Well, just in case you’ve been swamped with work or kidnapped by aliens lately or something and missed it, this week’s Music to Move the World is Donald Glover’s “This is America.” Because this one canNOT be overlooked. Produced under his musical stage name Childish Gambino, his new video is a gripping 4-minutes that makes reference to consumerism, police brutality, white supremacy, materialism, selective gaze, cultural ADHD, and apathy. He’s not watering any of it down for you either. He just dropped it in our laps–a smoking pile of brimstone and social commentary–for us to digest.
This video dropped while I had my head down writing another piece about how art and activism can work together. The timing couldn’t be better. Let’s get into this masterpiece.
This is America – Donald Glover (a.k.a., Childish Gambino)
It’s a video that takes a few viewings to catch everything–it’s that dense with symbolism and imagery. So if you’re just catching up, take a minute to watch it for the first time and then come back.
First of all, did you see the black cloaked figure on the white horse (Horseman of the Apocalypse)? The guy who falls from the 2nd floor? The people running in the background? Or were you just distracted by Glover’s mugging for the camera? Yeah, me too. Totally suckered. He’s making a comment about media, popular culture, and how it all can distract us so much that we don’t even see what’s right before our eyes.
Reaction from the Black Community
And here I’ll stop to say that I’m white. I have no place saying anything about how he’s commenting on Black America or gun violence. That’s not my story, and I’m not gonna steal anyone’s stage. There are some REALLY great commentaries out there, though. Let me point you to a few:
- Awesomely Luvvie:
She wrote a whole blog post about it. Before that though, she processed it with her followers on Facebook and I really recommend reading the comments there as well.
“Essentially, Donald is playing the character of a minstrel, throughout this video. The one people accuse of “shucking and jiving” is the one whose perspective carries us through this video. As we are mistreated, beaten and killed, we’re expected to just grin an bear it…. It’s the “I know this is how you see me. Let me REALLY show you that.” America has allowed us to be defined in such shallow terms, and Gambino takes it on.
[The] kids in uniforms… don’t miss a beat of his dancing, cuz they’ve been watching him and follow his every move…. and they are in lockstep with him. Is he saying the current generation is unbothered with anything that isn’t this? Is he saying we are feeding them mostly junk and leaving them no room for the real?” – Awesomely Luvvie
- Abiola Oke:
“It’s hard not to draw a parallel between Glover’s ‘This Is America’ and Kanye West’s public rants about the state of black America. Both artists plead to an audience to come to conscious terms about its predicament, but with the latter forgetting which medium he’s been most effective in doing so or even who his audience is, this is where Glover shines, using music and motion in narrative form to address social issues without alienating his audience.” – Abiola Oke
Are you still craving more discussion (I was!)? Then step over to Colorlines’s collection of tweets from black critics and artists, including filmmaker Justin Simien (of “Dear White People”) and Author and journalist Ijeoma Oluo (“So You Want to Talk about Race”).
You also should just go to YouTube and watch the Black vloggers real-time reaction videos. Their facial expressions at the first surprise, and then their evolving reactions afterwards after are everything.
In particular, I loved what vlogger Sierra Dee had to say:
- Sierra Dee:
“I don’t know how to describe how it made me feel. With all the bloodshed. With all the innocent, talented, blessed people dying in cold blood, guilty of nothing. The people that are in the limelight and have attention are bragging about what they’ve got…. That video made me feel… that America is selfish…. That terrible things can happen and they just move right on from it, scoop it under the rug.” – Sierra Dee
The Power of Art as Social Critique
One reader on Awesomely Luvvie’s Facebook page commented:
“I know as an older white woman I can only understand around the edges. But it doesn’t take much to be able to say this is IMPORTANT. And beautiful. And terrible. It’s art.”
I agree. As a white woman I can only understand around the edges of all that Glover is trying to say. But it’s clear that he’s layering history lessons.
Here’s some symbolisms collected from all the commentaries I read:
- The pose he strikes right at the beginning is reminiscent of old Jim Crow minstrel posters?
- His clothing choice–tan, button-fly pants, bare feet–are exactly the same as those as Kinta Kinte‘s clothing in Roots, and similar to those of many Africans brought to the auction block. And are we to then draw a conclusion from the two chains around his neck?
- The massacred church choir is clearly a reference to the churchgoers killed in Charleston, South Carolina.
- The 80’s cars–a call back to the 1980’s when Reaganism hit the Black communities hard and the whole War on Drugs and the incarceration of black males escalated? All to the lyrics of “Black man get yer money”? A critique on the materialism when not one of those cars pictured is one of the usual baller-type luxury cars usually seen in videos? Or a reference to the type of cars where Philando Castile and others were shot?
- The gun is neatly wrapped and removed after every time he uses it. And yet the bodies are dragged away or abandoned. And people run from him when he pretends to use a gun. The real guns are protected more than the black bodies, and the African-American man with the fake gun terrifies everyone?
- And the people on the 2nd level who are filming everything going on with their cell phones but not intervening or reacting to all the violence? And the line “this a celly / that’s a tool”? Is that a reference to Stephon Clark, who was shot holding a cell phone? Or is he saying it’s a tool to document wrongs?
He’s using his art to comment on our society on multiple levels. Levels that will spark discussions for weeks to come.
Already some artists are taking his video as a critique on their own professional choices. Or at least as a discussion of the pressure put on black artists to entertain and at the same time not comment on the inequalities they see.
scars of consumerist culture in order to make art, or risk being bound to the basement as a consequence for having the audacity to stay myself. Now I feel compelled to stare deeply into the dog and pony show of black popular culture through black culture with This Is America.
— Justin Simien (@JSim07) May 7, 2018
culture designed to strip us of all its trappings, even the ones he directly benefits from. I feel so grateful and alive because of his work. Keep putting us on trial brother.
— Justin Simien (@JSim07) May 7, 2018
“No matter what tragedies we go through, we dance through them. It’s both a coping mechanism and a shame. I think Donald is saying that the things we do to be able to deal with this world also don’t allow us to fully comprehend what is happening to and around us…. we move because maybe we’re afraid that if we stop, so does our fight…. Black joy is a form of resistance in a world that loves Black pain but where is the room for the fight if we want to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil?” – Awesomely Luvvie
This where art and activism intersect. Glover has pulled images from our collective subconscious and pasted them together. He has drawn lines between those images with historical references, and then he leaves it to us to decide if we like what we see.
Strong art asks us to reflect on our society, and from those discussions activism for change is born.
Glover’s Message to America
I agree with the assessment that this was a piece made by a Black man for the Black community. The cultural references are too thick, the history is too deep for it to be anything else. White folks, this is not our discussion happening. This is the time for us to sit down, shut up, and just listen.
However, Sierra Dee also made a really good point: he released this at the same time that he went live on Saturday Night Live. SNL’s audience is notoriously white. That meant that a lot of people–probably white folks–who had never heard of him before would Google him, and find this video.
If “This is America” was to created a conversation within the Black community, he also intentionally positioned it in such a way as to make sure that the rest of the nation witnessed and paid attention to Black folks’ conversation. In that sense he made this incendiary piece of art to spark conversation not just within the Black community, but for all of America. (Note: Dear white folks, that still means we should shut up and listen first, then just talk amongst ourselves and not bother Black folks while they’re processing this, m’kay?)
Well, we’ll talk about it at least until the next shiny thing passes our vision and we get distracted. But he knows this. He told us so in the video. He made it shocking enough that we wouldn’t get re-distracted for at least a few hot minutes. He hit us with so much imagery that we literally could not take it all in at once. We had to keep clicking to get it all.
In “This is America” there’s too much going on to keep up. Because that’s America, too.
Donald Glover knows the game, and he’s playing it for all it’s worth.
Bringing it Home
So what do you think, friends?
Activist art is designed to inspire action. So where are your thoughts leading you? Did Donald Glover’s work teach you any new lessons? Or did it make you reflect on on old truths? Tell me in the comments!