Childish Gambino: ‘This is America’ – Donald Glover sends shockwave through US

On ‘This is America’, Glover lays out the nature of racial prejudice, police brutality and gun lust

Chilling dissection of gun violence and racism: Childish Gambino in the video for This Is America. Photograph: RCA Records:

Chilling dissection of gun violence and racism: Childish Gambino in the video for This Is America. Photograph: RCA Records:

 

It opens with handwritten text sloppily scrawled over a pitch-black screen. This title reads: This is America. Who could encapsulate such a nation in the doomed year of 2018? Enter Childish Gambino, aka actor-musician-director Donald Glover, who in a 244-second rap video encapsulates the racial prejudice, police brutality and gun lust lacerating the flesh and chilling the soul of the good ol’ U S of A.

This is America video racked up more than 10 million views in the 24 hours after it was released.

Hip-hop and its role as one of Black America’s loudest voices speaking truth to power has recently endured some moments that felt like citrus applied to a wound. Kendrick Lamar had just found a spot on his mantelpiece for the Pulitzer Prize collected for his thrilling state of the nation DAMN. when Kanye West emerged from a self-imposed exile to court some malevolent forces and voice an anti-historical and offensive recontextualisation of slavery. Now here comes Glover, showcasing new reaches of his broad artistry at at time when many felt they needed it the most.

The distance between the West and Glover’s recent music isn’t just the gap between two political positions. As a fan, it’s been heartbreaking to see Kanye’s thought process on latest song Ye Vs The People, quickly recorded collaboration with rapper TI, as scattered and confusing as his hyperactive Twitter feed. Glover is not as talented an artist as West but here he presents a trenchant, cohesive statement that pulses with passion and intensity. It was West who once reverberated the words of Gil Scott Heron: “Who will survive in America?” On This is America, Glover lays out the brutal nature of that survival.

Shot in a warehouse that’s as stark as it is architecturally fetching, the video begins with Glover twisting and gyrating his body to a chirpy, good-humoured melody before the breeziness is broken by gun violence as he pulls out a pistol and fires a bullet into the skull of an innocent, hooded figure. His performance from there appears to mirror the racist caricature deployed by white performers in old minstrel shows, all forced smiles and dramatic facial expressions.

In one particularly striking moment, Glover embodies America’s love affair with violence by machine-gunning an entire choir , evoking memories of the 2015 Charleston church shooting, when white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African-Americans.

With symbolism stacked on symbolism, This is America requires deep dissection. Twitter threads have drawn attention to every expertly plotted motif. The image of death riding a pale white horse with cops in tow may take multiple rewatches to pick up, going totally unnoticed behind the fantastic pageantry of the groovy dance steps popping off in the foreground. It’s a reminder of Black America’s pain that often goes unacknowledged by those happy to embrace its popular culture.

Having so many moving parts might overwhelm the senses but it works because Glover understands the internet and how major music videos can seep into the Western cultural fabric through endless screenshots, memes and gifs. If you believe in art’s ability to change the world, this is the new-age way.

Directed by Hiro Murai, the video is a technical wonder, but the technique doesn’t distract from the message. In the centre of all the carefully choreographed glory is Glover himself. Unkempt and shirtless, he jerks his body around the cavernous set – the force of his performance is enough to liquefy granite. This image reminded me of the famous Esquire magazine cover of Muhammad Ali with a torso full of arrows. Inspired by Andrea Mantegna’s 1480 painting of St Sebastian, it was shot in the aftermath of Ali’s 1967 conviction for refusing to fight in Vietnam. His martyrdom was sealed. Here, Glover stands ready to be struck down. It is the encapsulation of the great power of pop recital.

Even if you cull the song of its cutting video, it’s still an affecting piece of music. Glover’s rapping on This is America is simple and to the point, requiring no bobs, weaves or feints to drive home its message. “This is America/ Don’t catch you slippin’ up,” he spits, laying out the small margin of error black men face in a systematically racist society. He alludes to police brutality before moving onto America’s obsession with firearms: “Guns in my area… I gotta carry ‘em.” The heavy bass and clattering drum beat press down on Glover, ratcheting up the song’s sense of danger and paranoia.

The video ends with the star in a panicked sprint, evoking an image of what many internet commenters have likened to “The Sunken Place” from the movie Get Out. This provides a neat touching point of recent Black artistic excellence. It’s Childish Gambino’s cosmic funk song Redbone that plays over the opening credits of Jordan Peele’s satirical horror classic.

That I spotted Glover on YouTube over a decade ago and tipped him for future stardom is something I smugly wear as a badge of pride. He parlayed his role on internet sketch comedy group Derrick Comedy into the role of Troy Barnes on the sitcom Community. Right now he writes, directs, produces and stars in the excellent rap-themed dramedy Atlanta, a show that lays out the distance between the carrot called The American Dream and those at the other end of the stick. Taking up the role of Lando Calrissian in the soon to be released Solo: A Star Wars Story will only increase his visibility. 

Donald Glover during the opening monologue of Saturday Night Live. Photograph: Will Heath/NBC
Donald Glover during the opening monologue of Saturday Night Live. Photograph: Will Heath/NBC

As screen careers go, it’s been a pretty solid upward trajectory. In the background, Glover’s music career has always seemed like a low-stakes side project. Even the name Childish Gambino required zero thought – Glover simply lifted it from an online Wu-Tang name generator. Using the moniker, he’s sometimes made dinky rap songs. Other times he’s drawn from Drake’s sensitive, melodic style. Whatever the case, Glover has followed his own proclivities as though content to make music just for himself. 2016’s Awaken, My Love! might have been his best received full-length so far, but its throwback funk sounds played like a personal, if dead-on, exercise in retro revivalism.

There was an interesting ripple to last weekend’s Glover-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live. He was there ostensibly to launch new music but one particular sketch accidentally provided a symbolic moment of evolution and it wasn’t the skit that went in two-footed on Kanye. No, I’m talking about Glover, in the role of 1980s loverman artist Raz P Berry, singing a parody R&B jam that recalls the likes of Oran “Juice” Jones, Freddie Jackson and Teddy Pendergrass. He later performed two of his own songs, including This Is America. The costume change felt like the end of music being a part-time concern and a permanent shift into the role of serious A-list musical star.

As a placeholder image to connect SNL segments, Glover also recreated the cover of Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album Music of My Mind, linking him to a vital era of Black American expression. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Solange Knowles and Childish Gambino represent the continuum of the trenchant social criticisms of 1960s and 1970s legends such as Wonder, Gil Scott Heron and Curtis Mayfield. These stars lived through segregation, discrimination and the civil rights movement, altering the fabric of a nation with their spirit of justice and morality. In this new era, Glover has positioned himself as a key lieutenant in a modern fight. He’s a maturing artist who has cocooned himself in with his nation’s demons.

What will emerge might well be something beautiful.

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