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Op-Ed: Childish Gambino turns America’s darkness into art

Donald Glover knows you’re watching him. But this time, you’re uncomfortable and he knows that too.

Glover, who performs under the name Childish Gambino, released a music video for his new single, “This Is America,” which has racked up over 40 million views and earned him countless accolades from celebrities and fans alike.

This video plays almost like a live-action political cartoon — packed with symbolism, significance and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cultural references. It is an exercise in societal distraction, with the real substance found just past the eyeline.

We could simply break down all of the visuals but the analysis is useless without the context.

Glover has never been one to follow trends in his music. He sneers at “mumble rap club bangers,” choppy lyrics, bland chorus, heavy bassline and “ This Is America” makes a mockery of these things. In fact, this doesn’t become as obvious until we mix in the video.

Unpacking the Video

It cannot be overstated that the chaos happening in the background of the video is the most important part of this visual. The natural reaction from an undiscerning audience is to be shocked by Glover’s dispassionate massacre of a church choir (eerily and accurately representative of the church shooting by white supremacist Dylann Roof in 2015) or to be riveted by his troupe of dancing schoolchildren.

I’m going to say this a lot but that’s the point.

Glover plays the Jim Crow caricature, found in his contorted pose pre-headshot and in his carefully calculated facial tics throughout the video.

After shooting a hooded black man and gunning down a joyful choir, he then passes off the destruction to a well-dressed extra who handles the machine with kid gloves before we are just expected to move on.

The metaphor here isn’t subtle. The American news cycle moves from shooting to shooting, massacre to massacre with fleeting outrage and dispassionate apathy. We mask our tragedy in diverting headlines, fake news and celebrity gossip tripe. We gun down Americans of all colors in the streets and fill our clubs and playlists with their work for our entertainment. We appropriate the parts of other cultures that we find palatable, discarding depth and meaning.

Glover wasn’t done, though. The camera continues to move, putting the seamless dance transitions at the forefront of our vision. However, in the distance, we can see rioting, flames and turmoil. We see the hooded figure of Death on a pale horse chasing black citizens, followed by the ominous lights of police cars. We see the youth perched up high, recording the violence on their cell phones as it erupts below them. We see a man jump to his death in the midst of escalating pandemonium.

Then, suddenly, we see Glover’s freeze frame in the pantomime of holding a gun. Instead, he lights a joint and saunters off and we see him running for his life at the end of the video.

Again, the metaphor isn’t subtle. The media has been full of stories of police-instigated violence against people holding innocuous objects (Trayvon Martin’s Skittles and Stephon Clark’s cell phone) but these stories only dominate for a cycle or two before the public’s attention span on them runs out.

In my mind, that’s exactly the underlying issue with the video. It’s amassed millions of views and tweets, been in every headline since its release and generated debate across the internet. Sadly, like every tragic, shocking or controversial topic to hit the airwaves, this too will fade from our attention in the coming weeks.

It’s an unfortunate fact that society’s collective attention span has been in decline with the rise of the internet. News cycles last minutes instead of days or weeks and there always seems to be a more horrifying headline to capture our attention. The flip side of this coin is our society’s desensitization to shocking subjects. Americans have found themselves looking at a landscape populated with mass shootings, ignorance of the rampant mental health issues that plague a significant portion of the population (and go unnoticed and/or untreated) and even a problematic and largely unhelpful government.

Coming to Conclusions

I’ll be honest, I had a bit of a mental crisis when beginning my investigation of this song and video. What am I allowed to talk about? Is white privilege clouding my analysis? Is anyone going to find my article racist?

I think this is exactly the point that Glover is trying to make with his creation. He wants us to question ourselves and society. He wants us to take a good hard look at our collective shortcomings and he has the entertainment platform to make people pay attention (at least for a moment).

After hours of research and speaking to many people with many differing opinions, it’s hard to come to a conclusion about the potential effects of this video. It is a think piece; art that is meant to draw attention to our failures and how we haven’t moved the needle in a positive way in a long time.

I don’t know if “This Is America” will effect change upon a restless and distracted society. Glover is in the middle of a moment, but we’re not sure how big it is or how long it will last in our collective consciousness.

Speaking only for myself and my time spent researching and analyzing this video, I hope that entertainers with a platform as far-reaching as Glover’s continue to use it as a message for real change. Don’t get me wrong- Glover is far from the first person to create art with a message and he will not be the last. We need to seize upon each moment, each piece that makes the masses feel something or spark the kind of debate that this video has created. As a group, we need to use these moments to push the needle in a way that wakes us from apathy and small-mindedness.

The world is changing every day. I only hope that art such as this moves us into a place of understanding- acknowledging our individual biases and recognizing that society has to work together to reach a higher level of knowledge and equality. Here’s hoping the rest of the world catches up to what Glover, and plenty of other artists, already know and are trying to show us.

Olivia Khiel