After announcing the future retirement of his alter-ego “Childish Gambino,” Donald Glover has been quiet in the music scene. While his upcoming tour excites diehard fans, fresh content was nowhere on the radar. So, Glover’s performances of “Saturday,” a groovy sunshine track, and “This Is America,” a political statement, could not be missed. While Glover has dabbled in politics in his past work, “This Is America’ and its accompanying music video has furthered music’s role as an outlet for social and political expression.
The video’s director, Hiro Murai, is a veteran in Childish Gambino’s discography. Having directed music videos for “3005,” “Telegraph Ave,” and the similarly eerie “Sober,” Murai uses stark imagery and internal transitions to hint towards direct events in postmodern America.
The opening scene begins with a cheerful man approaching a propped up guitar with the equally cheerful chants of the song chiming in the background. The camera then pans to Gambino in the background, disturbingly still and stoic. His head nods morph into body rolls as he approaches the now “faceless” guitarist, pulling out a gun and shooting him. He turns towards the audience saying, “This is America.” A man off camera scurries towards Gambino with a red cloth, carefully collecting and cradling the weapon.
The dramatic shift in tone mirrors the musical shift. This change prompts the audience to realize the grave subject matter the track will discuss. The gospel-esque celebratory mood from the first seconds of the track is meant to allude to the facade of just another (meaningless) summertime song. This deception is meant to have the audience reflect on the passive relationship one has with modern music now. With current songs that boast about money, fame, and sex, Gambino aims to add to a specific repertoire of music that discusses social issues.
Gambino’s ghoulish facial expressions and mannerisms might strike some as demonic but upon closer inspection, his movements allude to images of black bodies in the Jim Crow Era, specifically “Jump Jim Crow,” a character performed in blackface by white minstrel performers. In order to make a statement, Gambino embodies the very caricature that has “othered” the black community. As the audience’s attention is mainly focused on Gambino’s “trendy” dance moves and exuberant character, they fail to pay attention to the atrocities that occur within the background. Scenes of bodies being beaten, chased, and launched off balconies are all ignored and blurred as the focus is only on Gambino. While this might be a commentary on the complacency of the public regarding the news and the desensitization towards violence, Gambino is also dabbling into the concept of the objectification of the black body. Despite all the violence and commotion in the background, eyes are glued on him, the black man. Gambino argues that despite the tragedies inflicted on black bodies, the same black bodies serve as a purpose of entertainment. Arguably, black bodies serve as chess pieces within the entertainment industry, yet are diminished to serve just that purpose. The black body then becomes a means to an end. Just like “Jim Crow,” his purpose is to “party just for you.” The audience then subconsciously perpetuates this objectification by merely watching the video and is called upon to reflect.
The video draws on far too many relevant social debates in the current age. The treatment of the weapons within the video discusses the debate of gun violence in America as each weapon is handled and cradled with care, while black bodies are terrorized. Characters like the black guitarist, church gospel group, and school children allude to the recent shootings. And even social media comes under scrutiny as the phones in the children’s hands become tools of passivity instead of agency in times of social strife. In fact, the “meme-ing” and “GIF-ing” of the music video’s various scenes further proves Gambino’s point. Even, the final chase scene omits the fear synonymous to that in Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
In an age that magnifies the opinions of celebrities and musicians, one’s platform becomes a stage where people claw in order to catch a glimpse of each other’s stance. On an optimistic note, Donald Glover utilizes his success and fanbase to discuss issues that extend beyond the rich and famous. And with the release of this track and video in such a polarized era, the purpose of music expands into one that drives discourse and discussion.
(If you haven’t heard the song, watch the video first.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY