Entertainment Opinion US Politics

Childish Gambino’s “This is America”: Explained

Written by Atharva Patwardhan

Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, is an American comedian, actor and musician. In May 2018, he released the music video for his song “This is America”, which shortly became a cultural phenomenon and gained 55 million views within just four days of its release. The music video gained 12.9 million views within the first 24 hours and the reason for its quick growth was due to it showcasing the topics of race and gun violence in America. The music video features Gambino and is meant to highlight the issues present in modern America like gun violence, race and how media, news and entertainment affects these. As the video progresses, Gambino has added in numerous amounts of subliminal messaging and references to historical events, portrayed either by his character or by the setting of the video and more. Many music artists or people in the entertainment industry, nowadays, have made music, TV programmes or movies, relating to big political issues like these in an effect to show how unfairly POC are treated and about the history and oppression underlying it. Gambino is no exception and takes the matter into his own hands with his music video, perfectly designed for the occasion.

Start and character:

The start of the music video starts with a black man, played by Calvin the Second, sitting down at a chair playing a guitar. The shot moves past and focuses on Gambino with his back to the camera. He is wearing, what looks to be, grey confederate trousers which are a possible reference to the confederate clothing worn during the American civil war. The colour grey, was generally the colour that the soldiers had to wear, and this is a possible subtle reference added in. He is also wearing two gold chains on his neck, possibly in reference to physical bondage and obsession with consumerism. He dances, towards the black man, with an exaggerated and overemphasised facial expression and body movements. This was a possible reference to a Jim Crow like caricature which was used in blackface performances in the 1800 and 1900s.

The black man no longer has his guitar and has a bag placed over his head to which Gambino brings out a gun and shoots him in the head. 

Problem: Distraction by media

Gambino is seen dancing with other young people as the video progresses as to reference how entertainment and media distract others from big issues that are occurring. At the start, the lyrics “We just want the money, money just for you […] Girl, you got me dancin’, dance and shake the frame”, is supposed to represent the true intention of the media companies as they are only focused on prying money from the customers and causing a distraction. The “girl” is supposed to be America and “shake the frame” means to distort and blur the real-life issues that are taking place in modern America. The violence in the background is not much in focus as the viewer tends to look at Gambino and the dancers, symbolising how the media distracts people from the issues. The dancing (aka, the entertainment industry) is distracting people from the riots and chaos in the background (aka, the problems we have today in America).

The young dancers in the video are seen with Gambino, performing dance routines and one such notable example is the Gwara Gwara, which originated in South Africa. This is a possible nod to the similarities of racism in America and the Apartheid in South Africa which existed from 1948 until the early 1990s. The dancing has also been noted by some as to be a form of survival as they dance with Gambino, portraying America and are never injured amongst the pandemonium occurring in the background. 

It can also be a form of numbing pain in light of big problems to make people more comfortable instead of addressing the problems head on and gain social media followers for people in the industry looking to profit off of these problems.

Some have stated that black culture is appreciated without many people knowing its underlying history or the problems black people face. A real problem that not just America faces, but the whole world.

Problem: Gun violence

After Gambino shoots the man, he hands the gun to a person with a red cloth while the body of the man is dragged off the screen. The gun is handled with care while the victim isn’t given any respect. This portrays how America values guns over human lives and how gun violence is an epidemic in the country. The black choir is seen to be happy and cheerful just before Gambino shoots them, providing a shock to the viewer and a hopeful realisation about gun violence in America. The scene draws similarities to the Charleston Church shooting in which a white supremacist called Dylan Roof killed nine African Americans on June 17, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. 

Black Americans receive harsh and lethal care at the hands of law enforcement and the recent killing of George Floyd by a white police officer demonstrates how prevalent America’s race problem is and how corrupt the police department is in the country. Multiple POC have died from the treatment of white people, whether it is from the police or not, and America and the world, are outraged as large protests took place in the country and around the world after the death of George Floyd.

End and Others:

The lyrics “This a celly, that’s a tool”, is said by Gambino while the camera move to a shot of people on their phones, overlooking what is happening. This could have two meanings. This could mean that people on their phones are documenting and recording the big problems that America has or “celly” could be a world for “cellblock”, a tool used to keep black people in an endless cycle of incarceration.

Gambino, near the end, is seen dancing on and surrounded by old, boxy American cars from the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s to represent how America doesn’t progress and doesn’t care about its big problems and how America acts the same as it did in the past with no real change being brought today.

At the end scene, Gambino is seen running away, as fast he can with a scared and shocked expression on his face while people are chasing him in the background. This symbolises how he has broken out of his “trance” and is trying to escape America’s ways and ultimately find a way out. His running is reminiscent of Blacks having to run away to survive and avoid being killed while Young Thug’s lyrics, “You just a black man in this world. You just a barcode, ayy”, is playing. Gambino is just trying to survive by running and one song dating back to slavery in the 19th century was called “Run N****, Run”possibly references this moment at the end of the video.

Childish Gambino has skilfully added to the genre of music, relating to political issues, race, gun violence and more, with his “This is America” video. Many like POC like Gambino are trying to educate one another and thus are trying to make creative and insightful content to which people enjoy and most importantly, learn from. “This is America” is no exception and encompasses what modern America suffers and needs to learn from, to which Gambino and his team have executed perfectly.

About the author

Atharva Patwardhan

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