Gambino Weighs In: An Evaluation of This is America

Melissa Wright

On May 4th, 2018, Childish Gambino (the music moniker of Donald Glover) released a music video titled “This is America.” As a society, all too often, we turn a blind eye on pressing issues in society. We look to something more lighthearted instead, zeroing in on entertainment in the media. “This is America” addresses the issues that we ignore, however it addresses one other thing–our willing ignorance.

While watching the video for the first time (and the majority of the comment section would agree), I saw a couple of things going on in the background. However, like many others, I was distracted by Gambino’s dancing alongside an entourage of school children. That alone provided an entertaining viewing experience, but I had missed so much. I watched the music video again because of how entertaining it was, and it was then that I began to really notice what Gambino had done. After the second viewing, I watched it again. And again. And again. And again. And then I did a frame by frame analysis. What I found was 244 seconds of pure brilliance.

The music video starts out with a lone African American man taking a seat in a warehouse while he begins to play the guitar before the camera pans to a shirtless Gambino with his back turned to the audience. A few seconds later, he turns and begins dancing to the music while slowly approaching the guitarist. When the guitarist is in full view again, the guitar is gone, and instead, the man has a hood over his head while he sits quietly and patiently with his hands on his lap. His clothes before this scene appeared in good condition, however, when we see him again, there are holes in his pants and dirt covering his body. However, he still seems to be wearing a gold bracelet that stands out among the ruggedness of the rest of his outfit. We see him for a good second or two before Gambino reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a gun.

Gambino takes the gun and slowly falls into a caricature of the caricature that was the “Jump Jim Crow” sheet music, and he promptly shoots the man in the head. Directly after, he turns to the camera and tells the audience that “this is America” before handing the gun off to a schoolboy who bows down while taking the pistol carefully in a red cloth before he runs away. In the background, the body of the dead man is dragged away roughly. A few frames later, a police car drives into view far into the background; however, instead of addressing the crime, they are seen dancing.

Childish Gambino has packed a bitter perspective  of the United States in just eleven seconds of his entire four-minute and four-second video, a perspective which he views as reality. First, Gambino addresses the issue of African Americans being beaten down in society, as shown through the degradation of an innocent guitarist through both clothing and attitude. Second, Gambino strengthens the ideation, confirming the treatment of African Americans as he strikes the Jim Crow pose and promptly shoots a black man, quickly addressing black on black violence. Third, he shows how America fetishizes weaponry and values a simple pistol over a human life, as shown by the careful treatment of the pistol and the rough dragging away of the dead body. Fourth, he comments on police inaction, as they are simply dancing far in the background, doing nothing about the violence. That’s not all. There’s the guitarist himself, as well. Played by Calvin the Second, the guitarist is the father of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed seventeen year old who was shot dead by George Zimmerman. With references such as these (including more to come in the video), Gambino reminds us that this reality of violence is not so rare and distant as one might hope. They are the everyday product of a nationwide, unconscious hate that accomplishes nothing but suffering.

After this sequence, he continues dancing towards the camera before being joined by five school children. Together, throughout the video, they hit many different dance moves ranging from the gwara gwara (a South African dance) and the shoot dance (a dance originating from YouTube). The choreographer of the music video, Sherrie Silver (who has since released a dance tutorial for the video) talks about her choice of dance and the meaning of which in an interview with Glamour. She explains her motivation to include African dances from not just Africa, since the video is about the state of America after all. The motivation is driven by exploring black society all around the globe.

The meaning of the various dances in terms of the video itself was to highlight the matter of ignoring our problems in a creative way; however, the dances in general mean much more than that. They’re a symbol of culture, of familial community that bonds an oppressed people. With this, Gambino does two things, both of which are one and the same. Gambino first speaks to the appropriation of black culture into the hegemony when he shows us the African and African American dance moves in terms of their adoption. He uses this to filter into the second point–America is so fascinated with black culture and takes everything for its own that it neglects to care for the well-being of black people themselves.

It’s important to point out that, a minute and thirty seconds into the video, Gambino is dancing alone in front of a chaotic scene before the five school children return to stand behind him, covering up the violence and problems behind him. There is no real excuse to be distracted enough to not notice what is happening in the background, as Gambino dances in front of the chaos behind him for a good second or two (which accounts for a lot of time in a packed video such as this one) and the audience is given a clear view before the dancing ensues to cover up what’s happening. The audience definitely knows what is going on in this scene even if they fail to perceive exactly what’s going on in some of the other scenes, yet they are still distracted from the background by the foreground, which is quite a destructive tendency.

Ten seconds later, the camera pans to a ten-person choir who are singing happily just outside the warehouse. Gambino exits the warehouse through a door next to the choir and begins dancing again before his expression hardens and he is thrown what appears to be an assault rifle of the Kalashnikov Family and he instantaneously spins around and shoots the entire choir dead. Like the first shooting, the schoolboy returns to take the weapon in a red cloth.

This scene references the Charleston Church Shooting, which killed 9 people in the bible study. Considering this, we can begin to see more of Gambino’s brilliance play out. As soon as his face hardens, symbolizing his decision to kill the choir, he is thrown a gun of the Kalashnikov Family, and exactly what rifle it is, is unimportant. Gambino shows us the ease in which any person can obtain a deadly assault rifle and the ability to use it at a whim. The treatment of guns versus human lives is again put in parallel as the gun is carefully taken away from the scene as a mob runs towards the dead bodies with bats and spiked wooden boards. Police follow shortly behind with their nightsticks, completely ignoring the shooter himself. Not only that, the number of people in Gambino’s choir is one more than the number massacred at the Charleston Church Shooting, suggesting that crimes like these will occur again and again if the mass mindset isn’t altered.

As Gambino begins his dance walk once again, you can hear the screaming of the mob in the music video until he raises his fists in the signature “stop” gesture, and the background noise is flushed away, later the music reverts back to studio quality. Everything is drowned out because we, as a population, plug our ears to what we hear so we hear what we want to instead. This is displayed again and again, especially when Gambino hits the shoot while a white horse rides away in the background, the Christian symbol of death. Shortly after, the music cuts off and he is shown pretending to be aiming a gun with his eyes closed for a few seconds as the school children and everyone else around him run away. Briefly alone, he lights a blunt and smokes it while exiting the shot.

In the next scene, the guitarist is revived, but he is shown for the first time with both his guitar and the ragged clothes and hood. Gambino climbs onto a worn down red car lacking an emblem and dances again and throws away the blunt as the guitarist plays away. As he continues, we get a view of SZA, who sits on a car on the right hand side of the video. There is quite a bit of speculation that SZA and Childish Gambino (who might drop the moniker and be known solely as Donald Glover) might collaborate. She wears her hair similar to the Statue of Liberty as she looks to the camera, surrounded by haphazardly placed cars. In the final scene, Gambino runs down a dark hallway being chased by numerous police officers, who, now decide to pursue him, which references a song in the 19th century called “Run N— Run,” which was his final symbolism of the video, showing how being African American meant you had to run to save your life. There is some aspect of the sunken place from Jordan Peele’s Get Out in this scene as well, as the environment seemed extraordinary similar to the void where Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) falls after being hypnotized by the nefarious Ms. Armitage (Catherine Keener).

All in all, throughout this music video, Childish Gambino and his director Hiro Murai explore and expose many different facets of American society when speaking to minority cultures and the various ways America falls short. But that’s just the video. How about the actual song? I went back, and instead of focusing on the symbolism and satire in the music video, I listened closely, without watching, to both the music video audio and studio audio, analyzing each for musical value. I wrote out the lyrics and read it again and again, looking for meaning. Sure enough, there was plenty, and not just in the lyrics; symbolism is hidden in the instrumentals themselves.

The song starts out in a major key with a cheerful sounding chorus (later to be shot down). However, when Gambino shoots the first victim of violence, the music abruptly changes to a minor key, intense segment of trap music. The music shifts back to the chorus again, and after they are massacred, the trap music returns, only to be stopped when Gambino lights the blunt. We are led to think the major key section is here once again before the two styles combine into one, further emphasizing the confusion we have when viewing black society as a whole.

In the bridge, Gambino (alongside guest star Young Thug) talk about partying and money, the former being the signature interest and entertainment of America’s youth and the latter being hungered for by any generation of any race or gender. In the first verse, Gambino contradicts this seemingly cliche bridge by talking about gun violence and police brutality (“Police be trippin now,” “Guns in my area.”).

In the refrain, Gambino talks once again about money, but he layers it with real issues by adding “Grandma told me get your money; black man.” He speaks to poverty that pervades African American society. He also talks about how the idea of “money” is never the end of the story as the fact that being black will always be a more pressing issue. These lyrics can be interpreted alongside the idea that black people are commodities that can be bought and sold with money, and like the Jim Crow satire, Gambino reminds us of slavery and how times have improved, but we are far from finished and there is much work to be done in terms of civil rights.

In the chorus, he touches on drug use when he sings “Look what I’m whippin now,” a reference to the making of drugs. The word “now” also implies a new drug, and Gambino could be talking about the surge of crack cocaine that plagued the African American society, a new drug that was a distilled version of cocaine itself. However, the line that struck me the most was in the second verse. It’s in the second verse that Gambino states that “This a celly, that’s a tool.” By the direct allusion to Stephon Clark and Jim Crow, Gambino firmly states what we concluded earlier–progress was made but we are far from true equality. He is saying that the Jim Crow days were dehumanizing, and although we’ve taken steps towards a better America, we are still having innocent black men being shot in their own grandmothers’ backyards, armed with nothing but a cellphone.

He finishes up both the song and the music video by explaining to us as the audience that perhaps the reason why we haven’t reached a state of equality yet is due to our self-induced ignorance where we pick and choose what to focus on because it makes us feel better. We choose to take in black culture but we leave out black suffering because it makes us personally feel less accountable and more innocent.

So how was “This is America”? It’s ingenious, thought-provoking, and entertaining to every last second and every last frame. It’s a perfect blend of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Joyner Lucas’ “I’m Not Racist.” Full to the brim with deep meaning, Heidi N. Moore of NBC is absolutely correct when she says that “This is America” is “downright Shakespearean.”