In May of 2018, Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, made major news with his controversial music video for “This is America.” According to Tubular, in its first three days of release on YouTube, the music video produced a vast 44.6 million views. ‘This Is America’ became the 31st song to debut at number one on the US Billboard Hot 100. In fact, “This is America” went so viral that it was not only a success in the United States but also internationally, topping the charts in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
Directed by Tokyo-born, LA-based Hiro Murai, this single-take music video is filled with race and gun violence in America. The music video portrays society in a dark light. One reviewer wrote “You’re not supposed to feel as if this is the standard fare opulence of the music industry. It’s about a counter-narrative and it really leaves you with chills.” (Ramsay). Another critic explains the video as “Glover/Gambino is not exploiting as much as he’s reminding us how well-woven all of it is into our consciousness” (Yates). This song is undoubtedly popular, yet it uses music and dance very different from the other pop culture songs and music videos. It uses music and dance to show awareness for the issue it represents. How does the way that it uses music and dance choreography portray racial gun violence?
In Gambino’s provocative video This is America, he sings: “Yeah, this is America (woo ayy) / Guns in my area (word, my area) I got the strap (ayy, ayy) / I gotta carry ’em” (Gambino). In the video we see Gambino dancing over, mimicking the expressions and gestures of a Jim Crow caricature. He then pulls a gun from his waistband and shoots a black man in the back of his bag-covered head. After that shooting, Gambino shouts “This is America”, and then the music shifts from the choral sounds to a trap music baseline. Jackson claims that “A smaller number of viewers, however, have been critical of the video, voicing among their concerns, the morality of Glover’s motives, the effect of portraying gratuitous violence, the wisdom of summoning images of Jim Crow in America’s charged racial climate” (Jackson). In other words, some people view Gambino’s new video as controversial and could, therefore, negatively shift America’s racial climate.
Music videos, through music and imagery, are one of the most influential cultural platforms to promote and tell stories. As with any other form of art, music videos portray meaning. Pamela Taylor, professor of art education, writing in the Studies in Art Education journal, describes music videos as “Stories used to explain the underpinnings of reality” (Taylor). In other words, music videos represent the reality of our world. Gambino uses his music video as a platform to discuss racial gun violence and the problems that arise from it. Although music videos are an influential platform to tell stories, is it an effective way to make a political statement?
Gambino portrays himself as a monster in this music video. In Monster Culture (Seven Theses) by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, he argues that “The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy…” (4). In other words, a body can be perceived as “monstrous” when an individual fears them. Gambino portrays himself as a monster by posing like Jim Crow, murdering innocent people, his expression in the final chase scene, and many other ways. He does this to express some of the trauma of black life.
Starting from the black opening frame with its cursive white letters, we are shown the major components of the American black experience, as viewed by Gambino. He uses past and popular culture to address important ongoing and deep-seated issues surrounding race. “Placing the choreography so front and Centre seems to be saying that that mainstream culture is all America sees when they see the black community. The exaggerated facial expressions while dancing in the video, further pointing to the disparaging caricatures of the black man popularized in the Jim Crow era” (Cookney). In other words, today in society all we see in the black community is the culture that seems the most “normal” to us. Gambino emphasizes past culture right in the beginning of the video when he portrays the political cartoon “Jim Crow” (a slave archetype) caricature. The “Jim Crow” character showcases African-Americans as lazy, stupid, and less human. This is the image of African Americans that has long been held in America.
Americans have a very strong attachment to their guns. This is portrayed multiple times in “This is America,” from the references of the dragging of bodies to police shootings. The careful handling of guns is shown in contrast to the poor treatment of the victims of gun violence. The lyric, ‘This a celly (ha), That’s a tool (yeah),’ (Gambino) is a reference to Stephon Clark who died in March of 2018 when police officers fatally shot him after they mistook a cell phone for a weapon. Yates describes this scene as “with no real major tricks or magic, he could scare me enough into remembering that I won’t see this disaster alleviated in my lifetime. Which, in itself, compounds the original fear” (Yates). In other words, gun violence is an ongoing problem that has yet to be solved.
In the final scene of the video the viewer is shown Gambino being chased by a mob of people in a dark hallway. He appears to be running on empty but resolves not to stop and get caught. Yates observed that “The final part of this video is the most harrowing because it’s an indication of what I believe to be Glover’s real message: that the capitulation to actual fear results in a flight response that only descendants of slaves can understand” (Yates). In other words, the feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability is often the black experience.
Gambino represents the black experience in America through choreography and music in just four minutes and four seconds. Gambino, in this video, is making a political statement about staying woke about the decades long racial gun violence in America.