If you’ve been anywhere near the internet over the past 48 hours, you’ve probably seen #ThisIsAmerica trending. If you listen to Childish Gambino at all, you’ve likely already picked apart his new song and video with relish.
If you don’t know or don’t care who Childish Gambino is, that’s all right. Consider this article a brief overview for the uninitiated. (For what it’s worth, he’s Donald Glover of NBC’s Community and FX’s Atlanta. He’s also slated as young Lando Calrissian in Solo later this year, and as the voice of Simba in next year’s live-action revamp of The Lion King.)
He’s also made music for the better part of a decade, including the sharp narrative of Because the Internet and one of 2016’s funkiest surprises, “Awaken, My Love!” Glover announced last summer that he intended to retire Childish Gambino after his next project.
Saturday evening, during his appearance as host and musical guest on SNL, Gambino decided to offer up (what I hope is) a taste of his final album. As it turns out, “This is America” isn’t just any old single — it’s an ideological and visual text that did not come to play. Take a look:
If you’re struggling to condense your thoughts about this thing, you’re not alone. The ideas and themes and echos and symbols in this video and this song are hard to pin down. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arrogant enough to think every artist only has a single intent in mind when he or she releases a piece of art for consumption. Like I told a guy on Twitter last week, “The thing is, excellent art makes room for different people to draw different parallels/interpretations from it at the same time.”
What I want to offer up now is a set of three distinct overarching themes to help corral some of the imagery “This is America” has thrown at us.
The Smoke and Mirrors of the News Cycle
Let me make an educated guess: You were shocked when the guitarist was assassinated, but within seconds, that beat kicked in and you were already feeling the dismay wear off because you were marveling at those kids turning up with dance moves you’ll never be able to execute. You were head-bobbing and feeling the energy pick up — and then the choir showed up and you felt relieved, you couldn’t help grinning along with Gambino as he shuffled into the room. Then someone tossed him a machine gun and what the actual hell, what happened to just dancing?
He knows we only want the dancing, so he’s purposely subverting our attention to smack us sideways for being so careless. Our ability to flip the Numbness switch is amazing, and it’s because the Information Age has primed our attention spans to handle tragedy with ease. Think of how quickly we’ve adapted to the current dumpster fire of our daily news flow: Natural disaster. Meme. Viral video. Shooting. Thoughts and prayers. Grammys. Fashion profile. Nuclear threat. Crooked law. Meme. Shooting. Thoughts and prayers. Internet dance craze. Crooked law. Systemic oppression. Tide pods. Meme.
Some of these things are not like the others. We were so busy watching Gambino slaying that Gwara Gwara that we missed the riots kicking off in the background of the video.
And the guy flying off the second floor at 2:15. And the kids filming the chaos at 2:28. And the First Horseman of the Apocalypse (?) at 2:36.
When you line it up like that, it sure as hell seems like we’re being called out for willful ignorance in favor of viral entertainment.
Self-Awareness (Or Lack Thereof)
The flip-side of being willfully ignorant is being grudgingly knowledgeable — and this song and video are trying to remind us of a lot more than the violence we try to ignore.
Watch Gambino’s group of back-up dancing kids. They show up unbeknownst to him, but once he glances back and sees he’s got a following, he takes up the mantle of a leader. When he moves, they move. When he busts out a new dance, they imitate him. They’re all about his lyrics, on top of what he thinks is hot: “Yeah yeah, I’mma go get the bag/Yeah yeah, or I’mma get the pad.” They’re nowhere to be found when the shootings happen, but they’re perfectly happy to bust moves while a car burns nearby. What’s he leading them into?
You may have been too gobsmacked by the shootings in the video to pay attention to where the guns went after they were fired. Take a look:
Both times, they’re very carefully passed off to a handler, who’s mindful to receive them with a bright red cloth. Contrast that with the utter lack of care taken regarding actual humans in this video — he’s telling us we’ve got our priorities screwed up.
An Indictment of Modern Black Music
These lyrics threw me off immediately, and it took me a few listens to understand why. (They’re here, for reference.) Gambino is a rapper, among many other things, but this flow is far from his usual style. In fact, it’s everybody else’s.
Lyrically, this song is a near-perfect parody of almost every chart-topping rap song from the past few years that’s glorified excess anything: cars, money, attention, broads, drugs, fame, you name it. (“I’m so fitted/I’m on Gucci/I’m so pretty/I’m gon’ get it/Watch me move.”) If you listen to Top 40 at all, you probably heard Gambino here chanting, “Hunnid bands, hunnid bands, hunnid bands,” and instantly matched it with, “Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang.” One of my favorite touches here is the verses: Their cadence sounds like every mumble-rap song I’ve ever heard.
Keep that in mind, this color-by-numbers of a Good Rap Record™, while you remember which people were shot in this video. First is the guitarist, who’s plucking away at a nice reggae, island vibe. Then it’s an entire chorus — sky-stretching joyful, and ironically singing, “Get yo’ money, black man!” to the man who kills them. It seems like a cultural cost-benefit analysis. Is exclusively championing hip-hop music worth it if it means we’re killing more traditional forms of black music at the same time? Is it worth it even if you’re actually furthering a lifestyle that feeds into the violence we’re trying so hard to ignore? (“Guns in my area/I got the strap/I gotta carry ‘em.”)
I don’t have answers to most of these questions. Like most issues in life, they’re grey areas. What’s obvious is that “This is America” has already seated itself at the table of subversive pop culture texts that evoke more than just observation. We’re engaging with it, talking to each other about what’s underneath it, and thinking about the ripples that are already coasting away from it. You don’t run across that every day.
Video aside, I love how audacious this song is — it gives me chills to hear it switch between America’s Jekyll and Hyde realities. First, it’s all joined voices and acoustic melody: refreshing, rhythmic, ascendent, happy… Then it’s flat on the floor, growling bass and guttural shouts: hypnotic, anxious, and trying desperately to hide it behind bravado.
I’m thankful for artists like Childish Gambino, who opened this song like he knew we’d be wanting our new Super-Chill Life-Is-Good Song O’ the Summer — and then yanked the rug out from under everyone for exactly that reason. I wish more creators were this brutally honest. We could all do with trading in one or two summer bangers for a few reality checks.