disturbing transitions. These sudden transitions are perfectly mirrored in the music, built on the sharp contrast between the jolly, syncretic melodies of the choir and brief rays of fingerpicked acoustic-guitar sunshine, and the dark and droning beat, characterized by its throbbing synthetic bassline and menacing trap cadences. Glover’s voice bridges the two worlds, dropping to an austere deadpan for his rapping and ascending to a syrupy coo for his singing. “Don’t catch you slippin’ up,” Glover warns as he pulls off the balancing act with ease.
The change brings us to modern times. Jim Crow began as mere pop culture entertainment at the expense of America’s freed slaves and became the means of their oppression. Now, the candor of trap grounds the rapture of black joy. Glover is front-and-center throughout, using the ambivalent reception of black art to represent the tightrope of being black in the greater space of American culture. It’s shut up and dribble turned shut up and dance.
Bare-chested and sprightly, Glover’s character, which appears to represent how white American culture co-opts black machismo and hyper-violence, alternates between viral moves to Blocboy JB’s shoot dance to the South African Gwara Gwara, flashing an exaggerated and inscrutable Minstrel-like smile, periodically killing innocent performers in the process. “This is America!” he chants as the song swings between harmony and discord. As Forbes unpacked, Glover’s dance numbers have multiple interpretations: These moments of joy provide a brief, enjoyable respite to some, but, to others, they might be a way to gain a quick buck or a few followers.
As the video progresses, the background activity intensifies. Riots are breaking out, people are chased by cops, cars are on fire, and a hooded Horsemen-of-the-Apocalypse-like figure rides past on a white horse, all while school children film the chaos on their cellphones. Extras and onlookers loom at the edges of the frame, either running away from some impending riot or running toward it.
The video ends with Calvin the Second playing his guitar with a bag over his head as Glover climbs atop a parked car. With no one watching, Gambino dances how he wants and the two musical styles merge together. The camera zooms out to reveal a Los Angeles riots’ worth of abandoned late-1980s and early-1990s automobiles, including the one SZA sits on, in contrast with the new, luxury vehicles often depicted in today’s music videos. The hazard lights are blinking to punctuate the disaster, perhaps to represent the stalled economic and political mobility of African-Americans, or reference the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
“This Is America” draws life from the unsolvable tension within a society whose bloody past and similarly bloody present metamorphoses into cultural potency at relentless speed. Throughout the four-minute swirling chaos, the camera pans to new tableaus from America’s most recent episodes of violent racial unrest, while Glover tells listeners to “watch me move,” and a group of kids dance around him. Glover whiplashes back and forth between oblivious consumerism — “I’m on Gucci / I’m so pretty,” he sings, shortly after someone is thrown to their deaths in the background behind him — and actively worsening the unfolding situation.
This marks the converging of Glover’s musical and television careers. Atlanta Robbin’ Season, is designed in a way to make the viewer confront the effects of consumerism on the lives of people of color. Each episode takes the seemingly mundane and warps it into the stuff night terrors are made of, whether it’s a trip to the barbershop, a night out celebrating a big payday, or picking up a piano from a stranger’s house. Teddy Perkins is a haunting character who represents the choice to either participate and brave the scars of consumerism in order to make art, or risk being bound to the basement as a consequence.
Glover discusses how the show speaks to that aspect of blackness in a New Yorker profile:
“People come to ‘Atlanta’ for the strip clubs and the music and the cool talking, but the eat-your-vegetables part is that the characters aren’t smoking weed all the time because it’s cool but because they have P.T.S.D. — every black person does. It’s scary to be at the bottom, yelling up out of the hole, and all they shout down is ‘Keep digging! We’ll reach God soon!’”
White Americans remain politically dominant enough to shape media coverage in a way that minimizes obvious manifestations of racism, like the election of a candidate, who, at the very least, dropped the dog whistle and replaced it with a foghorn. As a white American, this video forced me to consider how my media consumption has contributed to reinforcing racist aspects of our culture — especially when Glover drew a fake gun because it’s all a facade. Media ratings and white demand provide a warped, ghastly incentive structure for black entertainers to mire themselves in their own stereotypes just to survive in a cutthroat capitalist system built on the backs of their ancestors, only to return the favor by continuing to brutalize them.
Hiro Murai’s direction illuminates “This Is America” like an optimal photo filter, and it cements the music video’s link with Glover’s show, the influence of Atlanta, and the Southern rap of which it serves as capital. Choice background vocals embellish both moods: Cherubic hums and ecstatic screams for the singing sections while the manic ad-libs of 21 Savage, Young Thug, Quavo, Slim Jxmmi, and Blocboy JB deliver cash-grabbing, fashion-mongering, gun-waving, drug-slinging pastiches in a clipped triplet flow.
Childish Gambino doesn’t trap, but this song is trapped within its cultural pervasiveness, geared towards this insatiable appetite for something “hard,” a reflection of the absurd cultural aspirations that incubated this brand of hip-hop, the ideals of net worth correlating with personal worth coupled with a Nixonian portrayal of black criminality. The lyrics veer from winking trap boilerplate — the Lil’ Pump inspired “Hunnid bands, hunnid bands, hunnid bands / Contraband, contraband, contraband” — to something far queasier. “You just a black man in this world,” sings Young Thug during the extended outro, accompanied by a long shot of a terrified Glover fleeing a group of people so blurred, you can’t tell if he’s running from a lynching mob or a flock of white fans. “You just a bar code, ayy.” It’s Migos-as-comedy descending into Migos-as-tragedy.
“It feels to me like it’s a black man running from a lynch mob,” NPR Music hip-hop journalist Rodney Carmichael said. Some have also taken the scene to depict him trying to escape “The Sunken Place,” a reference to Jordan Peele’s 2017 racial horror film, Get Out. “Either way, it is representative of this history of violent white supremacy.” To me, it was the double-edged sword of this nation’s persistent contradictions: Blackness is pathologized while their contributions to American culture draw cheers from all corners of society. White America’s idea of black empowerment is victim-blaming.
The lingering presence of racism should never allow us to fully enjoy “This is America.” Because when the dancing stops, the problems remain and the ever-devolving turmoil resumes. This should be a wake-up call, but there appears to be no end in sight. Every now and again, a racial incident or a fantastic expression of art makes us pause and reflect for a bipolar second, only to return to dancing toward the avoidance we crave.