In times of great crisis, we create great art. Donald Glover’s video for his latest single This is America is great art. It’s not because it’s trying to be overly subtle to where only art connoisseurs can defuse the meaning. It’s that it trusts us to pick up what it’s dropping, so it drops a lot for us to hold. And I tried to pick it all up, although I’m sure I drop a few. That’s how layered this video is. That’s how textured it is. Childish Gambino (his alias) did a lot and I’m so glad about it.
I don’t make a habit of watching something 3 times in a row. Let alone 5 times. But this video, I watched 10 times, because I wondered what else I’ve missed and I want to make sure the things I didn’t miss, are burned into my memory.
This is America by Childish Gambino
The clear overall statement here is that we are too busy being distracted by what is shiny, and dancing and right in front of our faces to pay any real attention to what is happening that is destroying us. The first time you watch the video, all you can really see is Donald’s bodyrolling and bird chest shenanigans. Even that is concerning enough, but you can’t take your eyes off it. You’re too entertained by his menace. You might even wonder why he’s such a weirdo sometimes. That’s perfect, because that’s what you are supposed to think when you first watch it.
At first viewing, I was like “I’m not deep enough for this. I’ve missed too much” Then I watched a second time, and the things in the background started grabbing my attention. My pupil would slip and I’d notice there’s a fire behind him. Oh shit. Ok den. WAIT. I didn’t see that white horse the first time! WHHAAAAAAA.
Then I watched it again, ignoring Donald to give ALL my attention to everything but him. Then I watched it on mute, so his words don’t distract me either, and it was clear how brilliant it all was. Each time, I picked up something else. After my 10th viewing, I decided to write this, and I’m still probably missing thing.
- Guitar player looks like Trayvon Martin’s father
The first person we see in the video is a Black man who walks up. grabs a guitar that’s placed on a chair and starts to strum it. The man is bearded, looks middle-aged and frankly seems to be a doppelganger of Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father. I stopped the video the second time to get real close to see if it was him, but it doesn’t even matter if he was. That casting had to be deliberate. Because that man is the one whose head is covered, and then is shot from the back, by Childish Gambino, serving as the first fatality in this video.
Having a lookalike of the father of the boy who started the new movement, being the victim of sanctioned gun violence is kinda poetic. Trayvon’s death was the catalyst of many people’s WOKEness because It was the first version of the Emmett Till Story that had been amplified for this generation, in this new age that was supposed to be America’s post-racial time. It was the first time many became aware that the deaths of Black and brown people at the hands of vigilantes who are given authority or the ultimate state-sanctioned killing machines (cops), was real and happening. Trayvon’s death happened as Barack Obama sat in the White House, so it wasn’t a new day, afterall. It was more like… dusk of the same day. A look alike of his father was the first life taken in this video. Wow.
Update: confirmed it wasn’t Tracy Martin. It was an artist named Calvin The Second.
- The Jim Crow Poster Child
Right before Gambino shot the hooded man, he struck a pose with his gun. It was reminiscent of posters and illustrations from Jim Crow south, showing a man in blackface, dressed up, in that same still mode. Jim Crow was created by and often played by a white man.
Essentially, Donald is playing the character of a minstrel, throughout this video. The one people accuse of “shucking and jiving” is the one whose perspective carries us through this video. As we are mistreated, beaten and killed, we’re expected to just grin an bear it. Black people have been depicted as only good for song and dance, and it’s the commodification of that idea. It’s the “I know this is how you see me. Let me REALLY show you that.” America has allowed us to be defined in such shallow terms, and Gambino takes it on.
- All Guns Matter
There are two times in the video where Gambino uses a gun. The first one is a pistol, and the second one is a rifle. Both times he uses them to take lives, there is someone there to help him dispose the gun. The young boy in a polo shows up with a pink towel each time, and Gambino places the guns gingerly in them, handling them with care. Meanwhile, the bodies of the people whose lives he just took are strewn about. The guitar man is dragged away by 2 people. The church choir? Left there to bleed and die.
This is America, a country that will fight to the death to maintain people’s rights to own guns, rather than fight for people’s rights to live without constant threat of bullets ripping through their bodies and ending their lives. This is America, a country that treats guns with empathy, rather than give humans peace. This is America, in which the 2nd amendment is the most cherished law of the land.
- The Charleston Shooting
When Donald shows up and sees the choir singing, he basically sneaks in, like a thief in the night. In their joy and worship, they welcome him as he dances up. Quickly, a rifle gets thrown to him and he turns around and shoots them all dead. The 10 people in robes.
It is reminiscent of the shooting that happened at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston in 2015. The manner in which Susie Jackson, Reverent Clementa Pinkney, Cynthia Hurd, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Ethel Lee Lance were killed by a white supremacist terrorist was just as callous. But we live in a country that allows it. We live in a place that almost encourages it, in its complete failure to even attempt to prevent it.
This scene certainly jarred me more than the rest.
- The kids are watching
As Donald goes through the scenes, kids in uniforms show up and dance with him on cue. They don’t miss a beat of his dancing, cuz they’ve been watching him and follow his every move. They know this better than they know anything else. They know exactly what he’s about to do, and they are in lockstep with him. Is he saying the current generation is unbothered with anything that isn’t this? Is he saying we are feeding them mostly junk and leaving them no room for the real?
In one of the scenes, we also see 4 kids watching the chaos unfold, recording with their phones. Basically, they are less citizens, more voyeurs. They aren’t part of the scene, simply reporting on it while doing nothing.
The ones coming up after us are seeing this world, and what are we telling them about it? Is this normal? Is this what we’re leaving them? What are we expecting them to do when we sit by idly?
- Cops are bringers of chaos
Cops are supposed to serve and protect but they are also the catalysts of chaos. In the video, we see cop cars about, and cops chasing people, and the clashing of the “law” and the people. They aren’t protecting shit but they are terrorizing the very people they are supposed to serve, and that’s clear. They are the bringer of violence, and it is often towards black and brown people.
This video clearly criticizes gun violence but who is more guilty of it than the police? The people who use their guns with impunity, because the law literally tells them to, are a major part of the country’s gun culture. And with all ills of society, the most marginalized suffer the most, because of an issue that isn’t their own to fix.
- We dance and sing through it all
No matter what tragedies we go through, we dance through them. It’s both a coping mechanism and a shame. I think Donald is saying that the things we do to be able to deal with this world also don’t allow us to fully comprehend what is happening to and around us. Whether we’re doing the Gwara Gwara, the shoki, the wop or the Nae Nae, around the diaspora, we move because maybe we’re afraid that if we stop, so does our fight. Whether we’re in post-apartheid South Africa or Trump’s America, we are constantly presented with enemies we wanna A-town stomp away.
In what I see as an indictment to hip hop and new rap, Gambino dances with all the might he can muster, with a fake smile plastered to his face as he raps “Look how I’m geeking out/ I’m so fitted / I’m on Gucci / I’m so pretty.”
As he’s doing all of this, the place around him is literally burning in chaos. There’s a car on fire, there’s protests, there’s cops chasing people. And all he can muster in that moment is to talk about designers and what he looks like. DRAG FOLKS THEN, DONALD. DRAG US FOR FILTH!
Black joy is a form of resistance in a world that loves Black pain but where is the room for the fight if we want to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil?
- The One Horseman of the Apocalypse
In a scene that could have been an intro to a film called “The Rapture” things are on fire, and Donald is dancing as kids circle him in unison. It’s easy to miss the white horse that gallops through, ridden by a hooded man. I certainly missed it on my first viewing but caught it on viewing 2. It could easily be one of the four horsemen apocalypse, doing their job of bringing in pestilence and death. It surely looks like the end of life for the figure who drops from the 2nd balcony unto the floor of the warehouse where Gambino is bodyrolling.
- The Old Cars
Towards the end, Gambino lights a joint and jumps on the top of an old car, rapping “Get your money, Black man.” It’s funny. You singing “get your money” in a lot full of old cars. I’m still stroking my chin but maybe it’s to say ain’t enough money for Black people in this country to repair what has been done. We’ll still end up with the broke down things of yesteryear. But we’ll sit on it proudly (hey Sza) because at least we have those.
- There is No Escape
Gambino is running with all his might through a dark hall, sweating. And what he is running for are white shadows. He is running with all his might but no matter how hard he runs, they are closing in on him. It doesn’t matter how hard we try, or how respectably we dress, or if we shuck or not or play their games.
Racism and white supremacy are inescapable in our lives and we feel the terror no matter what. Because THIS IS AMERICA. Land of the free, home of the brave. On opposite day.
We are gonna be talking this through for a while, I think. For good reason. Anything that can touch on Gun violence. Apathy. Generational Gaps. Police Brutality. White Supremacy. Constitutional Unfairness. Evolution of Music. Materialism. Cultural ADD. Unattainable Wealth. in 4 minutes, is a worthwhile study. The themes ain’t new but this brings it into fresh (but dark) light. It turned the mirror on this country and said “see your life.” It is a read, an indictment and a challenge.
I’m glad for it.
Have you bought my NYTimes-bestselling debut book I’M JUDGING YOU: The Do-Better Manual? Haven’t ordered it yet? Now’s your chance. You’ll love it. Amazon. Barnes & Nobles. iBooks. Audible (I narrated the audiobook myself). Kobo. Books-A-Million.