This is America: Theories behind Childish Gambino’s satirical masterpiece


Complex dissection of gun violence and racism … Childish Gambino in the video for This Is America. PHOTO/RCA Records

The rapper, AKA Donald Glover, has released a cryptic new video that amassed 10m views in 24 hours and has been hailed as a work of genius. But what does it mean?

Following his calls to “stay woke!” on his biggest hit to date, Redbone, the musician, actor, writer, director and comedian Childish Gambino – AKA Donald Glover, has doubled his efforts on his new track This Is America. Its video amassed 10m views in only 24 hours and has been celebrated by Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, Trent Reznor and others as one of 2018’s best: a brilliantly choreographed bit of theatre in a vast warehouse, as Glover dances around an escalating riot, ending up with a complex dissection of gun violence and American racism. Theories about what it all means have started stacking up.

He’s playing Jim Crow

In the opening scenes, Glover uses grotesque smiles and exaggerated poses, with some on Twitter suggesting this is an invocation of the racial caricature Jim Crow. Another suggested Glover was accusing black performers – even himself – of “coonery”, or saying they are still made to feel like minstrels when they go out to perform their “black” music. One of the lyrics is “Grandma told me: get your money, black man”. Commenters on the lyric annotation site Genius have asked whether Glover feels that he has to take on stereotypically black performance roles (rapper, soul singer, comedian) to be able to earn money. His gunning down of the gospel choir singing the lyric suggests that he’s tired of the pressure to accumulate wealth, to be performatively black, and stay spiritually uplifted in an age of gun violence.

He’s duping us with dance

A little like that video where you’re told to follow a basketball being passed around, and you miss the moonwalking bear in the background, Glover and co’s moves – doing YouTube dance crazes such as the hopping, kicking “shoot” – mask the riots happening behind them. The video’s choreographer, Sherrie Silver, retweeted a comment, perhaps in agreement, from someone who argued: “Childish Gambino’s dance moves distracted all of us from the craziness that was happening in the background of the video & that’s exactly the point he’s trying to make.”

The Guardian for more

Comments are closed.