Childish Gambino, the musical alias of Donald Glover, released the video for his latest single ‘This is America’. In less than a week it has racked up nearly 78 million views, and justifiably so.
This is America is a chaotic and incredibly poignant narrative on the current state of the United States of America. It touches on matters of police brutality, mass shootings, gun control and the instances that sparked the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.
The video is directed by Hiro Murai and opens with artist Calvin the Second waking to an isolated chair with an acoustic guitar, whilst the camera pans onto a topless Glover. As the lyrics ‘we just wanna party, party just for you’ project, Glover begins to dance erratically and expressively, his positioning some say a mimicry of Jim Crow. As the camera returns to Calvin, his guitar is gone as is his face, shrouded by a white bag, and Gambino retrieves a handgun from his waistband and shoots the man in the back of the head as he sings the words ‘This is America, don’t catch you slippin’ up’.
Dance is integral in the video, and as Gambino is joined by a group of dancers dressed in school uniform, he brings to light the topic of school shootings, whilst simultaneously demonstrating popular millennial dance trends like the ‘whip’. However, by marrying this move with the South African ‘Gwara Gwara’, Glover touches on the prevalence of dance in black culture and how the moves can be appropriated, for example when Rihana did the ‘Gwara Gwara’ at the Grammy’s and it was ignorantly described instead as ‘The Stanky Leg’, much to the annoyance of many South Africans online.
The disregard for those shot contrasted against the careful wrapping of the guns in red cloth alludes to the ironic demand for gun rights but blatant disregard for the victims of gun violence. As Glover slyly moonwalks in behind an exultant choir in robes, he is thrown a rifle and violently kills them all, referential of the 2015 Charleston church massacre where white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African-Americans in an American Methodist church.
The internet found no shortage of statements and allusions in the symbolic mayhem and anarchic goings on within the warehouse backdrop, taking place as Gambino swayed, turned and contorted his body in an almost hypnotic dance. Some view the outdated cars later on in the video as a symbol for the backward nature of the state of America, whilst others see them as referential of the riots as Glover mounts the car. The ‘celly’ he sings of could be the phones held by a masked group of kids in uniform on the balconies, signifying either the medium of sharing racially motivated events through social media or police misinterpretation of the phone as a ‘tool’, slang for gun. The inclusion of individuals sitting sidelined on their phones brings to light questions of spectatorship and complicity, whether the people recording police brutality hold blame for lack of intervention.
Using ‘celly’ could also depict the stark warehouse setting as a prison, with the prison system integral in denoting the systematic racism ingrained in the justice system. As Glover is encircled by his fellow dancers, a white horse ridden by a masked man rides behind him, a symbol of the horsemen of the apocalypse. The conclusive pan out makes the warehouse scene a square frame and shows Glover running manically from a group of white folk down a hallway, some have likened this to the ‘sunken place’ in 2017 horror ‘Get Out’, with the box framing similar to the TV screen of reality.
The video can be rewatched and rewatched and a new detail will always come to light, an instance that melted into the background whilst you were distracted by Glover’s dancing, symbolic of the distracting nature of entertainment and popular culture. Is this Glover’s America? Is this the American reality for African Americans? No. This is America. This is the reality of what is happening America whether your race and privilege shelters you from it or not. The video’s intention is to make us conscious of what’s happening in the background, of the chaos and injustice our focus is being diverted from and what, or who is causing it.