Childish Gambino spent much of 2016 telling us to “stay woke” on his platinum record Red Bone. If that wasn’t enough of a startling alarm, then the visuals and meanings behind This is America will certainly wake you up from your slumber. I can only describe the song as a modern day negro spiritual – drifting between influences of gospel, folk, funk and trap.The video, directed by Hiro Murai, depicts Gambino’s interpretation of America and is laden with political, cultural and historical references specific to the black experience. So what is America to Gambino?
A place in which police brutality is rampant and black lives are dispensable. The video opens with a man playing the guitar and then he is abruptly shot. Gambino shoots him in the style of Jim Crow and his lifeless body is dragged off without leaving a trail of blood, it’s almost as if it never occurred.
Gambino makes reference to the Charleston shooting by assailant Dylan Roof. A joyous gospel choir grace the screen but are quickly shot with an assault rifle.
The video is organised chaos ensuing before our eyes. One can watch the video and be somewhat hypnotised by the dance moves from Gambino and the school children. Between them perfectly hitting the Gwara Gwara and the shoot dance, it is easy to not take note of the madness ensuing directly behind them all. This was Gambino’s point. There are policemen, riots, fires, but in all this, it is Gambino who holds our attention captive. Oppression and racism are rife in our own worlds, yet we ignore it and remain entertained and distracted by pop culture and social media. This could be the world’s coping mechanism or a complete dismissal.
Gambino also makes a reference to the individuals who record shootings and other incidents of discrimination and bring them to light.
The video has an atmosphere of freedom yet similtaneous one of premonition – this is an identical feeling for many African-Americans as they navigate themselves in modern America. Amidst the devastation and turmoil, Gambino remains jovial and continues performing. Even the man shot at the beginning of the video, goes back to playing his guitar at the end.
This may allude to how their pain is manifested in our music or how we must simply continue with life as if nothing has happened.
The video is somewhat of a visual masterpiece and laden with references which many will not understand, as it is not the America they have to pay attention to. For some, Beyonce’s recent Coachella performance paid homage to black culture, particularly that of HBCUs, for others, it was 2 hours of fantastic entertainment. For some, This is America meticulously articulates their experiences in America, for others, it is merely art.