This is America | A Reflection on Distraction | Emilie Carroll
Over the weekend, Donald Glover appeared on Saturday Night Live to promote his role in the upcoming movie Solo: A Star Wars Story. But it was his Grammy Award-winning alter-ego, Childish Gambino, that stole the show by releasing “This is America,” a poignant assault on pop culture, gun violence, and the black experience in the United States.
The tune is purposefully catchy, featuring gospel choirs and beat switches that keep Gambino’s audience thoroughly entertained. But the whole point of “This is America” is that black people are much more than just a source of entertainment, dance crazes, and popular culture. In fact, this perception of black communities is often used as an escapism tactic; society has become so entranced with the black entertainment industry that it often turns a blind eye to the unspeakable realities that millions of black Americans face every day. While Gambino’s lyrics speak this truth into existence, his music video brings it to life through powerful symbolism.
The first symbols we see in the music video for “This is America” are drawn from the Jim Crow era, during which racial segregation was relentlessly enforced in the South. Gambino’s movements and facial expressions mirror those found in old Jim Crow cartoons, alluding to the fact that while America has made significant strides towards equality over the past centuries, racism is still alive and prospering in our society today. Gambino makes this point clear when he adopts a Jim Crow-inspired pose before shooting a black man with a hood over his face in the back of the head.
While the man’s body hits the floor, Gambino calmly places the gun in a red, silk cloth before continuing on with the music video. Later on, he picks up an assault rifle and shoots a gospel choir in an attempt to symbolize the Charleston shooting, a hate crime that left 9 dead at a historically black church. He then places the gun onto another red, silk cloth before leaving the scene of the metaphorical massacre behind so that he can continue dancing. In both instances, the guns are regarded with more respect and dignity than the lives they took. The bodies are disregarded and forgotten, having been shot execution style in both circumstances, starkly contrasting the care with which the guns are handled. These scenes are indicative of a growing disregard for human life, the likes of which is only intensified by increasing numbers of mass shootings and police brutality and the corresponding complacency of political offices when it comes to implementing gun control legislature.
Arguably the most powerful symbolism featured in “This is America” is the dancing. While drawing attention to police brutality and gun violence is a powerful motion in and of itself, Gambino uses his art form to touch on an aspect of these issues that often goes unnoticed. Throughout the video, Gambino employs a number of popular dance moves and even mentions Gucci and hunnid bands, the likes of which are all painfully familiar aspects of the modern hip-hop industry. The dancing is the focus of the video but like the aforementioned lyrics, it is meant to divert attention away from the increasingly chaotic riots occurring in the background. Through his dancing, Gambino is essentially calling out the entire hip-hop industry for its role in perpetuating a history of violence. Music nowadays revolves around money, drugs, guns, and new dances, but this breed of music is simply a distraction. It capitalizes on the real issues that black communities face every day and takes advantage of them, writing them into songs that are then marketed towards the communities they most deeply affect.
At the end of the video, when the dancing stops and there are no more distractions, Gambino is seen running from a group of white people in a scene that parallels the “sunken place” that originated in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. In case the rest of the video was not straightforward enough, this moment drives Gambino’s message home. It represents the harsh reality that exists beyond the glitzy distractions of the music and entertainment industries. Marginalized people are constantly placed in situations where they must fight not only to keep their culture from being appropriated, but to keep their communities from suffering due to deeply-rooted systemic injustices.
“This is America” is incredibly important in the sense that it calls for all of us – consumers, artists, and industry moguls alike – to be more responsible. It reminds us that we have the power to shape the entertainment industry and the influence to turn music into more than just a collection of catchy beats and meaningless lyrics.