- Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino has dropped a new music video and it’s quickly blowing up. It is filled with both straightforward and more cryptic messages. Every watch seems to reveal something new to the viewer.
As the name suggests Gambino is dealing with what America has become, and where some of these issues came from. The video starts out melodious and sweet, like a lighthearted party song. Glover dances in a large warehouse. Then he assumes a position behind a man with a bag over his head. Some have speculated that this posture that Glover assumes is intended to be reminiscent of Jim Crow or other minstrel era, racist characterizations of black people, and it is true that the imagines are strikingly similar. As Gambino contorts his body behind the seated man, he pulls out a handgun and proceeds to shoot the man execution-style in the back of the head. This is where the song truly begins.
As the man falls dead to the floor, Glover calmly turns and hands the gun to another man who receives the gun gently in a red cloth. Simultaneously the man is dragged across the floor off screen. This seems to be a commentary on how guns are often valued higher than human lives in America. It is also poignant that as he kills the man, he also utters the songs title, “This is America.” As this is taking place in the foreground the background also begins to devolve into chaos, with people and vehicles hurriedly moving about. If you look closely you can see a lot of crazy things going on in the background. Things such as a man jumping from a second story balcony, a man being run over by a car, and looting and robbing.
As the video progresses Glover dances in front of the camera and is soon followed by a group of young people who seem to be wearing school uniforms, these students then begin to copy his dance moves, perhaps an homage to the constant flow of new dances we see in pop music, especially popular hip hop songs. As they do this Gambino makes remarks about how dangerous it is in America, saying things like “…guns in my area…I gotta carry ’em…,” he says the police are “trippin'” which should be obvious to anyone who has seen the plethora of videos of cops brutalizing and killing many innocent civilians, the majority of who were unarmed and people of color. He also makes reference to this being “guerrilla,” bring up the image of many inner cities turning into war zones.
After this scene we are transported to a singing choir all looking happy and singing about getting money. This could be construed as how acquiring money has essentially become a religion in America. As Gambino comes in to the screen, he approaches smiling, then quickly acquires a blank expression, grabs an AK and proceeds to murder all of the choir members. This is a clear reference to the Charleston shooting. Once again the bodies are left to lie and the gun is gently taken away in a red cloth.
Following this scene Gambino begins to walk away. A police car is seen empty and people armed with blunt objects run across the screen. This is a theme often seen in the video, open cop cars, and violent scenes with no police officers to be found.
Glover then goes back to dancing with the teens as the chaos in the background intensifies. During this part of the video he remarks “this a celly, that’s a tool.” This is followed by masked young people on a second story balcony appearing to be filming the whole event. This line has a myriad of meanings. One is that a cellphone has become a tool for people to document the indiscretions committed against them both by police and other figures, whether for racial or other reasons. It could also mean that a phone can be seen as a “tool” which is also another word for a gun in many hip hop lyrics. This hearkens back to the murder of Stephon Clark in his own backyard by Sacramento police. The officers stated that they believed the innocent young man had a gun, however it was a cellphone. This is a common theme in police related shootings where harmless objects are confused, or used as an excuse to kill innocent civilians.
Directly after this, Glover again dances with his young backup dancers. Soon after this, in the background, a white horse with a masked rider gallops by. This could be an homage to many things. One could be the KKK, which is what I initially thought of. Though this is possible, it seems somewhat unlikely as the rider is clothed in black. Another image that comes to mind is that of the first of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, as discussed in the book of Revelations in the Bible.
Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.
This idea seems more possible to me. The rider often is seen as representative of pestilence. This could be viewed in many ways. It could be seen as actual pestilence, though in many “developed” countries disease is actually decreasing, though in America with our failing healthcare system, death from preventable causes is actually on the uptick. It could also be that this represents some sort of moral pestilence that is pervading our society, which is an argument that could easily be made. This is especially easy when looking at the pervasiveness of racism that is taking hold in the States. With the rise in technology it is ever apparent that we have a two, or perhaps multi-tiered justice system in America. Between rich and poor, white and people of color, male and female and transgender, it is clear that justice is not equal, nor has it ever been.
Directly after this Glover makes a gun with his hands, points it forward and says, “I got the plug on Oaxaca (woah). They gonna find you that blocka (blaow). This is an obvious reference to gunning someone down. Oaxaca is a state in Mexico. According to the statistics I found, it actually seems like one of the safer places in Mexico, however, I am no scholar of Mexican crime rates. I have also seen a number of people say it is rather dangerous, though this is anecdotal it does seem that one of its worse issues is corruption. All of this aside, the main takeaway I got from this section of the video was when he pretends to have a gun all the background dancers, who are also people of color, change from frolicking dancers in to terrified individuals, contorting their faces in fear and running away from Gambino as fast as they can. There is also added implication when the pale hose from before is compounded with a police car in the background. While the horse may be symbolic of a number of things, a black man even doing something as auspicious as pretending to have a gun, and often even less, is often a death sentence for many young people of color at the hands of the police in America.
As Gambino slowly lowers his hands as all his friends leave, he pulls out a cigarette, whether tobacco or otherwise, lights it, and walks off. The guitar player that we saw at the beginning of the video now has his head covered in some sort of bag. As Gambino is walking the choir from before starts singing again “black man get your money,” a depressed looking Glover begins dancing on a car in the middle of the warehouse, perhaps a callback to the aforementioned references to Jim Crow, and even today when famous people of color are often told, “just entertain me,” “dribble your basketball,” “stick to acting,” unless, of course, they’re conservative. It seem quite possible that this is the entire point of this article, that Glover has ingeniously made some, or all the the points I have tried to glean from his video, possibly many more that I missed, though a catchy, dance number, the only thing powerful white people have deemed acceptable for hundreds of years in America. Don’t believe me, ask Colin Kaepernick, a uncountable number of other famous people of color who were denied a voice, and simply told to “entertain us and don’t bother us with your grievances or you’re out of a job.”
The final scene of the video is Gambino running dimly lit corridor, with a terrified look on his face. While this is happening, Young Thug sings:
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
This could obviously be interpreted in a number of ways, black men are simply commodities to be bought and sold in this country and disposed of when not needed. However, while it seems the first few line are up for interpretation, it seems clear to me that the last three are most certainly a call back to Stephon Clark getting murdered in his own backyard while unarmed. Gambino running down the hall with a number of other terrified looking people has been compared to “the sunken place,” from the film “Get Out,” which represents the commodification of black lives, to put is immensely elementary. Though I would suggest everyone to see that movie and look at interpretations of it, as it is truly a masterpiece. This video is also one such masterpiece. Whether you like the music or not, it seems that Donald Glover has packed a astounding amount of impactful imagery within a video that is only barely over 4 minutes. I strongly suggest everyone to check out the video, which you can do below. I also suggest that you should dive deeply into the politics of racial and economic injustice in America, as someone you know has almost certainly either been directly affected, or perhaps even someone you love has, though I would argue even those who exploit this system are also disadvantaged by it, as they rob themselves of the richness that they could experience, in addition to making their country weaker and more divisive.