It was only 2 days ago that Donald Glover AKA Childish Gambino debuted his new single “This Is America” while hosting Saturday Night Live (he also performed “Saturday” and starred in nearly every skit on the show). Since then the incredibly powerful video has reached over 17 million views on YouTube.
The cinematic 4-minute-long video is directed by Hiro Murai, who Glover worked on the hit TV show ‘Atlanta’ with. Tidal’s liner notes credit Young Thug, 21 Savage, Quavo, Slim Jxmmi, and BlocBoy JB as contributors to the track. Their additions are subtle but add another layer of complexity to the track and are another reason to replay the video again and again.
As someone who’s not a POC and has therefore never experienced first-hand racism it’s not my place to explain why this video is so necessary right now. However, I do want to try and discus some of the many references that might be missed on first watch.
The camera follows Glover as he fluctuates between dance moves and fits of graphic violence, distracting the viewer from the gut wrenching activity in the background. This is the very point of the video, while the media are happy to focus on a superficial representation of black lives in America it closes a blind eye to the real atrocities of Trump-era America. It’s easy to contrast the blatantly ironic lyrics “I'm on Gucci / I'm so pretty” with the Daily Mail’s painfully sincere headline “Donald Glover goes shirtless”.
The video starts with musician Calvin II playing acoustic guitar and Glover dancing to the mundane, repetitive lyrics “We just wanna party / Party just for you / We just want the money / Money just for you”. Then, seemingly unprovoked, Glover shoots Calvin II in the back of the head. His body limply falls to the floor before being dragged away. This contrasts with the gun that’s carefully wrapped up in red fabric and carried out of the scene. The message is clear: guns are treated with more respect than black lives… yep “This Is America”.
In the background black men run for their lives while Glover raps “Look at how I'm livin' now / Police be trippin' now” referencing the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality in America. A report by The Guardian announced that in 2016 “black males aged 15-34 were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by law enforcement officers”.
A gospel choir sings “get your money, Black man (get your money)” before being shot at. A reference to the Charleston church shooting in June 2015 where self-avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine black churchgoers. Again, Glover declares “This Is America”. This is not the old racist America of the past, this is the racist America of right now which we are shutting our eyes to. Once more, the viewer is distracted by Glover’s charismatic dancing as he’s accompanied by school children who follow his every step. We watch them so that we don’t have to watch the police cars, rioting and violence in the back ground.
However, the political implications of the dance moves shouldn’t be ignored either. There are references to a range of routines such as the South African dance Gwara Gwara and Blocboy JB’s shoot dance. Some have interpreted that Glover’s dance moves and exaggerated facial expressions are also a subtle reference to racist caricatures from the Jim Crow era.
“This Is America” is crammed with references to unpack however fleeting. There’s a 2 second clip as the camera pans up to reveal children standing on a balcony looking at their mobile phones accompanied by the line “This a celly / That's a tool”. This is a potential reference to the murder of 22-year-old Stephon Clark who was shot 8 times by police while standing in his Grandmother’s garden… while holding his iPhone (not a tool).
Shortly after this a hooded figure rides a white horse in the background. It’s another important “blink and you’ll miss it” reference, potentially to the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as described in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Bible. Yet hell doesn’t open up at this point. Instead Glover lights up, ignoring the terror that has been happening all around him (again a dig at society’s response to such atrocities), Calvin II is miraculously reborn and singer-songwriter SZA quietly sits nearby on a car hood.
The last few seconds leave us on a far bleaker tone. Glover runs, not dances, away from what appears to be a mob of white people. It’s a not funny, it’s not light-hearted and it’s not comfortable. It’s reality. This is modern-day America and something has to change.