The rise of Donald Glover: how he captured America

The award-winning writer, actor, singer and rapper has dominated the internet with his provocative, politically charged hit This is America, the latest step in an illustrious, unconventional career

By Katie Bain |The Guardian | May 12, 2018

Try, if you can, to watch This Is America, the new music video from Childish Gambino, while keeping your eyes off the man in the camera’s gaze. It’s not easy. You may have to watch it twice, maybe three times, probably more. In the clip, Childish Gambino is a dancing, running, alternately homicidal and joyous streak of shirtless charisma. Your eyes want to follow him, soak him in. But if you do, you’ll miss the point he seems to be making in the video, an enigmatic and provocative effort that has accumulated over 74m YouTube views and hundreds of thinkpieces in the six days since its release.


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So instead, try directing your attention on all that’s happening in the background as Childish Gambino – the musical moniker of multi-hyphenate artist Donald Glover – moves through a spare industrial space in a succession of meditative tracking shots that serve as steady foundation for the frenetic action they capture.

There are children in school uniforms doing dances of African and American origin. There is a white horse with a hooded rider. There are police. There are people running across the upper level of the space that looks increasingly like a prison as the video progresses. There are chickens, girls on bicycles, money in the air, mobs running in riot-like pandemonium. There are kids lost in their cellphones, car fires, SZA sitting on the hood of what appears to be a 1986 Camry.

While Childish Gambino is surely the star – playing the role some have suggested is America itself – viewed in context of the background action, the video is dizzying, hypnotic treatise on racism, gun violence, joy, spirituality, hip-hop and entertainment in the United States. Its symbolism has been linked to Jim Crow, Michael Jackson and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. YouTube videosinvestigating these Easter eggs have more views than many actual music videos.

Since debuting This Is America during last week’s episode of Saturday Night Live – for which he served as host and musical guest – Glover has refused to reveal the video’s message, telling TMZ “that’s not for me to say.” What’s certain is that This Is America is a brilliant, career-defining moment.

“This is one of the great performers in modern America,” says TV host Touré, whose books include 2012’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? “He’s showing a really interesting ability to do soul music, television, movies, comedy and drama and to make art that has political substance, but not so much that it becomes propagandist or preachy.”

This Is America has dared us to decide what to make of it. The video’s background action commences immediately after the video hits it pivot point: Childish Gambino pulling a gun from his pants and shooting a hooded man in the back of the head, execution style. This is when he declares the song’s guiding principle: “This is America.”

The implication is that the brutal violence and general mayhem is no different than daily life in the US, where guns, entrenched racism and police brutality against black Americans dominate the headlines. Gambino goes on to kill a gospel choir in a moment evoking the 2015 Charleston massacre, in which nine people died during a prayer service at one the country’s oldest black churches. The guns are handled with great care, being wrapped in red cloth some believe symbolizes red-state second-amendment reverence. Meanwhile, limp bodies are casually pulled out of the frame.

Such reiteration of tragically common violence has for some been unsettling. “Over the past few years we’ve seen so many young African Americans killed, and it’s been recorded and retransmitted over and over for our consumption,” says Blair Kelley, a history professor at North Carolina State University. “Usually the argument made is that transparency will bring us closer to justice, but we’ve found that it hasn’t. So when I saw Glover re-enacting [such killing], I don’t know what the purpose is. I don’t know who was supposed to see that and feel reminded or called to enact justice, because I don’t know that the real killings we’ve seen have brought us closer to justice.”

Childish Gambino - This is America video

Photograph: Sony Records