Childish Gambino’s “This is America”: Why It Matters

photograph of rap artist Childish Gambino, aka Donald Glover
"Childish Gambino 9" by Eli Watson is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

Donald Glover has become a global phenomenon. As a comedian, Glover has left audiences laughing with his standup. As an actor, he captured audiences with his antics on the television show Community and continues to capture them through his television show Atlanta. But Glover’s comedy and filmography is not the only reason that he’s famous. Glover has an alter ego. As Childish Gambino, he gained repoire as a rap artist through successful projects such as Camp, STN MTN/ Kauai, and Because the Internet. As of late, Glover has been focusing on his filmography due to his show Atlanta and the fact that he plays Lando Calrissian in the new Star Wars Solo movie. But this past weekend, Glover made a return as Childish Gambino with his latest song, “This is America.” The song drew attention when Glover dropped a visual to accompany the song. It’s  full of relevant and powerful imagery that has characterized a part of the United States recently. Could Gambino’s new song be the wakeup call that America needs?

The “This is America” video begins with a man who picks up a guitar and then begins playing. The camera pans over to a shirtless Childish Gambino. Gambino begins dancing and the camera follows him while he dances over to the man with the guitar who is now sitting with a bag over his head. Gambino stops dancing, pulls out a gun, and shoots the man in the back of the head. He then proceeds to rap his verse, with begins with him rapping “This is America.” Gambino hands the gun over to a schoolboy and the camera follows him as he continues dancing with schoolchildren behind him. The camera then cuts to a gospel choir. In mid-song, Gambino appears and dances in front of the choir. Someone tosses him a machine gun offscreen and Gambino guns down the choir. The rest of the music video consists of Gambino dancing with the schoolchildren again, and dancing on top of a car. But there’s a catch. Throughout the entire video while Gambino is dancing, behind him, chaos is occuring. People can be seen chasing one another with guns and knives. Police are seen chasing people on foot and even on horseback. Cars are on fire. The end of the video shows Gambino ultimately running from the police and the other people in the video. What could this mean?

Hence the title of Childish Gambino’s song, what’s happening in the music video is a reflection of America. Gambino gunning down the man with the guitar and gospel choir might be a reflection of the gun violence that has been running rampant across the country. For instance, at a high school in Parkland Florida, a student open fired inside the school and killed 17 people. The dancing schoolchildren might also be a reference to the Parkland shooting.

The police that were chasing people in the background are most likely a reference to police brutality, an occurrence that has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement since the death of Trayvon Martin, a Florida teen who was shot and killed because of racial profiling. Since then, police have unjustly shot and killed a handful of other African Americans, including Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and Freddie Gray.

Although Childish Gambino might be referencing gun violence and police brutality in his video, there might be an even deeper meaning to the visual in its entirety. Although everything is happening behind Gambino in the video, Gambino himself and the schoolchildren dancers are in focus, rather than everything else. He acts as a distraction to all of the mayhem in the background. Maybe that’s the point of the whole video. America is distracted. Yes, we are aware that gun violence and police brutality are an issue, but we still have a stronger focus on celebrities and entertainment, hence Gambino and the other dancers. To go even further, we are aware of the issues that are plaguing the country, but don’t pay attention to why exactly it’s happening. Yes, we know that gun violence is an issue, but why are guns so easy to obtain and should this call for stricter gun laws? Yes, we know that African Americans are unjustly being killed by police, but what structural barriers are allowing this to continue to happen? Why aren’t police being trained better to handle situations dealing with African Americans?

One might say that although Childish Gambino’s music video is full of powerful imagery, it should be taken exactly for what it is: a music video. Childish Gambino is an artist, and like a lot of artists, there is a message within their medium. But there have been a plethora of other music artists who have done this. One might also say that Gambino is simply trying to generate more popularity for himself and it’s just coincidence that his song is relevant to what has been happening in the country. But since when has an artist’s work not impacted the people that have come into contact with it?

“This is America” is more than a song and a music video. It’s a message to those who are distracted from the issues in this country. The song and music video are especially significant to those who have not paid much attention to the controversy of gun violence or are ignorant to the plight of the black community. Childish Gambino’s “This is America” shows just one of the ways that light can be shed on overlooked issues, and perhaps more music like “This is America” will emerge and make an impact.

Byron Mason II is a sophomore at DePauw University as a English Writing major. As both a Media Fellow and an editor at DePauw's Midwestern Review, Byron contributes to the DePauw community by producing and monitoring the compelling content that DePauw has to offer.