Sean Ledwith argues Childish Gambino's latest track and video, This Is America is the new voice of the American musical resistance.
On the 5th May, US actor and rap star, Donald Glover-aka Childish Gambino-appeared on America’s best-known satire show, Saturday Night Live, and delivered a searing musical indictment of capitalism and racism with the unambiguous title, This is America.
Since that performance, the video accompanying the song has become a global cultural phenomenon, particularly tapping into the explosive anger many African Americans feel about their plight in Trump’s America.
The video acquired almost one million views in its first hour of release and went on to hit 13 million within the first 24 hours. Since then, it has surpassed 50 million views and attracted a sizeable amount of cultural commentary. The four-minute video is crammed with images and references from popular culture, manipulated in ways that are brutally brilliant and horribly hypnotic. Issues that dominate the US domestic agenda such as police racism and gun violence are deployed in a fashion that manages to be simultaneously dynamic but also deeply disturbing.
Some have criticised Gambino for an exploitative approach to complex debates but there can be little doubt for most viewers that the true target of the singer’s anger is a hard-hearted US elite that wraps itself in racism, sexism and consumerism, and is now presided over by a grotesque figure in the White House who personifies such phenomena. Glover has already attained mainstream success thanks to his lead role in the hit sitcom Atlanta and is surely guaranteed even greater fame for playing Lando Calrissian in the latest Star Wars prequel. This is America therefore represents a considerable artistic risk for which he should be commended.
Calm and carnage
The video opens in a deceptively innocuous manner with an African American male playing a Cuban guitar in an apparently deserted warehouse. Some have noted that the guitarist resembles the father of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager gunned by a vigilante in Florida in 2012. This may or may not be a coincidence, but references to the horrors of modern US society become more explicit from this point onward. As the camera tracks through the scene, we observe Gambino with his back to the viewer, naked from the waist up. He appears to be wearing grey trousers, which could an allusion to the uniform of the Confederate army in the civil war of the 1860s; a war which eradicated slavery but then gave birth to a new form of racism in the segregation era. Just when the viewer has been lulled into a sense of calm, the video and the beat explodes into violence as Gambino strolls up behind the guitarist and shoots him in the back of the head. By this point, the victim‘s face is concealed by a Guantanamo-style hood.
As he shoots the guitarist for no reason, Gambino adopts a stance that is reminiscent of the racist caricature, Jim Crow, that permeated US culture in both the slavery and segregation eras as a device to demean African Americans. Shockingly, even in the 1930s high profile white stars such as Judy Garland blacked up in mainstream movies and performed in the Jim Crow style. Disney’s 1941 film of Dumbo included a racist character actually called Jim Crow who was supposed to be amusing. Gambino is making the point that such portrayals may no longer be acceptable, but the racist institutions and mentalities that perpetrated them are as entrenched as ever.
Return of the renegade
After casually slaying the guitarist, Gambino hands over the pistol to a person who is more interested in looking after the gun than the victim. The corpse of the guitarist, meanwhile, is unceremoniously dragged along the floor out of sight. This scene powerfully contrasts the gun worship of US Republicans with their disregard for the victims of violence. Incredibly, in the same week, the video was released the pro-gun National Rifle Association appointed disgraced army officer, Oliver North, as their new President. The fact that an individual who was indicted in the 1980s for violating constitutional processes and illegally supplying weapons to Central American terrorists is regarded a suitable role model, tells us all we need to know about the NRA.
Resilience and resistance
Gambino is joined by a group of African American schoolchildren in a dance style based on the GwaraGwara associated with the anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa. Their dance routine is vibrant and joyous, but in the background are scenes of urban mayhem and violence. The ability of Gambino and the dancers to ignore the carnage behind them can be interpreted as either a tribute to the resilience of the African American community or, more cynically, the capacity of the ruling class to use the entertainment industry as a distraction to prevent the oppressed from perceiving their true plight.
The next scene is perhaps the most shocking of all. We see a gospel choir performing a characteristically uplifting song, with Gambino apparently dancing alongside them in a spirit of unity. Suddenly, he is handed an automatic weapon and proceeds to cut down the choir in a split-second of blood-spattered horror. The most obvious reference here is the 2015 Charleston Church massacre, in which white nationalist Dylan Roof attended a prayer meeting and then slaughtered nine of the congregation in an act of cold-blooded racist hate. Again, Gambino’s weapon is collected with care by an off-screen character while the attention of the camera leaves the victims out of sight and out of mind.
The depth of America’s social and political crisis under Trump is underlined memorably in the next scene when, again, we witness Gambino and his troupe dancing in the foreground in the hip-hop style of BlocBoy’s shoot dance, while in the background one of the horsemen of the apocalypse rides past a police car. By this point, the apparently deserted warehouse has taken on the mise-en-scène of a US prison (part of a system that infamously incarcerates a disproportionately large amount of African Americans).
Apart from the visual allusions, Gambino also incorporates real stories of contemporary brutality into the lyrics of the song. Earlier this year, Stephon Clarke was gunned down by Sacramento police in his grandmother’s backyard for alleged threatening behaviour with a firearm; the object in the hand of the 22-year-old father of two was actually an iPhone. Stephon’s anguished brother commented on how the police shot Stephon twenty times: They gunned him down like a dog. They executed him. Twenty times. That’s like stepping on a roach. And then stepping, stepping, stepping, stepping, stepping, stepping, stepping. Gambino’s reference to a cell phone in the song has been widely interpreted, as a nod to this shocking but tragically familiar episode.
I'm so pretty (yeah, yeah)
I'm gon' get it (ayy, I'm gon' get it)
Watch me move (blaow)
This a celly (ha)
That's a tool (yeah)
At the end of the video, there is another dramatic mood change as we see Gambino being chased out the warehouse by a predominantly white crowd that ominously resembles one of the white lynch mobs that plagued the American South for decades. This has been interpreted as an allusion to the recent hit horror movie Get Out that features a black character desperately trying to evade white racism in a similar fashion. This ambiguous conclusion leaves the viewer undecided on whether they should be inspired to resist the barbarities of US society or terrified of the dire consequences of such resistance. Like all great artists, Gambino leaves us to consider the solution to the problem he poses.