Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ – a 21st Century Masterpiece?

I know what you’re thinking, another article that will surely ‘hail’ Childish Gambino as a ‘Renaissance man’ or the greatest artist of our generation. Another article that’s going to break down the video, and analyse those ‘Jim Crowe’ references. But that’s not what I’m here for.

No, this is an essay exploring why ‘This Is America’ is the unlikely piece of art created by Donald Glover that represents and reflects the generation we live in. It is an honest and triumphant articulation of actuality, starting a conversation whilst entertaining the world. ‘This Is America’, shows that artist Glover/Gambino has  striking confidence and mastery over all of his chosen artistic forms (something that rarely happens for any artist).


Visually…

We begin briefly with the video – directed by Hiro Murai. We begin with the format they used, film. Grainy, old and texturised. And this choice of format co-operates perfectly with Murai’s trademark colour grading, which deepens the shades of beautiful black on Gambino’s skin – darkening reds of blood and cloth, making them more aggressive than they already were, adding to ambiguous and enigmatic facial expressions, which are purposely made this way solely to keep our eyes on him.

Manifesting the haunting white, eye popping expressions on Gambino’s face to forcefully hold your attention. Never mind the hypnotic use of timing and blocking, the suave and self-assured dance moves, speeding up and slowing down with enough time for Gambino to glance back at the school children: “Are you still watching, are you still following me?”, before he looks back at us, accusing us: “This is America.”

Lyrically…

Fluidly bringing us into the lyrics, “This is America, don’t catch you slippin’ up. Look what I’m whippin’ up” – Gambino tells us to pay attention, he’s about to showing you something, listen, watch, feel: “This Is America”. His first verse, is honest and sad, he’s talking about himself and expressing the voices of the nation – his lyrics are simple and minimalistic, yet provide just as much of a profound and extensive image as any Kendrick Lamar verse.

Look how I’m livin’ now,

Police be trippin’ now.

This is America,

guns in my area,

I got the strap,

I gotta carry em’.

I’mma go into dis,

This is guerrilla (woo!)

Here Glover addresses us, the audience, “This is my life. And you know, I’m going to be honest, I’m going to do this ‘guerrilla’ (when you fight in an unconventional way, using your surroundings, against a larger oppositional and frequently institutional force). This is guerrilla marketing/fighting. I’m going to tell you how I feel, in the only way I know how to, with my art.

Using ‘Trap’ as the musical vessel for this, (I’ll explain how this is perfect later, but for now all we need to know is that repetition is the point), as we repeat the same events as a country, we repeat the same lyrics. There are no throwaway lines here;

This a celly,

that a tool.

Again a line that has a double meaning, as obviously cellphones are now used as a ‘tool’ for change, recording viral videos, as the camera pans to the children recording Gambino, this refers to the death of young black teenager, Stephon Clark, who was gunned down for supposedly carrying a weapon. After the police investigation, he was found only with an iPhone, not a gun,  also known as a ‘tool’. There are plenty more themes here, “I just checked my followers list, you m**f**rs owe me”, “I’m on Gucci, I’m so pretty” – reaffirming lines that tackle the distraction of a superficial, social media obsessed society.

Musically…

Gambino is at the height of his power here, as I said, a ‘true mastery of form’ – he’s only used words and visuals so far. Music acts not just as music here, but even doubles as sound design for the visuals we see, the music itself is a true representation of Gambino’s expressionistic themes. He uses lazy trap and old school funk, two genres, Gambino’s not known for, despite hiss hit album, Awaken, My Love!.

Your choice of genre, is an artistic choice too, he chooses these two because they’re innately black, they represent two sides of black culture, the older historic side (Jim Crowe, Church) with funk and the modern side (viral dance moves, social media and weed) with minimalist trap, a genre usually known for it’s ‘simple lyrics’, where artists aren’t saying anything important.

Gambino creates a collage of ad-libs from everyone here, Migos, Big Sean and even Chance, he didn’t have to do this but he adds these chaotic ad-libs to create a sonic adaption of the chaos we see in the the video, it’s distracting and catchy but also represents the community of modern black artists who influence the same distractions Gambino is showing us.

The music slips back into funk, oooh, woo! Feral screams from Gambino, people singing! We’re beginning to enjoy ourselves. Then: “This Is America”. We’re shot back into reality, “Don’t catch you slippin’ now”, Gambino tells us, but we fell for it, so quickly, so easily. “This is America”.

The video, the music, the lyrics, sonically and visually define the 21st century of black culture. We can’t avert our eyes, as Gambino expresses and acknowledges the plight of being a black artist in the 21st century; he’s perfectly articulated his feelings and provided entertainment for the masses, forcing people to educate themselves by crushing together multiple art forms and genre.

And why? To start a conversation and take a second look at the world they live in. Isn’t that the point of an artist? To reflect the truth of the time in a way the population can enjoy and understand.

Words by Levi Eddie Aluede

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