I happened to be one of the few who listened to "This is America," Childish Gambino's new single, before watching the viral music video. With its quick transitions between soft gospel-style notes and heavy trap beats, the track captured my attention throughout its four minutes. The distinct juxtaposition in style and sound between the different threads and verses intrigued me, prompting me to wonder how one would be able to visually encapsulate the feel of the song.
I was pleasantly surprised. Though I do have to admit, my first reaction was more of a puzzled one.
The video starts off with an old man playing guitar in an empty warehouse, and Glover can be seen in the background with his bare back to the camera. As he grooved along to the starting notes of the track, the audience expects an overall pleasant atmosphere, but is caught by surprise when Glover pulls out a gun and shoots the old man from the back. The sudden act of violence amidst the soft intro, the drastic sound change, and Glover's monotone declaration of "This is America" all grant the audience a reality check: this is some serious stuff.
In the video, the audience sees an unhinged and loosened Glover hit all the dance moves of this generation along with a few schoolchildren behind him.
A strong juxtaposition becomes apparent after the first shooting of the masked guitarist 53 seconds into the video. Glover carefully places the gun on a pillow held out by a black student and returns to his viral dances again. The setting changes as he enters a new room where a black choir group stands against the wall, singing passionately. Glover first appears to be grinning and grooving along to the song, but then, to our surprise, pulls out a rifle and murders the choir members. This could be a nod to the 2015 mass church shooting in Charleston, where many black worshippers were murdered by a white man. As blood splatters onto the wall and the men and women fall, Glover resumes his dancing, this time with burning cars and police chaos behind him.
While the shooting itself is shocking to the audience, what might be even more appalling is the fact that Glover always returns to dancing after committing murder as if nothing has happened. The quick transitions away from brutality plant a rising internal struggle within the viewer, who is constantly being presented with contrasting images. "How could we dance when all the chaos is going on?" After witnessing scenes of brutality, the viewers are unsure of whether or not to enjoy Glover's dance moves and the song’s upbeat melody.
Therein arises the dilemma for the audience, who is shocked and disturbed by Glover's violence but simultaneously feels an impulse to dance along. This feeling could be best summed up by this remark made in one man's YouTube reaction to the music video: "I'm lowkey scared of him right now, but I have to bop my head."
The fleeting moments of carnage could represent America's short attention span when it comes to the discussion of real social issues. As we see today, headlines of school shootings and police brutality are often quickly replaced by the newest viral entertainment scenes only after a few days of praying hashtags. Just like Glover in the music video, we are somehow able to swiftly move on from these tragedies and direct our attentions to other matters as a coping mechanism.
From the start of the music video, the eccentric dance moves immediately catch our attention. The dancing schoolchildren follow Glover around the space, forming what appears to be a shield against his surroundings. When we take our eyes off of the dancing Glover and schoolchildren, we see that the rest of the warehouse is filled with chaos: police cars, fire, smoke, sirens, riots, and masked criminals on the run. The moving entourage seems to use dancing as a distraction from the violence occurring around them.
Guthrie Ramsey, a music history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, gave his own interpretation of Glover's dance amidst the chaos. Ramsey believes that the dancers could be there to distract the viewers in the same way black art is used to distract people from real problems plaguing America. "It's really a commentary on how much violence and contradictions there are in the consuming of pop culture, particularly in the violent elements of it,” he stated.
This is reflective of our modern society in many ways. In the age of social media, we are interchangeably exposed to content of joy and horror, with violent tragedies and viral memes coexisting on our feeds. Oftentimes, we choose to ignore devastating truths, following the newest dance craze or using self-deprecating memes to cope with how badly things are going.
After the music video was posted on YouTube on May 5th, the world buzzed with questions about what the intended meaning was. Despite the confusion, Glover refuses to provide the audience with any context or further explanation. By portraying these images through an obscure lens and then leaving it up to the viewers’ own interpretation, Glover forces us to face our own understanding of violence and oppression in the society.
As the rapper declares "This is America,” we are prompted to examine our personal paradigm of what America truly is to us. Perhaps it is gun violence and systematic oppression. Perhaps it is catchy pop music and viral dance moves. Perhaps it is both, mixed and blended together in a society full of twisted contradictions.
Ting Ting Chen