This is America clearly struck a chord with this generation. But is there more to the character played by Donald Glover than meets the eye? We’ll look at the symbolism of This is America and its significance in today’s social climate.
After over 100 million YouTube views in less than a week and intense media attention, it is safe to say that This is America has reached the enviable status of “cultural phenomenon”. Combining violent imagery with interpretative dance, the video conveys a message that is clear, yet ambiguous, obvious, yet enigmatic. It holds a mirror up to a popular culture that is in crisis and a new black pride movement rebirthing from an utterly toxic womb.
Not unlike today’s social climate, the video is tense, acerbic, and punctuated with acts of senseless violence. Taking place inside an abandoned warehouse the video celebrates – yet also criticizes – black America in a world that feels increasingly like a claustrophobic madhouse.
The music, the lyrics, and the visual imagery of the video all deal in duality. This is America reflects on what is wrong in America today while perpetuating it, denounces senseless violence while normalizing it, and reclaims America while renouncing it.
At the center of this cultural phenomenon is Donald Glover, a multi-talented artist who is best known for his various roles in TV shows such as Community and movies such as the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story. Glover’s previous dabblings in the music world – under the stage name Childish Gambino – had generated a mostly lukewarm response from the music world. Many critics felt that his lyrical delivery was unconvincing and that Glover was too “Hollywood” to be taken seriously as a rapper.
However, it is exactly Glover’s Hollywood experience that gives This is America its mesmerizing, yet unsettling quality. The character he plays – a shirtless, heavily bearded, and somewhat unhinged man – is entertaining, yet deeply disturbing. He does all kinds of cool dance moves, he raps all kinds of cool rhymes – but also he kills people. His own people.
It is indeed Glover’s acting talents that give the video its attention-grabbing quality. Everything in the video is precisely choreographed, right down to Glover’s facial expressions. For this reason, the viewers quickly understand that there’s a “distance” between Donald Glover and the role he plays in This is America. The emotions portrayed are not natural and genuine, they are theatrical. Glover is playing yet another role. But what role is he actually playing?
Since its release, the video has been subject to endless interpretations. Is Glover playing the role – as many have theorized – of America itself? While the people behind the video refused to spell out what the video’s meaning, one of the clip’s producers, Ibra Ake, told NPR:
“I don’t think we are as cerebral or as calculated as people think. Our goal is to normalize blackness.”
Indeed, the video normalizes some images and concepts. While various commentators ascribed all kinds of meanings to every detail found in the video, they ended up missing the most obvious messages. Indeed, what if the truth was simpler? What if Glover embodied a caricatural version of what he actually is: An entertainer. More precisely, an entertainer who is owned by the powers that be and who is used to hinder and destabilize black America. Let’s look at the video.
Is This America?
The video begins with a black man grabbing a guitar and singing a happy, hopeful melody.
We just wanna party
Party just for you
We just want the money
Money just for you
I know you wanna party
Party just for me
Girl, you got me dancin’ (yeah, girl, you got me dancin’)
Dance and shake the frame
When the camera pans back to the guitar player, his guitar is gone and he is hooded. He’s about to be executed.
Gambino’s oddly contorted position is reminiscent of classic depictions of Jim Crow.
Jim Crow was a “black” theatrical entertainer who perpetuated stereotypes destructive to black people. Not unlike Gambino’s character.
Once Gambino shoots the man in the head, the mood changes drastically. The happy and joyful music switches to a hectic, bass-heavy, almost nauseating beat as Gambino raps: “This is America”.
When shooting the singing black man, Gambino kills a pure and wholesome element of black culture and replaces it with a pastiche of modern rap, complete with cliché lines and various buzzwords.
This is America (skrrt, skrrt, woo)
Don’t catch you slippin’ now (ayy)
Look at how I’m livin’ now
Police be trippin’ now (woo)
Yeah, this is America (woo, ayy)
Guns in my area (word, my area)
I got the strap (ayy, ayy)
I gotta carry ’em
While many perceive Gambino character to be an embodiment of America itself, the fact remains that the video blatantly depicts the concept of “black-on-black” violence. And, while the rap verse can be interpreted as a criticism of gangsta rap, it also perpetuates this exact thing.
The second chorus is performed by a gospel choir. Once again, Gambino puts an abrupt end to the choir’s soulful and cheerful chants.
Many have interpreted this scene as a reference to the mass shooting of a church by white supremacist Dylan Roof. While this is a possibility, there is more to this shocking scene.
Again, Gambino is the one who shoots down the choir, in the same nonchalant way he shot the guitar player in the head. Once again, we witness the violent takedown of a wholesome part of black culture. Throughout the history of America, churches have been a cornerstone of black communities, with Sunday services serving as a weekly gathering of local people sharing common values. This profound blend of spirituality and community lead many church leaders to become some of the most influential and outspoken leaders of black America.
By shooting down the choir, Gambino – a black celebrity who is part of the elite entertainment system – symbolically shoots down a pillar of the black community, while rapping, once again, “This is America”. The violent, nihilistic, decadent, and materialistic values of pop culture clashes and “competes” with the spiritual and community-driven influence of gospel churches. For this reason, it needs to be (figuratively) shot down.
There is something insidiously perverse about the choir scene. While, on the first watch, the scene is shocking and off-putting, repeated watches normalize this horrific scene of “people of God” being murdered while singing. Sonically, when the shooting occurs, the music switches from high-pitch voices to a bass-heavy beat, which is a somewhat satisfying auditory experience. Therefore, those who watch the video repeatedly actually anticipate the shooting and, unconsciously, end up enjoying it.
Following the mass shooting, a riot ensues behind Gambino, as people run around and cars burn down. The second verse continues with rap clichés, successively alluding to brand name clothes, making money through drug deals, and shooting down opponents.
So, the same person who shot down the church choir (and got away with it) is now distracting viewers with trendy dance moves and rap lines. School children dance around him because elite-owned celebrities are greatly influential over young people.
Is the horseman a reference to the white horse of the Apocalypse? The book of Revelation says:
“And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.”
– Revelation 6:2
While Gambino distracts the school children and the viewers with dance moves, everyone ignores the white horseman, biblical symbol foreshadowing war and death.
After the chaos, Gambino lights up a joint and starts dancing.
On the left is the guitar player who got shot in the head at the beginning of the video, apparently still alive, though hooded. Although Gambino (representing the industry and its pawns) murdered this wholesome symbol of black America at the beginning of the video, that influence is sometimes needed. But only if it is symbolically hooded and subject to the elite’s rule.
The girl on the right is SZA, a new industry favorite. Interesting fact: Both Donald Glover and SZA were at the 2018 Met Gala, which was an elite industry gathering.
Why is Gambino so scared and why do these angry people end up chasing him? Is this the fate of those who sell out to the industry and end up going against their own people? Because, as we continually see, once the industry is done with the sell-outs, it usually gets rid of them.
This is America has the merit of sparking debate and inciting reflection. The video’s intense use of symbolism combined with an open-ended conclusion lead to a plethora of interpretations, and even an all-out hunt for “hidden details”.
However, the main message of the video is not hidden. It is right in our faces. It is actually so in-your-face that some feel the need to ascribe obscure references its most disturbing scenes to rationalize them.
While many theorize that Gambino embodies America as a whole, the odd, shirtless character starring in the video is clearly an entertainer. From the reference to Jim Crow to the dancing and the rapping, the character is deep in black culture while being harmful to his own people. He symbolically shoots down deep-rooted elements of folklore and spirituality to bring about a new culture based vain, materialistic and self-destructive values.
For this reason, one must be wary of celebrities who claim to be “woke” while being under contract with major labels that are owned by the most powerful conglomerates in the world. Their message is contrived, their artistic freedom is limited and, if some kind of social criticism is allowed, it’s because it serves the interests of those who sign the checks. Right now it is all about division: Division between races, sexes and political leanings. Divide and conquer is still a valid strategy. Many of those who claim to be “woke” are actually owned by those who are looking to put you to sleep … while claiming “This is America”.