Image: Muhammad Haikal Satria via CBC Radio
Childish Gambino’s latest single ‘This is America’ released on the 5th May 2018 continues to stir controversy and gain support thanks to its melding of artistic styles and thought-provoking music video.
In an interview with Chris Van Vliet on the latest Star Wars film Solo, the rapper, actor, comedian and singer Donald Glover (using his performance name Childish Gambino) was asked to explain the concepts behind this now sensational song and music video. He showed an unwillingness to discuss the video, saying that he does not “want to give it any context” as it is “for the people” to interpret and interpret the people have done. Peaking at no.1 in the music charts and obtaining more than 226 million views on YouTube since its release, many have commented on the song’s meaningful messaging, focusing on the political and socio-historical themes in the video.
Allow me to share my opinions on ‘This is America.’ Both the lyrics and the music video are over brimming with imagery, metaphor and analogy. I will focus in particular on the notion of greed and modern blindness to the world behind the distraction.
This is a somewhat incongruous track in comparison to his usual work of jaunty hip hop / RnB infusions like ‘Sweatpants’ or deep-funk ‘Redbone.’ Instead, Childish Gambino opts for a bizarre mix of soulful choir music for the chorus whilst the verses are styled in the recent subgenre of R&B entering the charts called ‘mumble rap.’ Originating on Soundcloud, ‘mumble rap’ has been brought to the centre-stage of modern musical culture in the past year, likely due to its embodiment of the modern revolution; celebrating narcotic and sexual liberation and the surge of polished self-image online. As heard in notorious ‘mumble rap’ song ‘Gucci Gang’ by Lil’ Pump, the themes centre around luxury items and a lack of responsibility in a slurred rapped style, ‘I can’t buy a b*tch no wedding ring, Rather go and buy Balmains.’ Unlike Lil’ Pump, Gambino is not advocating this lifestyle but rather highlighting its danger. Lyrics such as ‘We just want the money, Money just for you’ and ‘I’m on Gucci (I’m on Gucci), I’m so pretty (yeah, yeah)’ show that Gambino and Lil’ Pump are rapping about the same things, yet Gambino’s delivery seems cynical. Instead, Gambino shows how these alluring concepts are a trivial pursuit into style over substance and how this can become fatal when the substance is political and racial war. Is the style of the song in mumble rap an ironic and mocking jibe at the modern fixation on greed? I would say mostly yes, although the fusion of soulful choral singing and rap are cohesive with the lyrics and imagery of the music video. As discussed above, the mumble rap stylistic features are a nod to current trends and the choir music is connected to the church-shooting scene in the video on a literal level; one of the several gun-crime scenes in the music video. The consistent presence of choral music throughout the song could allude to the idea that God is omnipresent, but no longer omnipotent, that humanity is self-destructing under the weight of crime, opulence and modern media culture. This brings me onto the second half of my analysis, the music video.
Seemingly the most notable thing about the ‘This is America‘ music video was the dancing of Gambino and some teens dressed as school children. Given the previous mention of ostentation and greed so rooted in ‘mumble rap,’ the mob of dancers could represent modern consumerism and its powers to absorb citizens whilst cloaked in the image of innocence; hence the school children. Equally, the use of school children could express how entrenched corruption and violence is in America, so much so that children are desensitised to the world of violence and injustice they now live in. The frenzy of police cars, shoot-outs, burning cars, Death riding a pale horse is merely the backdrop to the distraction of Gambino and others’ dancing. The dancing is a spectacle, disturbing our observation of the chaos of real life for a glitzy and entertaining alternative. Therefore, the dancing here could symbolise the modern-day fixation with social media, material possessions, the façade of fame etc. That said, I believe that this dancing mob is subjective and is what is mean by Gambino’s comment that the music and the video are “for the people.” The dancing mob represents whatever the viewer feels distracts them from recognising the cracks in society.
There is special attention paid to guns in this music video. The initial scenes of the video are intended to shock viewers as the dancing over gentle acoustic guitar music turns into a brutal execution of a man with a bag over his head, possibly representing the unconsidered aim which with police brutality claims its victims, the victim is nothing but a faceless body. This murder differs from the second shooting we see as Gambino guns down a church choir in the midst of song; an obvious reference to the Charleston Church shootings in June 2015; where a white supremacist shot dead 9 people in a church. On both occasions, the gun is carried away as quickly as it is introduced, showing that violence is fleeting but recurrent and the dangerous adage of out-of-sight, out-of-mind seemingly adopted by the American justice system. We could consider this a nod to gang crimes in America, in particular black-on-black warfare as both Gambino (the shooter) and his victims are black. In any case, I believe that Gambino aims to show that black people are so often the victims, be it of hate crimes, gang crimes or a discriminatory police agenda. The guns, first a hand-gun, then a machine gun, are carried away with care and caution, as if the implements used to facilitate murder are more valuable than the people being murdered. Alana Yzola from Insider furthers this by suggesting that the red cloth in which the guns are carried away represent “red America” and Republican voters, how they in particular value guns over human lives. It can be argued that the colour red represents how America has not moved on from the repressive regimes of the Confederates during the American Civil War. This is supported by the striking imagery of Jim Crow, a caricature used as the poster-boy of Jim Crow Laws, beginning in the late 19th century. These laws were introduced as an official enforcement of racially segregating white people from other races in the Southern States of America.
The final scene is of Gambino running away from men, some uniformed, some in ordinary clothing. Gambino running away, desperately scrapping at the air shows his attempt to escape, but from what? Given the above analysis we could consider: an escape from America, the distraction of consumerism and modern life on the injustices of the institution, racial prejudice or all of the above. One thing is certain, Gambino does not shy away from controversy and this song and music video has inspired us to think, analyse and reflect on the distractions of modern life, and the role we as individuals play in the fight for racial justice.
See music video here: