This Is America: Catchy Beat with a Societal Critique
May 17, 2018
Childish Gambino’s song “This is America” has become a sensation partially because of its infectious rhythm and partially because of the way it confronts issues of today’s America in the lyrics and music video. Throughout the song, artist Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino, mixes the tragic truth of aspects of America with an infectious song featuring gospel-style sections and prominent rappers like Blocboy JB, 21 Savage, and Quavo.
The music video takes place in an empty warehouse, which is said to represent the uninhabitable conditions that black men endure in American society. The beginning of the song’s lyrics are full of references to parties, money, and girls, unsurprising for a rap song. In the video, after this light-hearted section, Glover shoots a man in the head. Some claim that the posture he assumes before shooting matches a Jim Crow caricature, and is a reference to the set of laws that oppressed black people in the South before the Civil Rights Movement.
Afterward, the lyrics, while keeping the same beat, turn to references of police brutality, comparisons to guerilla warfare, and the omnipresence of guns in America. All the while, Glover dances shirtless in a warehouse with a positive smile, but with eyes that do not reflect the message of his dancing.
Later, Glover dances with young black men and women dressed in school uniforms as chaos erupts around him in the warehouse. The lyrics diverge into references about black men making money, sung by a black gospel choir. Glover walks in dancing along with them, only to shoot each one of them, likely a reference to the 2015 Charleston church shooting by white supremacist Dylan Roof.
After shooting the churchgoers, he returns to his lively dancing with school students. He stands still with his arms outstretched as if holding a gun and remains unmoving in this position for seventeen seconds, to honor the 17 dead in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. His lyrics — “get your money black man. 1…2…3….GET DOWN” — are a critique of the harsh treatment of police officers toward black men. However, Glover stands defiantly on the hood of the car in an act of disobedience while this is sung. Next, the camera cuts to chilling images of him sprinting down a hallway, his teeth and the whites of his eyes glowing against the dark background, as a mob chases him. This is how it ends.
Although Glover’s references to police brutality and race relations are controversial, there is something to be said for the way he expresses his view of the world through singing, dancing, violence, and silence. Even his opening image is significant: a simple black background with This is America in white script plays on his themes of racial contrast and leaves the audience to focus on his art. His power comes in that he moves beyond the statistical deaths at the hands of gun violence or police brutality or racism and shows us his idea of what it means to be a black man in America.
There are some works of writing or art that portray the world as it is in a way that statistics or news clips cannot. The only way to truly experience the power of this art is to watch it for yourself. No matter how well I attempt to describe his actions, there is an indescribable quality to his work that leaves me with an impossible task: doing it justice using only my words.