Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Donald Glover) has released the video for his new song, This Is America, and it’s taken the world by storm. Here’s why we believe it’s so important and a triumph.
Having seen one brilliantly-imagined and artfully-executed project after the next from Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino), we’ve come to no longer be surprised by his extraordinary talents. In fact, we’ve come to expect them; to take each teaser or announcement as the precursor to an already certain success. Most fans will agree that, since Because the Internet, the artistic polymath has scarcely put a foot wrong despite taking significant risks as he skips between mediums and genres, a comedic actor one day, then a soul-searching rapper the next, and then a director of (and actor in) the Golden-Globe-winning Atlanta, and then an accomplished singer lifted right from the funkadelic era, and then… the list goes on.
Nevertheless, the reaction to Glover’s most recent project, the unannounced release of a new Childish Gambino song, This Is America, and (importantly) its associated video, has been pretty astonishing. As of writing this article, three days after the song’s release, it has 35 million views on YouTube, has been #1 on the site’s ‘Trending’ page in most countries (a notable exception being America itself, but YouTube’s dubious promotional interests are another story), and has whipped up a whirlwind of reaction videos offering ‘breakdowns’ and ‘decoding’. Notably, these videos are not only made by fans and web creators, but also by more conventional news organisations, such as the Washington Post, showing the extent to which the video has caught traction off the internet.
The symbolism and ambiguities that have led to such close analysis of This Is America, and its video also account for much of its success. Despite Glover’s claim at the Met Gala that he “just wanted to make a good song” that people would enjoy, this symbolism clearly represents elements of the state of today’s America (appropriately) for people of colour. The gunning down of seemingly innocent black figures (notably a church choir) conjures memories of all-too-many recent attacks on minority groups in the US, whilst Childish Gambino’s subsequent dancing with schoolchildren serves, perhaps, as a critique of distraction politics and the black entertainer archetype. More complex theories have been proposed, even, about Gambino’s movements and facial expressions, which have been equated to those of Jim Crow caricatures, and the apocalyptic rider on a pale horse shown briefly in the background.
This is what makes the song (and, more specifically, the accompanying video directed by Atlanta’s Hiro Murai) so effective: its interpretability. The fact that not all interpretations may be correct (how could they be?) is beside the point. The important thing is that the video has prompted such discourse about so many important race-related issues, from the portrayal of black entertainers in the media to the reaction of schoolchildren to killings within their communities. Through enigma, it has created discussion, and through disturbing imagery, it has forced the viewer to consider atrocities that are so often overlooked. Sure, it is a complex video, and its meaning isn’t necessarily clear upon first viewing, but that’s where its brilliance lies; that is America.