Rarely do we we get to see such visual representation of reality from the mainstream medium of music as in the recent single released by Donald Glover a.k.a Childish Gambino – This is America.
The video has already been making news around the world with more than 50 million views in less than 3 days.
The Rolling Stones – “a vivid illustration of the Faustian bargain facing black America” The Guardian – “Childish Gambino captures the grim surrealism of being black in America”
The video primarily discusses gun violence, black community condition, and the blatant way we forget these problems through various vivid imageries. Other themes are also present in the video if looked more closely — biblical imageries, historical characters, acceptance of violence etc.
Some important moments:
After the first 50 seconds of the video, we are presented with Gambino pointing a gun at the masked man, standing conspicuously. This stand is referenced to Jim Crow, the character infamous for the depiction of African-American people by contemporary Caucasians actors in the 19th and 20th century. After the gunshot, Gambino looks at the camera and says “This is America” and gives away the Gun carefully whereas the body is left on the floor. This is to depict how guns are respected more than human beings in America.
“Jump Jim Crow” or “Jim Crow” is a song and dance from 1828 that was done in blackface by white minstrel performer Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice.
Gambino starts dancing with the kids, and in the background, a shootout is happening between police and people belonging to the black community. This depicts the endless instances of police brutality that members of the black community in America have experienced over the years. Also, the lyrics in the scene are theatrical and describes the exploitative use of guns by the black community owing to being sidelined in the American society.
Then he starts:
This is America (skrrt, skrrt, woo) Don’t catch you slippin’ up (ayy) Look at how I’m livin’ now Police be trippin’ now (woo) Yeah, this is America (woo, ayy) Guns in my area (word, my area) I got the strap (ayy, ayy) I gotta carry ’em Yeah, yeah, I’ma go into this (ugh) Yeah, yeah, this is guerilla (woo) Yeah, yeah, I’ma go get the bag Yeah, yeah, or I’ma get the pad Yeah, yeah, I’m so cold like yeah (yeah) I’m so dope like yeah (woo) We gon’ blow like yeah (straight up, uh)
This is one of the most dramatic scenes from the video which shows Gambino firing a machine gun that kills the choir in the background, which is a reference to the Charleston Church shooting in 2015. The scene shifts by Gambino saying “This is America” which sets the dystopian nature of the things to come.
Gambino is again seen dancing with the kids in a chaotic environment in the background, highlighting the way we tend to ignore problems or how we seem to normalize the abnormal in our society. The dance throughout the video seems like a conscious attempt to distract oneself from all that is simultaneously happening around us.
For more than 15 seconds, the music stops, and you see Gambino acting like holding a gun. There is a sense of realisation in this scene of how things are and a moment of silence presents it uniquely.
The end scene is Gambino running away from a group of people (police) that expresses the black condition in the American society with some provocative lyrics:
You just a Black man in this world You just a barcode, ayy You just a Black man in this world Drivin’ expensive foreigns, ayy You just a big dawg, yeah I kenneled him in the backyard No probably ain’t life to a dog For a big dog
The creativity of the video lies in the multitude of ideas at play, which is also evident from the fact that the video would offer multiple explanations to its viewers. The video echoes the raging issues of our time, and manages to connect with its viewer on an emotional level.
After watching the video multiple times, one can feel the sense of watching a piece of art moving in transition. One is reminded of Kant who thought about art:
“a kind of representation that is purposive in itself and, though without an end, nevertheless promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication”
This is America serves as a medium of communication which describes the absurdity of the American nation and the plight of our time. It would be interesting to contemplate a similar depiction of the problems that India continues to face today. Depicting the various problems in our society – caste system, intolerance, political distractions, violence against women etc. This is America reminds us that tools of mass media continue to hold the ability to greatly impact the contemporary thought.
In a week that has had Kanye West declare that 400 years of slavery was a ‘choice’ and Ta-Nehisi Coates rebuking and putting him in the list of black people wanting ‘white freedom’ alongside Michael Jackson in The Atlantic, Donald Glover a.k.a ‘Childish Gambino’ stole all the thunder, with his surreal and grim depiction of what is actually like being black in the United States.
Divanshu Sethi is writer/editor at Catharsis Magazine.
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