As if we weren’t already convinced that this man was from another universe spewing with creative genius, Donald Glover has once again blessed us with another brainchild of his seemingly endless talent. Of course, it wasn’t enough to perfect acting, directing, rapping or stand-up comedy, but now, Gambino has felt the need to prove his skill in music video production as well. And the world was not ready.
In the masterpiece of a video for his new single “This is America,” Gambino surpasses all music-video expectations and offers a social commentary on the black experience in America. Typically, when one pictures a rap video, I’m not sure if social commentaries are the first thing that comes to mind. So, Gambino’s production was a breath of fresh air that the hip-hop community didn’t even know it needed. The video takes a poignant look at the role of black culture and entertainment in the scene of increasing violence, particularly, gun violence. How Gambino managed to shove a lifetime’s worth of commentary into four minutes is a yet another showcase of his unbelievable talent. Needless to say, you already know we had to break down this cacophony of genius-ness for those who may have missed one of the many references jam packed in this perfection.
First things first, contrary to popular belief, the first actor seen on screen is not the notable figure in the black community, Tracy Martin, father of Trayvon Martin, but actually West Coast musician Calvin “Calvin the II” Winbush. The video opens with a shot of Winbush peacefully playing the guitar before shifting to Gambino, who is shown dancing with exaggerated facial expressions in a manner many noted resembled the inaccurate portrayal of black people prevalent during the Jim Crow era of black face and publicized stereotyping.
Gambino then draws a gun and shoots Winbush, instantly shifting the tone of the video with the single statement "This is America," revealing the harsh reality of this country and peaking interest, complimented by the instantaneous shift from melodic tribal singing to trap beats. In this scene, notice how the body of Winbush is seemingly forgotten and not treated with much care or regard, while the gun is placed on a red cloth(Republican party reference, maybe?) and treated with more care than the actual dead human body. Many believe that this is a nod to organizations like the NRA and other staunch supporters of gun rights’ high regard for tools of mass destruction, prioritized over the safety of actual human beings.
The video continues as Gambino is joined by a group of black school children who initiate a dance circle of sorts, their portrayal of popular dance moves the center focus of the scene. However, when one is to look behind the dancing and gimmicks, you can see rioting and violent altercations hidden in the background. The juxtaposition between the violent rioting and the joyous dancing that appears to be obscuring the disruption hints at how when looking at the black community, our culture tends to be used to overshadow the actual issues plaguing the community.
People are much more willing to take part in a new black dance move than acknowledge and recognize the meaning behind our rioting. The dancing is also perceived as a coping mechanism by some, who suggested that perhaps Gambino is saying we use our culture as a way to vent with what’s occurring around us. Whether it’s a distraction or a coping mechanism, either way, the dancing is obstructing viewers from the truth, which is the rage and injustice facing the black community.
At this point, you may be thinking surely this is more than enough for an adequate commentary, what more could he possibly have to say? Ah, yes, but thing is, Gambino is not an adequate man, and as with everything else he does, he must go above and beyond.
This takes us into our next scene where a black choir is shown singing and dancing, before being gunned down with a semi-automatic rifle by Gambino himself. Just like the first shooting of an innocent black body, Gambino follows the massacre with the phrase, “This is America,” suggesting that the meaningless killing of black men and women is the cold hard truth of what to expect in America. Gambino also treats the weapon with the same gentle care, while instantly turning his back on and abandoning the victims. The scene rings strikingly similar to the Charleston massacre where nine black church members were killed in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Once again, Gambino is nodding to the senseless killing of black bodies, who are soon forgotten for the sake of first amendment rights that seemingly hold more value than human bodies.
Gambino furthers his extrospective journey by continuing to use dancing as a mask, covering the rioting that has grown in the background. In his line “This a celly / This a tool,” stated after panning up to a group of young people filming on their phones, Gambino also hints at the growing role of cell phones in the age of police brutality, where more and more occurrences are caught on tape and shared online, utilized as a tool to shine light on injustice. An alternate perspective interprets the term “celly” as a reference to mass incarceration, where jail cells are used a tool, or method, of ruining the black community. This also correlates with the setting of the video, which does seem to resemble that of a jail cell.
By dancing right amidst the chaos, Gambino and the school children seem to be unaware of the violence occurring around them, as if their culture has created a bubble of protection or even ignorance. In this scene, Gambino makes a gun out of his hands, and only then, do the children around him appear scared of the gun violence- when it’s fake and not even a real threat.
This may hint at the occurrences like that of Tamir Rice who was killed when an officer assumed his fake gun was a real one. Although Gambino’s previous killings did not incite much of a reaction, curiously, his fake one does, referencing the demented justification for the killing of unarmed victims. Between Gambino’s hand motion and the return to the melodic tribal beat, lies seventeen seconds of silence, a possible reference to a moment of silence for the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Shooting, another tragic depiction of gun violence.
The last scene of the video that truly isn't long enough (honestly, a full-length film wouldn't be long enough but hey, it’s a start) Gambino dances on and surrounded by vintage cars, a stark contrast in the flashy modern cars of most other hip-hop videos. This could be symbolic of how behind America is, stuck in the past of outdated racial practices. Because Gambino is surrounded by the outdated relics, this supports the notion that he represents America throughout the video, as he is also the one doing the killing and perpetuating the unjustified violence with the work of America's favorite sidekick- guns.
The video touches on many aspects of the black experience in this country, from the highs of having our culture spotlighted via trendy dance moves, to having this same art form used to distract others from the injustice of police and gun violence. Bottom line is, Donald Glover a.k.a Childish Gambino a.k.a Creative Mastermind has done it again, proving once and for all that there is absolutely nothing this man cannot do. And we are more than ready for every inch of woke commentary this man has to offer.