Childish Gambino sparks racial controversy with the new music video 'This is America". 

 This week, Childish Gambino, otherwise known as Donald Glover, released a new music video titled This is America. The 4 minutes and 4 seconds is chock full of symbolism and has been called a “freakish chronicle of imprisoned torment,” fueling a larger political conversation about race relations, gun violence, and self-destructive America. Donald Glover isn’t new to viral commentary on present-day race relations: he recently became the first black-American director to win Best Comedy Director at the Emmy’s, simultaneously winning the award for Best Comedy Actor this year for his cutting-edge Atlanta, which also comments on black American struggles. His last groundbreaking single, Redbone, was both nominated for a Song of the Year Grammy and featured in Get Out, Jordan Peele’s horror-comedy and racial commentary crossover. A director, actor, singer, rapper, comedian—Donald Glover is the definition of an A-list celebrity, and every new project he produces is usually under the media spotlight.

This is America generated more buzz than usual

But, This is America generated more buzz than usual. With 82 million views in just a few days, the video has sparked up visceral debate about its contents. The lyrics stand out: phrases like “police be trippin’ up,” “I’m just a black man, I’m just a barcode,” and more are set to a mix between traditional gospel music and lilting trap rhythms. This is America’s music video solidifies that virality. The video opens with a man strumming a guitar, only to be shot in the head by a dancing Childish Gambino moments later. With crazed eyes, Gambino, dressed in only Confederate soldier pants, strikes a cocked pose reminiscent of Jim Crow era posters of ex-slaves. The video continues, the murder weapon carried away on a delicate cloth, Gambino dancing the Gwara Gwara, Azonto, Alkayida, and more—traditional African dances as chaos ensues behind him. The video then switches to a singing church choir, who soon get gunned down by Gambino with a machine rifle, clearly about the Charleston church shootings. Gambino keeps dancing—now more recent viral dances, including Blocboy JB’s Shoot—as onlooking children film him on their cell phones, ignoring the looting and chaos behind them in favor of watching Gambino dance. The video then stops. The background characters disappear, and Childish Gambino lights a blunt—the music stops for 17 seconds, perhaps referencing the 17 gun violence victims during the Parkland shootings. Throughout the video, Gambino’s murders go unnoticed, but shortly after the video ends with a scene reminiscent of the Sunken Place in the aforementioned Get Out, where Gambino sprints, terrified, from nondescript white figures.

Violent black-on-black stereotype?

The music video is obviously controversial. Packed with easily discernable references, This is America artfully tackles gun violence, materialism, race politics, and more, all in a short 4 minutes. The firestorm of controversy in response was immediate: some news outlets praised the video’s artistic nature and message, whereas others called the video senseless left-wing pandering, or wanted entertainers to stick to that: entertaining. Further, there’s been a surprising divide amongst the black American community, too. While many praised his anti-gun violence stance, some highlighted his usage of himself as the gun violence perpetrator as support of violent black-on-black stereotypes. Childish Gambino has been clear in his refusal to comment—at the MET Gala when asked about the video, he simply deferred to wanting to “just create a song people would listen to on the Fourth of July,” and on Jimmy Fallon he said he hadn’t been on the internet in days and had no idea what people thought. But the video itself is enough, especially as it comes right after Kanye West’s firestorm of tweets in support of President Trump and the MAGA movement. Gambino outlines that this is America—a society that’s normalized gun violence, one that desperately clings to trends and virality instead of addressing its civil conflict. The video is vivid and unrelentingly political: proof of Donald Glover’s intentions to drive the national conversation towards gun violence, race relations, and everything America is fearful to discuss. But even Donald Glover can’t offer any solutions. By remaining tight-lipped about how to interpret his art, he leaves the audience puzzled, disturbed, questioning. Nonetheless, Donald Glover finds a way to turn art into politics, the increasingly popular method celebrities get their messages across.  

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Grace Jin

Grace Jin is a student at Yale University. She’s a multi-time national champion in debate and is passionate about intersectional politics from the perspective of Generation Z.