Donald Glover & “This Is America”

Donald Glover put on a show this past Saturday. And hosting Saturday Night Live for the first time was just the preliminary. His rap alter ego Childish Gambino released his newest track “This Is America” with an accompanying music video during the broadcast – and holy shit. It does not fuck around.

The video, set inside a giant warehouse, has layers upon layers of symbolism and allusions, some more obvious than others, that require multiple viewings and Twitter threads to fully capture. The ones that pack the heaviest punches are those alluding to American gun violence and pop culture distractions. More than once Gambino pulls out a gun, murders in cold blood, then dances with black kids wearing school uniforms. The guns are carefully carried away in a red cloth for preservation; Gambino and the kids playfully execute the latest Internet dance moves; and the camera pans away from the dead bodies. They move on from death and tragedy that quickly.

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Gambino targets the contradictory nature of black culture in America in 2018. A rugged looking, shirtless Gambino – dressed in what looks like Confederate Army pants – dances gleefully through uplifting South African choir verses with chaotic scenes of violence unfolding just behind him. Protesters and rioters running with the police in tow, people jumping from the rafters, and cars being burned and abandoned populate the background. He takes no notice. The more carefree verses shift into a much darker chorus with a heavy bass that encapsulates more appropriately the events in the video – then back to the more carefree verses, like cyclical mood swings that symbolize our behavior toward American violence: a shooting occurs, there are protests, then people move on with their lives until the next one. All of this taking place in a warehouse, perhaps suggesting these patterns are something we ourselves manufacture.

Gambino also plays to the perceived role of black people in America. He dances smoothly, and smiles, as a way of entertaining us, showcasing a non-threatening black entity (“We just wanna party/We just want the money.”) Only Gambino distorts his face with grimaces and wild stares that remind us of that juxtaposition of white expectations for black people: As long as they’re smiling, they can’t possibly be threatening. Gambino challenges this in the video, letting no one off the hook (“Don’t catch you slippin’ up/Look what I’m whippin’ up.)

The outro of the songs shifts to an eerier vibe with Gambino running through the warehouse with a look for pure fright on his face, bringing home images of runaway slaves running for their lives, away from chains. Young Thug fades the song out: “Just a black man in this world/Just a barcode ay . . . Just a big dog, yeah/I kenneled him in the backyard.”

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Gambino manages to wrangle all of the violence we see and the colorful distractions we indulge into this four-minute video. He puts us all on trial for what we allow to happen again and again. The very fact that he could even fit these societal complexities in such a short amount of time is indicative of how obvious some of these problems are. But that’s the role of a great artist like Gambino: he challenges how and why these events have become the norm, unafraid to bite the hand that feeds him. He’ll shuck and jive because he can, then brutally remind you of how much blood is being spilt while he moves along to the beat.

Just chalk this one up in the win column again for Glover, who is on a role with mass media dominance in 2018. With a recently emerged Kanye West struggling with his perception of “free thinking,” Glover by contrast is in full control of his impressive output. He released the stellar second season of his Emmy-winning show Atlanta earlier this year with Robbin’ Season on FX; as mentioned before, he just hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time; and he’ll be playing the role of young Lando Calrissian later this month in the latest Star Wars installment Solo: A Star Wars Story (You tell me this dude isn’t going to steal the whole movie.) Oh yeah, and he’s providing for voice of Simba for Disney’s reboot of The Lion King directed by Jon Favreau. And this surprise music video leads us to believe he will have more music on the way.

These are weird times in America but we’re lucky to have Donald Glover with us. Get your money, black man.

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