My one sentence review of Childish Gambino’s new music video “This is America” is simple: it’s uncomfortable, but the right way. It’s particularly uncomfortable for me to watch. As a white person, that’s part of making sure I’m not contributing to my people’s history of being genocidal assholes. Look, if you had feelings about the campus protests against neo-Nazis, you’re certainly going to have even more feelings about this music video. I’m literally shaking with anticipation to see all the Fox News correspondents losing their shit. They might have to masturbate to something other than the sound of their own voice talking about “free speech.” Those fuckers only care about “free speech” if it applies to rich white people, or southerners extreme enough to pin their political freedom to an ugly flag.
Unfortunately, like most political art, the people who most need to be made uncomfortable by this video will probably never watch it. They’ll watch the aforementioned Fox News propaganda so over the top you could get liver damage taking shots every time they call Gambino a terrorist.
While I am fascinated by pretty much any music video with a theme of protest, fascination is not expertise. I am very much looking forward to reading the analysis of this video done by someone who actually knows about the symbolism. I’m still grappling with what to make of his multidimensional character, who dances with kids, shoots up a church, and both grimaces and smiles at the camera. He took on so many characters, he could get the first ever Oscar for a music video. They could give him the one Russell Crowe got for having no character in Gladiator.
Some scenes are in your face enough you don’t need a PhD in subliminal messages and modern hip hop to glean the gist of his commentary. The shocking moments in the early part of the video replicate moments of American gun violence, putting bloodshed front and center in his definition of “America.” Attacking the choir reminds us that for Black people, there is no such thing as a safe space. The images force White viewers to confront how much, even though we conflate freedom with gun ownership, we’re trained to see a Black man with a gun as a threat – especially a shirtless one who faces the camera, and the viewer, straight on. We’re forced to question how free a person can be if there is no such thing as a safe place for them.
Of course this isn’t the first rap music video to call out the the racist powers that be. Unlike Kendrick Lamar’s “i” and “Alright”, where I felt that my commentary as a White American was pointless and unwanted, there’s an aggression to this enterprise that makes me believe Gambino wants White people to watch this and deal with the demonic butterflies it leaves in our stomachs. I did not expect it from Gambino, though; the only other song I’ve listened to at length from him includes the line “I used to rap about nothing/ now I rap about nothing.” Dude, you have clearly graduated from that point in your life, and it’s working for you. The video still is clearly not for White people, but just the assertion “This is America” in a video set in a warehouse sprinkled with symbols of Black communities is in conversation with the assumption White people have that their communities, especially all White towns in the Midwest, are somehow the “real” America.
Why would a Black artist have any faith in the ability of any medium to transform the White moderate? First of all, that’s not their responsibility. Secondly, there has been so much confrontational art since the birth of Black Lives Matter, not to mention chilling news stories, yet we’re still saying dumb shit like “I’m not racist, I like Steph Curry,” and “What about Black on Black crime?”. There’s still literally more White people bending over backwards to show how much they love free speech by defending borderline Nazi Yano Gofuckyourself than there are ones trying to get lead free water in Flint. Aside from the endless need to delegitimize Yano Literalfuckface, I do not mean that as a joke. I say this as a former teacher who has seen how horribly the law treats Black children, and how many White people just nod and say “oh, wow, how sad” when I explain it to them. As much as I hope they will watch this video with an open mind, and actually grapple with the message, one begins to lose faith that anyone is open to changing their mind anymore.
I truly believe Gambino is working with an awareness that the adults in the room are intellectually as pigheaded as toddlers after watching the debates unfold over Ferguson and Baltimore. In the second half of the video, the visual focus switches to the young dancers. There’s detail that shows Gambino’s team thought carefully on how to represent the young dancers in the video. It’s no accident that the dancers are witnesses to violence, and that their joy exists in the midst of bloody chaos. The Catholic school looking outfits are true to the modern experience – poor Black kids are now being expected to dress in uniform even in pubic school, destroying one of the few ways they could still express themselves after the medieval assault on arts programs in the name of improved standardized test scores. Ironically, since they’re performing in a rap video, this way of dressing is also a thinly veiled way to keep them from looking too “hip hop.” However, the theme of youth extends beyond just the prominently featured dancers. Gambino himself holds his hands in the shape of a gun, like a child playing in the park. In the midst of the violent video, you’re reminded of the children who have been killed for doing just that – playing. While his face is pained, we feel the beat of resistance as the youth dancers find reason to smile. They are the symbols of hope and change, not Gambino.
So fuck yes, I dig “This is America.” Childish Gambino fucking killed it. Donald Glover fucking killed it. We’re forced to confront the ugly side of America, a country that prides itself on calling racial genocide a cute “cowboys v Indians” phase. A country that wants to act like the influence of bondage can bet swiped away like an unwanted tinder date. The refrain of the song, “don’t catch me slipping up”, speaks to how perfect White elites expect Black people to be in order to achieve success, or really just not have the cops called on them. High expectations, yet no responsibility taken for their ancestor’s role in creating generational poverty. And yes, I’m coming down real hard on White communities because we are the ones who made and perpetuate this mess. We are the ones who have to stop saying “oh, yes, this is really cool art in response to suffering,” and then pretending voting for Obama however many years ago means we’re not part of the problem. We have to start taking ownership for the mess we made, and actually make choices that show we think Black lives matter. Anyone who actually takes the time to look at the facts knows American equality is pure, unrefined, organic bull crap. “This is America,” is America, especially the parts that are hard to watch.