by Channon Oyeniran
Not your ordinary feel good, music pumping, fun and colourful music video, Childish Gambino released “This is America” to the world on May 6th, and it has been a hot topic on all social media platforms since. Both the video and the song itself provide powerful social commentary, highlighting a variety of issues that are as relevant today as they were centuries ago for the black diaspora, not only in America but around the world. After seeing some buzz about the video on Facebook, I decided to watch it. I was struck by all that was going on in the video, the flashy dance moves, the beat of the song, all while trying to pick up what was going on in the background while Gambino was dancing, striking poses and showing off an impressive array of facial expressions. After my first viewing, I saw a few more articles on Facebook about the deeper meaning of the video. I was blown away that I had missed so much! I went back and watched the video at least four times and picked up on so many different symbols in the video. I would like to share three of the motifs within the video that you can easily miss if you let the catchy beat and entertaining dance moves distract you.
Guns vs. the worth of a black body:
There’s a pretty staggering image at the start of the video that struck me the first time through. (If you’ve seen it, you probably know exactly the one I mean.) It’s when Gambino pulls out a gun and shoots a black man in the back of the head. In doing so, he strikes a pose that is reminiscent of the Jim Crow character. After he shoots the man, Gambino carefully places the gun on a red cloth, while the black man’s dead body is dragged away. (This motif is repeated when he places another gun neatly away a second time after he shoots church parishioners, a clear reference to the 2015 Charleston shooting of nine churchgoers.) It struck me how carefully Gambino places the gun back, almost as if he was being careful and giving reverence to the gun; meanwhile, the body of the black man was given no respect at all, not even a thought or look as he is dragged away out of the scene. This is an obvious nod to what is going on in America (and frankly around the world now) concerning gun violence. Guns have more rights, are more protected and are taken more seriously than the lives of black people.
The cell phone as a powerful (yet ineffective) tool for justice:
“This a celly…That’s a tool…”
In one scene, you see the camera pan up and focus on about four people with cell phones in their hands, taking video of the chaos taking place below. At this point, Gambino raps, “This a celly…That’s a tool…”. This lyrical line signals the power that a cell phone has to capture the injustice that happens daily against black people in America. The cell phone has been used to capture concrete proof of injustices against black people time and time again (e.g. Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Demetrius Hollins, Rolesville High student, Jacqueline Craig, Keith Scott, teenager at a pool party, Charlie Kinsey, etc.). However, it still proves to be ineffective in actually bringing justice and righting the wrongs of injustice committed against black people.
Some have speculated that the cell phone can also appear to be a weapon in the eyes of some, just like the case with Stephon Clark, who was murdered on March 18th, 2018 because the cell phone he was holding was “mistaken” for a gun. So although a powerful tool to capture injustice, holding a cellphone while black can also prove deadly. Whether this was intentional or not is unknown, particularly because of the short period of time between Stephon Clark’s death and the release of the video.
Black culture used as entertainment, while black lives are disposable:
Something else that struck me when watching this video, especially for the first time, was how much I got caught up in watching the dancing and enjoying the beat of the song. My eyes did not automatically go to what was happening behind Gambino and the dancers and the depth of what was occurring in each scene.
I think for a lot of other people, including myself, who watched the video, we got sidetracked with the dancing and upbeat flow of Childish Gambino’s lyrics. I think that was part of the point. Black culture is so popular and influences every part of society; people from all cultures and backgrounds enjoy different aspects of it, music especially. However, when it comes to black lives, police brutality, racism and injustice against the black community are commonplace, and the world seems to turn a blind eye to these injustices that are literally killing us.
Socially conscious art, like this music video, helps engage all who watch it, thus stimulating large-scale discussion on the subject matter covered in the video and raising awareness about things like racism, police brutality, suicide, gun violence, etc. There are so many other meanings and symbols in this video that make it a masterpiece. The depth and thought that was put into this video is genius, and I really hope invokes thought and change for all who watch it. This video is important not only because it uses music to garner people’s attention, but also because it speaks on a very significant issue which continues to plague the black community but is often a tricky and sensitive topic – racially biased police brutality. I believe this video achieved what it set out to do, and that is to talk about a real problem facing America and how easy it is and has been for people to look the other way to the plight of the black person.
For more information…
- Black Lives Upended by Policing: The Raw Videos Sparking Outrage
- Can cell phones stop police brutality?
- An Expert’s Take on the Symbolism in Childish Gambino’s Viral ‘This Is America’ Video
- Donald Glover’s ‘This Is America’ Explained by 2 People Who Don’t Pretend to Understand It
- Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ Video, Explained
- This Video Breaks Down the Lyrics to “This Is America”
- Donald Glover Is Watching You Watch Him
- Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” Lyrics Explained