Few artists have evolved as dramatically as Childish Gambino. From his first studio album, Camp, where he lamented on being ‘not quite Black enough’ and being ‘too Black’ at the same time, to the instrumental power of 2018 release, “Awaken, My Love,” Childish has had quite the musical evolution (of course this is ignoring the meteoric rise of his alter ego, Donald Glover). Childish has always been political to some extent even when he only ever discussed his personal hurdles of being a nerdy Black rapper. However, Childish Gambino’s recent release, This is America, breaks the mold of past songs, and shows that the old dorky Childish Gambino is long gone.
While the song is compelling in its own right with his melodic acoustic riffs and hard-hitting drops, the real strength of the song is in the music video. Messages, some hidden, others blatant are strewn throughout the video, which draws a direct line to the honest state of things in America today.
From the start, we’re given a stark view of Childish standing shirtless, in a pair of gray pants that many have drawn a similarity to the traditional trousers of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. The creator of Dear White People, Justin Simien, pointed out on Twitter that Childish’s dance moves before the drop are blatantly similar to the dances of the Jim Crow era minstrel shows. In these shows, white actors (like Judy Garland) would dress in Black-face and sing and dance for the entertainment of a white audience. One watch through, and it’s pretty easy to spot the resemblance.
The central meaning of the song seems to show America’s appreciation of Black entertainers, while at the same time ignoring the serious issues embroiling the Black community like police brutality and outrageously high incarceration rates. This meaning can be found in the opening lyrics when Childish Gambino sings:
“We just wanna party
Party just for you
We just want the money
Money just for you”
The message of forgetting tragedy is epitomized when Childish shoots the masked man in the back of the head right at the drop, then keeps on dancing. This idea is carried throughout the video, as Childish and his dancers perform in front of a backdrop of tragedy and chaos almost as a form of distraction. Others have drawn the dancing as a form of survival, as the dancers and Childish remain safe from the violence in the backdrop as they continue to dance through it all.
Gun violence is a recurring theme throughout the video. The drops from the melodic guitar to pounding bass hits are framed with on-time gunshots. At the first drop with the masked guitar player, and right before the second chorus, when Childish guns down a church choir with an automatic weapon. This second act of gun violence is an obvious nod to the Charleston Church shooting in 2015 which had strong racial motivations.
Furthermore, after each shooting, the guns are taken off screen with care, and wrapped in a bright red cloth, drawing a parallel to how right-wing America puts protection of the 2nd Amendment and gun ownership over the lives of innocent people.
The video ends with Childish fleeing down a dark hallway, no longer at ease with the chaos of America. Some have pointed it out that this is a connection to how futile things can be for a Black man in America, even if they are a marketable entertainer. The lyrics embody this idea of Black people being recognized as nothing more than a product in America, and how once you can’t be sold or used, are useless to the American narrative:
“You just a Black man in this world
You just a barcode, ayy
You just a Black man in this world
Drivin’ expensive foreigns, ayy
You just a big dawg, yeah
I kenneled him in the backyard
No proper life to a dog
For a big dog”
The messages are boundless in This is America, and you may catch yourself catching new things with every watch through. After the release of This is America, it’s easy to see that the evolution of Childish Gambino is reaching a climax. This idea is solidified with the fact that Donald Glover plans to retire the Childish Gambino musical persona soon. Needless to say, if This is America is any sign of Childish Gambino’s new and final direction, Donald Glover has selected a brilliant and powerful message to go out on.