The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
At a time when one of hip-hop’s biggest stars has sided with Donald Trump, the responsibility to call things out like they really are has fallen to another Donald entirely, one who’s willing to fight for what Kanye West refuses to even acknowledge. On his last album, Childish Gambino implored us to Awaken, My Love!, but the message didn’t get through, so Donald Glover has now returned with his most woke track yet, “This Is America”.
In the first 24 hours after its release, the accompanying video directed by Hiro Murai racked up over 10 million views and was celebrated by the likes of Erykah Badu and Janelle Monáe as a landmark moment for the industry. By juxtaposing the chaos of real life with the distractions that America uses to cope, Childish Gambino has proved himself to be anything but childish in his artistry, creating a multimedia experience that doubles as a powerful statement of political intent.
It’s impossible to fully understand the message of “This Is America” in its entirety after just one viewing. By its very nature, the video strives to distract viewers from the hard hitting visuals that take place in the background through the use of unnervingly happy choreography and acts of brutal violence. As a result of this, the way that firearms are treated in these key moments has become the focus of most discussions surrounding “This Is America”, but gun violence isn’t the only issue that Childish Gambino takes aim at in his latest tour de force.
Rather than focus solely on how the guns are treated more carefully than the actual people in Glover’s “America”, it’s also important to recognize the ramifications of this in the rest of the video. As people are shot and killed all around them, the children depicted focus instead on Childish Gambino and his exaggerated dance moves, evoking the minstrel shows that were popular in the South during the Jim Crow era.
The dancing itself works on a number of levels. Not only does it represent the kind of viral videos that we use to distract ourselves on a daily basis, but the way in which the children directly copy Glover’s every move also hints at people’s desperate need for followers on social media, something which he reiterates later with the line, “America, I just checked my following list and you mothafuckas owe me.”
It’s only when the dancing stops three minutes in that the children realize the real danger that surrounds them, running away after Gambino pulls a gun-like pose. Of course, everyone starts dancing again after only a small amount of time has passed, quick to forget the very real threat that they just faced. Here, Glover critiques the cyclical nature of the reactions to violence in America and how the media is quick to shift coverage back towards pop culture trends soon after stories break about people dying on the news.
Even if you only listen to “This Is America” and don’t watch the extraordinary video that accompanies it, this abrupt juxtaposition can also be heard in the music itself too. Gambino deliberately cuts back and forth between the happy, carefree choruses and jagged, aggressive verses that speak to the real truth of life for many black people in the States.
In one of the video’s calmer yet no less unsettling moments, children are depicted watching the violence unfold from above, recording what they see on their phones like the many people who have gone on to share videos of police brutality online. Seemingly numb to the effects of gun violence in real life, these children also wear bandanas over their mouths, silenced by the hip-hop culture that they wish to emulate.
While political discourse became more prevalent in hip-hop following Donald Trump’s inauguration, mainstream rap as a whole dropped the ball just one year later. A few notable exceptions aside, hip-hop in 2017 struggled to address the political discord that wracked America in any kind of meaningful way. Because of this perceived failure, Childish Gambino is quick to call out modern-day rap artists in the video for “This Is America” through his subversion of the genre’s various tropes.
The usual sport cars that signify wealth in hip-hop videos are replaced here by older, empty vehicles that don’t bounce up and down but instead flash their lights, abandoned in a dusty warehouse. Gone are the scantily-clad women who usually straddle these cars and in their place sits a fully clothed SZA who looks up at Glover’s dancing with indifference. Further references to the excess of hip-hop can also be seen in the background when money is thrown around as people die and again near the end when Gambino shouts “One, two, three, get down!”, alluding to both dancing and the very real threat of gun crime in America.
Hip-hop is inherently political by its very nature, but Glover’s outrage lies with the fact that not enough is being done still to address real issues that affect the African American community on a daily basis. Music itself and the happiness it brings isn’t the problem. The issue lies with rappers who wield their influence to distract America with materialistic values and the latest dance craze instead of focusing on what’s actually important.
It’s rather ironic that Gambino uses a trap-style track to convey this message given the prevalence of mumble rap in hip-hop right now, but that’s exactly his point. Instead of focusing on the plight of African Americans suffering in the background, it’s easy for viewers to be distracted by the catchy chorus and BlocBoy JB dance moves depicted in the video. American citizens enjoy black culture when and where it suits them, but not enough is being done to help the people who created this culture in the first place.
Those who do survive the version of America that Glover condemns in his video won’t do so happily. Increasing levels of anxiety and depression in the Land of the Free have in turn caused a rise in suicide rates which recently surged to a 30-year high. This is reflected around 2 minutes in when a man throws himself to his death as Gambino dances in the foreground. Taking one’s life is perceived to be sinful by almost all religions, yet the acts of extremists have contributed heavily to the overall chaos that has come to define America, at least in the eyes of Glover and director Hiro Murai, a frequent Atlanta collaborator.
Immediately after Glover shoots the gospel choir, more people arrive on the scene to start looting and rioting with hand-held weapons, all in sight of a parked police car. Violence begets violence in Gambino’s “America”, symbolizing the impact of police brutality on both the victims and those enraged by its perpetration.
Soon after, a hooded figure also appears in the background riding a white horse. Biblical connotations suggest that this creature signifies the coming apocalypse, warning us what could happen if America continues down the same dark path that Gambino shines an uncomfortable light on here. What’s more, it’s no coincidence that the horse is white and that it appears on screen around the same time as the police car and its flashing lights, a visual motif that subtly denotes the role of race in the criminal justice system.
America Is Sinking
This all eventually leads to the video’s haunting climax where Glover’s usually happy facade is replaced by sheer terror as he runs through the darkness, looking into the camera as he goes. Whether Gambino is being chased by the state, a lynch mob or just mindless people desperate for the distraction that his art provides, the zombie-like expressions on their faces say it all.
A number of fans online have suggested that this horrifying escape explicitly references the “sunken place”. First popularized in the horror movie Get Out, Jordan Peele defined this concept as “the system that silences the voice of women, minorities, and of other people.” If this parallel was indeed constructed deliberately by Murai’s imagery, then perhaps Gambino’s newfound foray into politics can become the voice of reason that helps break this silence.
While some might be quick to dismiss Glover’s outlook as leftist propaganda, the truth is that right-wing politics aren’t the only target under fire in “This Is America”. By also highlighting the fallacies of hip-hop and the media, Gambino argues that we’re all implicit in what’s happened, taking aim at everyone in America, including himself. Whether you agree or not with his stance, it’s commendable at least that Glover acknowledges the part that he’s also played in this without talking down to his listeners or resorting to hypocrisy.
It’s only by taking responsibility for our own social awareness and infusing this into our art that America can finally wake up and get out of the sunken place once and for all. If we don’t, then the idealistic version of America that we still yearn for may abruptly end too, mirroring the final moments of Gambino’s video as everything suddenly cuts to black. Like it or not, “This Is America” right now and plenty needs to change before this country sinks past the point of no return.
Now take a look at some of director Hiro Murai’s best music videos right here.