Music: The Symbolism of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” (Music Video)

This is America (visual for Childish Gambino’s new single) premiered the same day as Glover’s appearance on Saturday Night Live. While a toned down version of his alter ego performed twice on NBC, the music video shows there’s far more than performance going on in this art piece. Take a look:

If you are part of the populous that has never watched a season of Atlanta on FX, welcome to the mind of Donald Glover. But what is he trying to say?

Disclaimer: there are too many levels to this artwork to delve into today but here are the basics to help give you the keys to see even more:

The Title

The short starts with a simple white title on black background “This Is America.” If you know the genius of Donald Glover then you know he intentionally started the visual out this way to tell you what he wants you to understand. So everything you see from here on is his interpretation of what America is.

The Music

Throughout the piece you are hearing intentional melodic dissonance. The chorus and lead singing in slight contrast to the guitar you hear. While they play well together, they aren’t the exact fitting you’d play according to the classic pop/r&b format. Then the moog beat drops, an undeniable switch-up that immediately lets you know something is amiss, despite the happy tone that is sprinkled in. The chorus brings back the happy major chords to lull you into thinking everything is okay again…only to return to the unsettling beat drop. It should be noted the music almost has a pied piper hypnosis feel to it – when you watch again, notice how Gambino seems entranced by the beat at the very beginning, almost pulled into the choreography of it all.

The Black Man

As the video starts, we finally see Gambino revealed, from behind a white beam, standing in a white building, the entire video taking place in a white colored facility, signifying living in a white world. Even the clothes worn for the most part are white/light gray. The music hypnotizes his mind and body and it’s only after the music is coming to a close that he starts to wake up in horror, running for his life.

The Gunshots

Gambino’s introduction at first is awkward but as he hears the music he assumes the smooth, shirtless Marvin Gaye like appearance and just as we get into the video POW. There are three gun segments in the video. The first is when he shoots the guitarist. The second is the choir. In both, before we can process what’s happening it moves on and we’re nervous at anytime characters we like can be killed. The final gun scene, everyone scatters away leaving Gambino alone as he pretends to brandish another weapon.

But alas, he doesn’t have a weapon this time, and for a second it appears he’s dead despite not actually having a gun. And to cope, he self medicates before dancing alone. NOTE: The only time we see red is  when someone is about to get shot: notice the red chair, or red wall behind the choir…and well Gambino is dancing on a Red car at the end… But hey, get your money black man.

The Distracting Dancers

Tip: Don’t pay attention to anyone dancing, they are here to distract you from what is really going on. This is a metaphor for how we deal with our issues in America (in this case specifically black people). When we get gunned down, we party instead of paying attention to all the chaos. And the media wants you to be distracted as well. Party in the midst of chaos.

Whenever someone is killed, they are left slumped, dragged away to make way for the party – but the guns are carefully handed and passed along, as if the people in the video care more about the guns than the people… Hmm…red cloths too…

The Cop Cars

Police are supposed to protect us but despite the cars…where are the protectors? If you ignore the dancers you’ll notice there are a couple of figures in Riot Gear, but they are running with the rioters in concert, the police are part of the chaos.

The Horseman of Death

Just like in the book of revelation, you’ll notice a rider upon a white horse, resembling death. And there is a lot more death than just the Guitarist and Choir, if you can resist watching the dancer, you’ll notice a man beaten to death in the background and another man jumps to his death from the rafters. Death rides amongst the chaos as the number of black people decreases down to one.

Donald’s Face

if you pay attention, he rarely looks happy. Look at his eyes at the beginning as he’s dancing. There are glimpses of the same terror you see at the end. He’s dancing but he’s fully aware he’s just trying to get his money, perform and try to stay alive until it’s his turn to die.

The Lone Dancer/Runner

Gambino despite self medicating, getting his money and performing like he’s supposed to eventually runs out of people to perform for. Throughout the video he didn’t care when other people died, he ignored the riots, death incarnate even…he didn’t care until it was his turn. And now that the chaos chases him, there’s no music to distract him, “he’s just a black man” running for his life. And there’s the red car…just before…

There’s so much more to discuss, levels to this… what did you see?


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