The Visceral Power of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”

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By now, many of you may know that the Internet blew up last weekend over Childish Gambino’s music video for his new song, “This Is America.” As of the time I’m typing this, five days after release, the video has racked up over 63 million views and probably about as many think pieces.

Childish Gambino is the musical alter ego of comedian and actor Donald Glover, known by many for playing Troy on the TV show Community, and soon to hit movie screens as Lando Calrissian in the new Han Solo film. Childish Gambino seemed to start out as a silly side project, but in recent years has gained Glover critical traction with his most recent album Awaken, My Love! which garnered several Grammy nominations and wins. Glover has now capitalized on this positive wave with a stunning video capturing the plight of contemporary African-American life.

I should note that I am probably the least qualified person to write this type of piece, in that I rarely listen to rap or hip-hop music. I’ve listened to some Lecrae, and more Propaganda. I’ve dabbled in Kendrick Lamar and Chance and Kanye. Nevertheless, I was stunned when I casually came across the video while scrolling through social media and decided to watch it. I’ve watched the video and listened to the songs multiple times since then, and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Note: this video contains some graphic and disturbing violence as well as graphic language.

There are certainly many things I could say about this video politically and culturally, but as I mentioned, you can go and read one of the 63 million think pieces already written about the video to delve into that. I want to focus on the ways that Glover tells an excellent visual and musical story.

Musical Storytelling

In part, Glover is commenting on American culture and our propensity to whiplash between violence and entertainment, and how we distract ourselves from cultural chaos. One of the ways he does this is through the music itself. “This Is America” starts with an upbeat African-style chant and guitar-picking riff while Glover sings, “We just wanna party/party just for you”. The song then abruptly shifts into a growling ominous trap-style bass riff while Glover raps, “This is America/Don’t catch you slippin’ up”. Then the song jumps back into a Gospel choir sounding chorus. The song keeps jumping between these two poles of light and dark throughout, whipping us back and forth tonally. Lyrically, the lighter sounding parts of the song include cliche dance party lyrics, while the darker parts include lyrics like “This how I’m living now/Police be trippin’ now/Yeah, this is America/Guns in my area.” In this way the music and lyrics reinforce each other tonally.

Visual Storytelling

The visual storytelling of the music video adds a whole collection of other layers to the song. As in the song itself, the video shifts tonally between upbeat dancing and violence, such as when Glover shifts from exaggerated dance moves to shooting a guitarist in the back of the head at point blank range, or when he jauntily side-steps into a room and then mows down a black Gospel choir with an AK-47. Before you have time to even process what’s happened, you’re distracted by Glover and his crew of dancing black school children. Again, the point is to make a comment on how we in America shift from horrific acts of public violence to whatever the newest trend on social media is.

The other fascinating thing about this video is that, while we are being distracted by Glover’s dancing, there are layers of storytelling going on in the background of the video. I had to watch it several times to start noticing the added details. The entire video takes place in a vast empty warehouse, so that as Glover is dancing and moving around, we also see a chaotic scene evolving and playing out behind him, a scene which evokes ghetto landscapes, police shootings in recent years, the resulting riots and protests in response to some of these shootings, and the spectre of one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death, riding in the midst of the destruction. This is a video that bears, nay, requires repeated viewing to truly appreciate all the important details going on.

I am amazed at how Donald Glover has created a timely, powerful music video that speaks to contemporary America, yet stands on its own as a piece of art that doesn’t come off as preachy. One hopes that it will continue to resonate and spark powerful conversations in our divided culture.

To delve deeper into “This Is America,” consider checking out some of the articles listed here.

 

Chris teaches writing and literature to college and high school students. He is the author of several books of poetry, and has released several albums of original music. He is also an amateur photographer, part-time stick-swordfighter, and chai enthusiast. He and his wife Jen enjoy reading, writing, and exploring the cities, coasts, and forests of New England.


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