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Childish Gambino's 'This Is America': A guide for non-Americans

Muhammad Haikal Satria
Muhammad Haikal Satria

An avid film watcher

Jakarta | Mon, May 14, 2018 | 10:39 am
Childish Gambino's 'This Is America': A guide for non-Americans

The opening scene of "This Is America", a music video by Childish Gambino. (YouTube/Donald Glover)

After almost a year of rumors of his retirement floating around, Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino, seemed set on ending his rapping career and transition back into acting.

On May 5, however, Childish Gambino released a new song and thought-provoking music video titled "This Is America”, which amassed nearly 32 million views in only three days.

Read also: Childish Gambino video targeting gun violence gets 100 million hits

But to an international audience that hasn’t been exposed to America’s history of violence, an introduction is required before the full meaning of the video can be understood.

Jim Crow                                 

The video begins with a long shot, moving to first show us an African-American man playing guitar, then focusing on Childish Gambino.

Everything seems innocent at first, with Gambino dancing toward the camera and the music seeming a lighthearted tune redolent of South African melodies. But then Gambino strikes a pose while brandishing a pistol and shoots the man with the guitar (who is now wearing a white hood) in the head. The beat drops and "This Is America" begins.

What's most unique in this opening is the pose Gambino takes, which directly refers to the pose of a minstrel character known as Jim Crow.

Jim Crow was a theater character that was popular in the United States in the 1800s.Jim Crow was a theater character that was popular in the United States in the 1800s. (Shutterstock.com/Everett Historical)

Jim Crow was a theater character that was popular in the United States in the 1800s. The character was often played by Caucasian man in blackface, a practice that is now deemed racist and offensive. Jim Crow was the embodiment of how Caucasians in that era perceived the African-American community and culture.

But the term Jim Crow extends further than theater. In the 1870s, segregation laws that differentiated access to public facilities and legal rights were introduced in the US, more specifically in the Southern states. These laws came to be know as "Jim Crow Laws" and, as a result, "Jim Crow" became a derogatory term for African-Americans.

Gambino choosing to pose as Jim Crow may mean a many number of things, but one thing is clear: Gambino is saying that Jim Crow is still very much alive in American society.

Gun violence

There are two instances of shooting in the video. The first is of the aforementioned man with the white hood, and the second is the brutal gunning down of a choir.

While the first isn’t reminiscent of any shooting in recent memory, the second seems to be a direct reference to the 2015 Charleston church shooting, in which Dylann Roof shot down nine African-Americans in South Carolina.

After the shooting in both scenes of the music video (the first with a pistol and the second with an assault rifle), Gambino hands the guns off to a young boy, who carefully wraps them in a red cloth.

The timing of "This Is America" seems to be a conscious decision, launching in the middle of a heated debate on gun control in the US. On one side of the debate, the survivors of February's Parkland shooting are reigniting the call for gun control laws.

The US has had a long history of gun violence and school shootings, with some of the most deadly incidents taking place at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School and Virginia Tech.

Across the aisle, we have the pro-gun movement that is led by the National Rifle Assocation (NRA), one of America's most powerful lobbying groups. The movement often cites the Second Amendment as its main defense. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution in essence protects the right of Americans to "bear arms", a statement that many interpret as a right to wield guns.

What Gambino seems to be conveying in his video is the fact that many seem to value their guns over the lives of others, and sadly, that "This Is America."

The dancing

The first time I watched the video, I was mesmerized by Gambino's slick moves. Throughout it, Childish Gambino and a band of schoolchildren bust out multiple dance moves, from the South African Gwara Gwara, to viral crazes like the Shoot or Blocboy dance.

But these dances should not be the main focus of the video. Rather, they are purposely put there to distract us from what is happening in the background. While Gambino is prancing to his own tune, behind him riots are breaking out, cars are burning and children are silently recording the devastation.

The popular interpretation of these scenes is that they show how social media distracts us from current issues. It's incredibly easy nowadays to turn a blind eye to the problems of the world and focus on the glam and bling on social media. This interpretation seems particularly fitting when Gambino uses multiple dances popularized by YouTube and Instagram to distract us from the background.

The music

Finally, let’s not forget the non-visual component of the video: the lyrics and the beats. As mentioned earlier, the video starts with a South African melody, a lighthearted choir chant. When the first shot rings out, the beat drops and the song becomes much darker. These sudden shifts happen four times throughout the song, each bridging a piece to another, whether that be from choir to beats, or the reverse. It creates an almost sinister juxtaposition, talking about gun violence and racial issues with a happy-go-lucky beat.

Lyrically, there’s a lot to dissect. In the verses, Gambino repeatedly points to other rappers who boast about their luxuriously “dope” lives. He seemingly continues to taunt them by only using cars from the 1990s in “This Is America”, a departure from the Ferraris and Lamborghinis seen in most rap videos.

Perhaps one of the most interesting lyrics are in the refrain, where with an upbeat tune, Gambino repeats. “Grandma told me, get your money Black man”. This could refer to two things: how structural barriers have kept African-Americans out of good job for years, or how some African-Americans have pursued money to the point where they no longer connect with the plight of the common African-American.

Both are possible (especially with Kanye West’s recent statements), but for now, this is mere speculation; Gambino has yet to provide a dissection of his song.

It’s no doubt that Gambino has created a masterpiece, with a video that is likely to be analyzed for the next few months, if not years. "This Is America" decides not to be a simple rap video that hypes up a luxurious life and instead becomes a powerful and meaningful video about gun violence faced by the African-American community.

However, the issues explained above merely graze the tip of the iceberg. I've watched the video more than 10 times, and I'm still finding details and messages that I didn't catch before.

Perhaps this is Gambino's way of saying that America’s problems may be complex, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. (kes)

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An avid film watcher, Haikal aspires to one day sit in a director’s chair. He reviews movies on his Instagram account (@haikalstr) for fun.

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