Is Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” Brilliant Critique or Ironic Troll?

"One could argue that Gambino is essentially just replicating the very thing he is critiquing, because how can he be critical of using dead Black bodies to garner clicks when he's using the very same tactic as a prop to make art?"
Author:
Publish date:

In today’s social media-driven internet landscape, where conflict and tension drive engagement, violent content translates into clickbait. Memes like “Who Killed Hannibal?” are hugely popular on social media, while sites such as WorldStarHipHop benefit from turning Black pain into clicks, likes, and shares. Many people and sites refer to Chicago as ‘Chiraq,’ not fully grasping the implications of equating the violence throughout a major American city with that of a war-torn Middle Eastern country.

“This Is America,” the latest song and music video from Renaissance man Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover), is a critique of the way American society deals with violence. More specifically, it’s about how social media, internet virility, and pop culture distracts and desensitizes us from the serious issues we face in our country.

The video opens in a large, empty warehouse as a man walks toward a guitar. Gambino stands in the background, and the man begins to play the instrument. As drums enter the song’s beat, the camera pans and zooms to Gambino dancing hazily towards the guitar player. When the camera angle widens, we see the guitar player again, except his instrument is gone and he’s sitting in a chair with a bag over his head.

Gambino pulls out a gun and shoots him in the head.

In the past, Glover has used surrealism as a comedic device (see the invisible car in his acclaimed FX show Atlanta), but the video for “This Is America” uses the ironic violence to show how desensitized we have become to violence in general—whether it’s intra-communal gun violence, police brutality, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, or Black kids fighting each other in viral videos.

The video uses violence as a prop to illustrate how pop culture and mainstream rap can use it—and hyper-masculine tropes—to fit into stereotypical ideas about Black people, and urban Black men in particular. We hear artists talk about the guns they tote or clips they let off. They mimic the “skrrts” of fast cars or the rapid-fire of machine-guns in their ad-libs, which are often reduced to gangster rap tropes or the general idea that “violence sells.” This blinds the fact that many are rapping about shooting real people, not just generic, conceptualized versions of haters or enemies.

Brilliantly, “This Is America” uses absurdist techniques to showcase just how odd it is that we separate the violence rappers talk about from any real-world implications. Our shock from seeing Gambino shoot up a choir reveals our own hypocrisy: we sing and rap along to lyrics about shooting people, but now that we actually see it happen it's somehow different? Gambino raps: “This is America / Guns in my area / I got the strap / I gotta carry ‘em.” These are simple lyrics (albeit over a multiple fire-emoji beat) but the video forces us to really think about what he is saying—these are real things that happen in real life, not just on social media or in club-friendly radio jams.

Due to the constant barrage of content we consume every day, the biggest issues tend to get displaced in the back of our minds. “This Is America” highlights this disconnect. Throughout the music video, the camera places a dancing Gambino in the foreground. The viewer is distracted from the building chaos of rioting, police sirens, and burning cars in the background (Did you notice the hooded man riding a white horse?), but by employing a continuous shot, it's quite difficult to compartmentalize. Regardless of how much you like beat or enjoy the bright faces of dancing African youth, you cannot forget that Gambino just randomly gunned down people.

Gambino weaves this cultural conflict into the structure of the song as well. The call-and-response of “We just want to party” contrasts to the individualism of Gambino’s verse. Just as the beat changes from multi-voice choral bridge to the rumbling bass and bouncy percussion, society has transformed from a more communal culture (think of the African social spiritual philosophy such as Ubuntu) to a consumer culture—a mass of individuals pursuing their own self-interests of money, fame, and attention. The song’s beat, co-produced by Glover and Ludwig Göransson, goes back and forth as viewers are given alternating images of Black joy and Black death.

But Gambino’s critique is not only aimed at others. The song and video suggest a level of self-critique. According to Karen Civil, the song includes ad-libs from 21 Savage, Young Thug, Slim Jxmmi (of Rae Sremmurd), BlocBoy JB, and Quavo—the type of artists that Gambino may be indirectly critiquing. We see this ambivalence in both the visuals and audio: the conflicts between art versus reality; normal versus absurd; choral bridges versus solo verses; struggle between self-interests and communal uplift; the alternating images of Black joy and death; using videography to create both focus and distraction, with fun in the foreground and chaos in the background; the contradictions of critiquing popular rap culture through a rap song, and more.

Gambino accepts his own complacency in how pop culture has normalized violence. Near the end of the song, Young Thug croons about how the industry commercializes the Black experience, singing, “You just a Black man in this world / You just a barcode.” The video shows how damaging this is, yet we still hear Gambino sing: “Grandma told me, get your money / (Black man) Get your money.”

The hot takes on Gambino’s latest offering have been largely positive, but there are valid critiques as well. “This Is America” not only shows how Black violence and death go viral but also how we respond. We made it go viral. Our laudatory reactions pose uncomfortable questions about why traumatic experiences in the Black community can so easily become “high art.” One could argue that Gambino is essentially just replicating the very thing he is critiquing, because how can he be critical of using dead Black bodies to garner clicks when he's using the very same tactic as a prop to make art? We accept the depiction of Black murder as a satirical critique against anti-Blackness. But would we accept the depiction of the murder of Jews or Native Americans as a valid satire against the Holocaust or native genocide?

Even if Gambino’s intentions were nuanced and artistic, the video still leaves us with more imagery of Black people getting killed, not less. In a way, “This Is America” is a troll. Gambino, as a talented and highly-respected Black artist, has been given a pass for falling into the same trap of commercializing and devaluing Black bodies.

As Childish Gambino, Glover has often used his music—from Because the Internet to a song like “Boogieman” from "Awaken, My Love!"—as social commentary. "This Is America" doesn’t give any clear solutions for the complex problems Gambino raises, but it does make a statement: the same pop culture that allows Black joy to go viral is monetizing Black death.

Related