Donald Glover wasn’t content to just reawaken our childhood trauma on Thursday’s episode of Atlanta and then round out his triple threat credentials hosting and as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live.
He had to remind us what kind of threat he really is in his Sunday morning video release of This Is America. This dark minstrel-show video is more complex than a Kanye West history revision, swinging wildly from Bo Jangles shuck and jive to a roleplay of America’s dark chaos.
The video starts with the sound of light Caribean guitar played by a barefoot man in linen pants–a moment of black joy and happiness. Childish Gambino jerks to life to the music, contorting to adopt the tune like a demon taking possession of the black body. The happy tune is short lived as a stalking shirtless Gambino mercs his diasporan brother, menacing “This is America” to the throb of heavy bass. He adopts the famous pose of dancing Jim Crow when he pulls the trigger: this is the black experience in America, our connection killed, our bodies possessed by the leering dark energy of American supremacy, turned into shucking zombies. This is probably what it looked like when Kanye lost his mind.
The new Jim Crow two steps with South African school children against a backdrop of increasing chaos. The stereotypical images of blacks dancing and singing ‘cars, clothes, hos’ are hip hop’s most marketable products. Against the backdrop of hundreds of years of oppression, rappers that preach the prosperity+bitches gospel reinforce the slavery-era idea that blacks were greedy, lazy bucks, undeserving of freedom or justice. Simultaneously, they lull listeners into focusing on a little cash instead of economic justice, a little flash instead of freedom These are the kind of images mass media loves to reproduce–and ship worldwide: they support hegemonic thinking about blacks and keep everyone sipping the white supremacy juice. A twin set of school children dance in the back under the rain of a red money gun. Jim Crow is for the kids
Speaking of the prosperity gospel, a choir preaching “get your money, black man” sings in a room removed from the chaos. Jim pops through a door to join them in joyful worship–for a moment–before mowing them down with an AR-15. He punctuates his shots again with, “This is America.” The scene calls the Charleston church shooting to mind. It also reminds us that as black people, buying into capitalism as a way to salvation is a dangerous business: “Don’t catch you slippin.”
Throughout the video, the background is increasingly populated with people running in all directions. black people and white people, cops, people wielding sticks or bats. The direction of the actions isn’t clear–who is chasing who? Is this an uprising like Baltimore or a street war like Charlottesville? Like the news on any given day, it is hard to make sense of the chaotic images broadcast salaciously without context.
Above it all, young men in white masks bear witness, cell phones out. “This is a celly. That is a tool.” They sit above the chaos watching and recording. Below the school kids circle Jim Crow while the apocalypse’s horseman rides through on the white horse of death (is everything apocalyptic? [yes.]). With cars burning and police and people rioting, it is Jim Crow’s hand extended like a gun that sends everyone running, the scene dropping into silence as he nods off high on America’s heroin, violence.
His dance is brought back with a couple quick puffs on a joint. He perches atop a car doing his best Michael Jackson. Scattered around is a field of cars. These are not your usual rap-mobiles. There are no spinning rims or chrome kits. Instead, the cars call to mind the hundreds of cars we have seen pulled over in police shooting videos. Sandra Bland’s car, or Samuel Dubose’s–cars that belong to working people just trying to get through the day without being turned into a statistic by the state. Jim Crow dances among the graveyard of cars, with just his linen legged brother, hooded head and guitar restored and a sister wavering sexily on the hood of a Philando Castile look-a-like car.
Even the black man that dances possessed through a wasteland of black pain, shucking and jiving to the gospel of white supremacy, mowing down his brethren, is not free (take note, Kanye). The video ends with our Jim Crow now terror-stricken, running from the faceless unfocused chaos he was dancing above. He is no longer funny or silly or swaggy, his face full of raw fear, his body pumping all his energy towards surviving. Judging by our present state of affairs, he’s not going to make it.
The video gives us a lot to examine. Childish Gambino has created this layered stew worthy of reflection and not just reaction–so what do you take away? Some have written that he is condemning black America for embracing shallowness while massive problems loom in plain sight. Others have said he is pointing to a cycle of violence and numbness as we try to mumble rap our way past problems we can’t ignore. I think both of these analyses put too much burden on black America alone to do the heavy lifting of eradicating white supremacy.
To lay white supremacy at the feet of black people who like to have a good time is also to deny black people their humanity. In the last few years, I have seen activists go so hard that their life energy was depleted like a phone charge. We plug ourselves into pop culture to get a boost, a little levity to remind us why we fight, a little art to remind us that to be free is to take joy where you can find it. The trick is to plug into pop culture that fills you up to fight another day, and these days black excellence is giving us plenty to sup on. Childish Gambino’s song and video are another in a long line of important work being created by black artists–Cole, Lamar, Kweli, and Buddy and Caleborate, and Beyonce, and Solange, and, Joyner, and Vic Mensa and on and on.
Yes, yes, the commodity factory of American media keeps pumping out crap-get-money-fuck-bitches-rap. You don’t have to eat that fast food. You shouldn’t let the fast food being produced by corporations define what hip hop is or isn’t. Don’t be fooled: there is always conscious rap happening. Sometimes it is harder to find than others, but it has always been a part of hip-hop, and more broadly black culture. In every era, the rebellion leaders and freedom fighters also consumed the pop culture of their day. In other times as in our own, artists and seers showed us the way through their painting, writing, singing, and dancing. Let’s not let each new track make us declare consciousness is now alive, now dead. Let’s just sit in the complexity. Let’s acknowledge that our world is not binary.
America is this– forcing all experience into a simple dichotomy of good and bad, violence and justice, joy and chaos. We have to tease out what the relationship between these elements is–where is the cause? which is the side effect? who loses and who loses more? This Is America juxtaposes our country’s many masks so that we can see the complexity of moving through this world. The video is a Rorschach test, the video sows both shame and sympathy, letting you grow whichever you choose. It is we who must do the choosing: not just for this video, not in the abstract but at this moment. To get beyond the binge/purge cycle that devours black life, we have to rise above the choice to devolve into the chaos America allows for or to rest in the embrace of the joy and lightness that we need sometimes to survive. To do both, to be all that humanity can be–this is America.