Racial injustice, ignorance, escapism, consumerism, and a hypnotizing beat.
“This Is America” is the first music video released by Childish Gambino, since he released “Sober” in January of 2015. That’s a full three years. If Gambino’s 2016 album, Awaken, My Love!, was a hard pivot from his previous work, then “This Is America” is a complete rebuilding of who we understand Childish Gambino to be as an artist.
The song starts with an acoustic guitar paired with shakers, body percussion, and entrancing hums from background singers and even more entrancing singing from Glover. However, this entrancement is broken by the sound of a gun being fired. The song then bridges into a much dingier and intense atmosphere. Glover begins rapping, a reverbed, hypnotizing beat accompanied with trap adlibs fills your ears and your chest until the entrancement returns with a very joyful choir starts singing, “Go get your money, black man!” This is ended, again, with a gunshot and return to the intense trap-inspired beat.
The gunshot motifs and the constant tug of war between cheerful and drab aren’t coincidental. Apart from the song having this tug of war, standard beat-switches, and tonal changes that many hip-hop songs do, these changes are also relevant to what Glover is saying with the song, not just what sound of the song is.
The cultural significance of “This Is America” by Childish Gambino goes well beyond the walls of hip-hop and punches many of those not conscious of America’s many, many injustices right in the mouth.
Before I get into the importance of the video, here’s a tweet talking about many of the underlying messages that Glover includes.
Childish Gambino is a genius. A thread of all the imagery in This Is America:
— LK (@thelocalemo) May 7, 2018
Glover addresses the issue of America’s idolization of guns and disregard for violence against people of color. In the video, after a black man is shot in the head, the murder weapon is wrapped in red cloth and carefully disposed of, whereas the man is dragged away without any sympathy, all the while the words This is America // Don’t catch you slippin’ up are repeated. Then, as Glover and his group dance and groove their way through a warehouse, there’s rampancy in the background. Perhaps this is a nod to using entertainment as an escape from reality and the numbness felt when distracted.
There’s a transition and we see a cheerful choir singing and praising a black man for getting his money; a happy moment, quickly soiled by Glover firing an automatic rifle into the choir, brutally murdering every singer. The imagery is strong, but it’s also a parallel of many parts of America accepting and celebrating black culture, but many other parts shunning people of color and doing little else except something detrimental to people just because they look different.
Gambino then goes on to highlight and challenge the larger hip-hop community around him. He references drugs, illegal weapons, and stacks of money while using adlibs
from the same rappers who glorify these same items in their music. The ironic use of rappers like 21 Savage, Quavo, Blocboy JB, and Slim Jxmmi used in the verse is not lost on me.
The final stretch of the song combines both the uplifting, acoustic and the intense, dreary versions of the song. Not only does this sound great, but it emphasizes that these two sides of America are inseparable. The song then goes to Young Thug’s intro, stripping away any harmony the song had and isolating Thugger and Glover. The final scene is Glover running away from dozens of people in terror. It’s a chilling and thrilling end to an even more thrilling and chilling song.
It’s important that music like “This Is America” continues to surface into the mainstream. Without it, we lose a valuable lens to view real turmoil through. The lens is viewing something frightening and entertaining at the same time and the perspective granted from that is invaluable.