Childish Gambino talks gun violence, distraction in new song ‘This Is America’

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The music industry is experiencing a blossoming revolution — one completely unlike the style shifts that have come before it and vastly more important. In this new musical era, we are not simply experiencing a change in sound.

We are experiencing a change in purpose.

More than ever, vulnerable ballads about prevalent issues are replacing traditional tunes. Songs rife with raw commentary are overshadowing superficial bops. From JAY-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” music video to Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize win for DAMN., the value of honest, unfettered music, especially from artists of color, is prevailing.

Joining the ranks of artists championing purposeful art specific to Black culture is Childish Gambino — the musical alter ego of comedian, writer and actor Donald Glover. Last weekend, Gambino released the music video for his new single “This Is America.”

“This Is America” made an immediate impact on the public as a visceral and jarring ode to Black culture. The music video tells an eloquent story, every step taken, every arm moved serving a purpose to the overall meaning of the song.

The beginning image of Calvin the Second innocently sitting, playing a guitar to a cool, vibrant beat only to be shot by a bare-chested Gambino — standing in the exact same way as the original Jim Crow — shocks the viewer.

We immediately know that this is not going to be a simple video.

Throughout the video, guns are cradled and handled delicately while the bodies gunned down are dragged away or left crumpled on the ground. School kids dance popular moves such as the shoot and the South African Gwara Gwara with Gambino, all smiling as actual fires light behind them.

The stark contrast between the breezy Afro-folk melody and the dark, heavy, trap-style chorus reflects the contrast between the groundbreaking success of Black art and the disappointing realities of everyday Black struggles. All of the video’s different components culminate in an ending straight out of “Get Out,” in which Gambino is chased by the only white faces we have seen.

The video and the song find their power in the fact that they are both subtle and explicit at the same time. It’s clear from the first gunshot that Gambino is calling out American culture. What takes time to uncover is that he is not just calling out white Americans, but everyone.

One only realizes upon three or four watches that Gambino is not the focus of the video, but a distraction from all the destruction and horror happening behind him. Viewers catch themselves following only Gambino and his dancers as they hit each beat of the song with moves we wish we could do, facial expressions dramatic and joyous throughout. What we should be focusing on is the chaos unfolding behind them.

The song’s poetic lyricism, contrasting harmonics and visual symbols are a pristine explanation of the fact that Black music, dance moves and art are used to distract from the discrimination, struggles and politics that surround them — and that people are letting themselves be distracted. In doing this, Gambino is demonstrating that he is complicit in distracting people via music and other trends.

“This Is America” is a succinct, monumental call to arms burgeoning from a new musical era. It’s not just a song, not just a music video. It’s an education on politics, culture and public consumption. This is not a video meant to be watched idly. It’s meant to captivate us, teach us and implore us to stay aware.

Contact Maisy Menzies at [email protected].