A breakdown of Childish Gambino’s new single, 'This Is America'
On Sunday, May 6, Donald Glover, also known by his rap name, Childish Gambino, debuted the music video for the first single from his new album. The song, which he released the day after his “Saturday Night Live” performance, is titled “This Is America.” The complicated imagery of the song’s accompanying music video powerfully highlights the provocative symbolism of his lyrics, which make political statements about the role of blackness in America.
Glover’s video is initially upbeat and joyful. A black man walks into the frame and sits in a chair to play the guitar, a choir singing in the background as he does. The camera sweeps over his shoulder as he strums, and a shirtless Childish Gambino, his back to us, comes into view.
Gambino turns to face us as the sound of his vocals rings in the background; He sings, “We just want to 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 dancing, dance and shake the frame.” As the light, cheerful strum of the guitar accompanied by the choir’s voices continues, Gambino dances in the direction of the guitar player, making a series of strange facial expressions as he rhythmically moves and twists his body.
Suddenly, Gambino stops behind the guitarist’s chair, revealing that the musician is now empty handed, and a bag covers his head. Gambino casually pulls out a gun and shoots the guitarist in the back of the head. The tempo of the music violently and rapidly changes to a much heavier, slower beat and Gambino immediately turns to his audience and says, “This is America.” He then proceeds to hand the gun off to a uniformed man holding out a red cloth to carefully take the gun from him, so he can continue dance toward us empty-handed. The cautious handling of the gun is contrasted by the black victim’s body being quickly dragged away on the other.
This sequence, which features only black men, clearly references the American obsession with caring more about the safety of firearms than the safety of black Americans. The rest of the dark chorus, which Gambino continues to rap while walking away, reminds the audience, “This is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ up / Don’t catch you slippin’ up / Look what I’m whippin’ up.” The lyrics seem to remind the black community in particular that because they are living in America, they cannot be caught “slipping up” or making mistakes because it could cost them their lives.
As the music video continues, Gambino keeps dancing in an exaggerated, cheerful way in spite of the ominous tone set by the gun violence and additional acts of violence that occur in the background while Gambino sings; a man appears to be chased, a car with people hanging out the window drives by. These acts are either unbeknownst to Gambino or simply ignored, as he is joined by four school children who dance with him, also somehow immune to the surrounding violence. As these depictions of urban gun violence and police brutality are illustrated in the background, Gambino and the uniformed students keep dancing, and Gambino raps, “Look at how I’m livin’ now / Police be trippin’ now / Yeah, this is America / Guns in my area / I got the strap / I gotta carry ’em.” speaking to both. These lyrics highlight that crime and danger, both due to the possession of guns in high-crime areas and armed police officers, force people to carry guns as well for their own protection. In the line, “Look at how I’m livin’ now,” Gambino suggests that even though he is now more privileged than most, his existence in a black body in America keeps him unsafe — unless, of course, he continues to dance and put on a show to entertain the biggest threat to his life: America itself.
In the next frame, the choir again cheerily sings and enthusiastically dances as Gambino enters, dancing toward the camera. Once he gets close to the lens, however, his smile fades, he is tossed a large machine gun, then he massacres the choir. This mass murder is reminiscent of the 2015 Charleston church shooting, in which a white nationalist terrorist shot up a black church, killing nine and wounding 10 — the same number of people in Gambino’s choir. As chaos ensues post-shooting, Gambino walks away and once again raps, “This is America.”
Gambino and the school children then continue to dance, this time with an elevated level of violence in the background; crowds run behind them, police cars burn. As this destruction plays out, Gambino raps, “I’m so pretty / I’m gon’ get it / Watch me move / This is a celly / That’s a tool.” The “celly” here seems to refer to how cellphones possessed by black people have been mistaken as “tools” for violence. In several cases of police brutality, including those of Stephon Clark and Rekia Boyd, police officers fatally shot black people who they assumed were holding guns when they were really only holding their phones. These words also reveal another meaning to his dancing: It not only entertains America, and therefore protects the entertainer, but also distracts from the violence that continues to endanger the lives of the black community. Gambino urges us to watch him move rather than look behind him and see the horrors going unnoticed.
The song then launches into a repetition of a chant repeated throughout the song: “Get your money, black man.” The encouraging phrase again speaks to the theme of distraction, highlighting the fact that the pursuit of money, particularly by black men, who have been historically deprived of financial stability and therefore social mobility, can often be used as a way to distract them from the systems oppressing them. By insisting that economic success will free them from all oppression, the black community’s focus can be directed at making money rather than challenging the institutions that make economic success disproportionately difficult.
Afterward, the camera moves closer to Gambino, who is extending his arms as if holding a gun, although nothing is in his hands. After a silent pause, he lowers his arms and pulls out a joint, which he lights up as he walks away. With this, the cheery choir music starts back up and the black guitarist from the beginning returns. He plays the guitar again, but the bag is now still over his head. Gambino walks past him, climbs on top of an old car and dances again. The camera zooms out, revealing several old, inexpensive cars, noticeably different than the luxury cars typical of rap videos.
As the song begins to fade, the frame dissipates into a new scene. The previously enthusiastic and animated Gambino is now running out of the darkness, chased by a group of white men, clearly terrified for his life. As he desperately runs, rapper Young Thug sings the outro, “You just a black man / You just a barcode,” revealing that even after all the distracting (dancing) and killing (shooting the guitarist and the choir) Gambino did for America, he is still being hunted and he is still in danger. Because he is black, he will always be in danger.
Childish Gambino’s song comes at interesting time in the rap community. Fellow rapper Kanye West released his new single, “Ye vs. the People,” on April 27, only a little over a week after defending his support of President Donald Trump. Kanye’s recent comments about being a black Trump supporter sparked a great amount of discussion in the hip-hop and black communities around black identity in America. “This Is America” offers a radically different perspective from Kanye’s. Childish Gambino’s thought-provoking, brilliant music video makes a point about the value of black bodies in American society, and how when they aren’t being put to use as entertaining caricatures, they are being subjected to violence and brutality. By giving an honest portrait of the black American experience, Gambino satisfies the black community’s search for a real voice in hip-hop.
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