Music videos are a peculiar art form, often just a complimentary element to a medium that is intended to work on its own. In fact, most of the time they even act detrimentally, distracting and deterring attention away from the music and towards visuals. Childish Gambino’s “This is America” is proof that a balance can be struck between the two senses beautifully creating an impactful and jarring representation of the culture surrounding gun violence in the United States of America.
Gambino, the moniker for Donald Glover, doesn’t hold back presenting his listeners with a gritty and graphic video that is currently trending on Youtube. According to the website, it earned 12.9 million views on the day of its release placing it in the ten biggest music debuts of the year.
The video spares no time in jolting you in the deep end as Gambino approaches a man sitting cuffed and head covered on a chair, shooting and killing him without remorse. As the body hits the floor and school children are tasked with dragging it off screen the gun is carefully placed in a piece of red cloth held by another student. Many have identified the juxtaposition between the careful treatment of firearms and the careless treatment of the victims as a statement of the distorted values of America’s gun culture.
The song becomes a commentary of the apparent speed with which we distract ourselves from and normalise gun violence. All the while Gambino sings and dances he is surrounded by children in school uniform, mimicking his movements, accompanied by a backdrop of blurred violence and chaos. The warehouse setting of the music video is divided between the foreground of joyful dancing and a background of disorganised violence. Amongst the chaos men are thrown from rafters, run over and beaten whilst the attention is focused on Gambino and the children. Such a dichotomy underlines the desensitisation of gun violence as the dancing children remain unfazed by their surroundings. The video was filmed in one take, a fluid motion that follows Gambino amongst mounting chaos panning only momentarily on background actions bringing them to the foreground. Most notable of these is a group of teens, mouths covered, on their phones in the rafters of the warehouse. As the camera pans over them, Gambino sings “This a celly, that’s a tool”. Undeniable his work speaks of gun violence in America, our desensitisation towards it as a result of its unwavering presence in the national experience but more importantly, it focuses on the young generations, as they are the ones handling the weapons, the ones filming the chaos and the ones dancing as a means to avoid it.
The video is filled with references to the experience of black people in America. Justin Simien, creator of the hit series “Dear White People”, identified Gambino’s exaggerated pose when pulling the trigger as reminiscent of the Jim Crow character. Halfway through the song, the jubilant beat aided by the appearance of a black choir is cut short by Gambino’s unflinching use of an AK-47 to shoot down the choir, reminiscent of the tragic, racially-motivated, Charleston church shooting of June 2015. This act is soon followed with the same recognisable chorus ‘This is America’ and aggressive bass-driven beat. The video ends with a frantic Gambino running from a mob in a dark corridor before abruptly cutting to black.
Donald Glover has refused to provide insight or analysis for either the song or the video, choosing rather to give it no context and allow people to walk away with “whatever [they] need to walk away with”. With the rumour that this may be Gambino’s last album, this song has left his fans both wanting more and questioning the reality they face. His work becomes art as it coaxes us to ask necessary questions without providing any answers.