Childish Gambino’s single ‘This is America’ dropped about a month ago, to widespread debate, admiration and viral sensation. We asked guest writer and poet Jessica Wood to unpack a little of its cultural resonance and emotional impact.
I’m not sure This is America could have dropped at a better time. As opposed to Kanye’s controversial TMZ comments where he said that slavery was a choice, Childish Gambino’s new song takes an unflinching look into the current state of America, hitting on issues from gun violence to the treatment of black bodies and our complex relationship with popular culture in the 21st century.
I’m no music guru, so I can’t speak to that aspect of the song; however, I can tell you how I felt at every moment of watching the video, and hope that it translates to you some of Gambino’s intention behind what may otherwise seem to be an eclectic, raw and confusing piece.
In the opening to the video, Gambino’s dance moves had most people laughing both from humour and discomfort as he contorted his dad-bod around an abandoned factory. He’s enjoying the beat, and we are too – until he takes a gun and shoots the man to whose music he had just been dancing. The gun fires and we’re all left a little shell-shocked. But Gambino looks to the camera and says matter-of-factly, “This is America”; the gun is carefully wrapped away whilst the dead man is dragged across the floor.
In this first scene alone, Gambino sets the tone for the next four minutes of emotionally intense music and film.
The dance between enjoying the artistic and cultural products of a person, yet in the same breath being willing to end their life, is a recurring image within the video. Gambino creates a series of shifts from funny to serious that give you heart palpitations.
On first watch, your eyes can’t focus on the chaos happening in the background as you try to grasp the dance moves of Gambino and the troop of school children surrounding him; but as you watch more, and read the endless decoding articles that have flooded the internet since the video’s release, you begin to notice some of the complex symbolisms and meanings behind the chaos.
Gambino creates a series of shifts from funny to serious that give you heart palpitations
For example: Gambino’s strange body contortions reflect the character of Jim Crow, a one-time minstrel character in American minstrel show (American folk entertainment that mocked African-American people) which is used to describe the experience of segregation within Southern America into the 20th century. It’s a reflection that entertainment, through music, dance and performance, is always being pushed to the forefront of our minds, a convenient and sometimes necessary distraction from the abuse and injustice that runs rampant in society.
Amongst all this, Lady liberty herself does nothing but watch.
The experience of This is America is a very pointed and calculated critique of a country which bases itself on the values of liberty, freedom and tolerance, but doesn’t have a great track record of turning these nice words into positive action for groups and individuals.
In the closing scene, Gambino runs through a dark corridor chased by a mob. He looks terrified, and the unsettling thing is that I don’t think it would have been difficult for him to conjure up the fear in his eyes.
Jess Wood is a northern-born, Birmingham-based poet and intern with Sputnik (from September 2018)