‘This Is America’: strengths and paradoxes of a critique of violence

After it was released on 5 May 2018, the music video by Donald Glover (alias Childish Gambino) ‘This Is America,’ quickly went viral. It unleashed passionate debates across both social networks and traditional media. The video generated hundreds of discussions in newspaper articles, videos and blog posts, echoing thousands of tweets, images and comments posted on several social media. Aside from some texts that analyze the political dimension of the video by putting them in the wider context of Donald Glover’s artistic career, the majority of articles and videos promise to reveal the symbolism, references, “hidden meanings” or “theories” behind ‘This Is America’. These explanations, which consist of deciphering some of the historical or perceived references in the video’s images and words, are largely based on comments posted on Twitter or in other articles across the Internet.

Childish Gambino’s exaggerated gestures and movements, his unassailable and unpredictable body, seem to be a cry of anger against the structural violence suffered by African-American citizens. The video clip is a strong criticism of gun worship in the United States, and for a few people Donald Glover’s virtuoso work renews the American tradition of protest songs. However his criticism of consumer society and the entertainment industry seems less obvious. If ‘This Is America’ was seen over two hundred million times on YouTube in three weeks, it also means tens of millions of online ads viewed by the same people and millions of dollars in advertising revenue. Paradoxically, the vast majority of articles on ‘This Is America’ are silent on Donald Glover’s activities in the entertainment industry, for example his roles in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Solo: A Star Wars story, two films produced by studios owned by the Walt Disney Company. This post examines this paradox and some of the strengths of ‘This Is America’, a provocative piece of art.

Aesthetic distance and multiplicity of interpretations

The richness and symbolic density of ‘This Is America’ encourage multiple interpretations, most of them with a strong political content: criticism of the violence generated by social injustice and racial discrimination; condemnation of the cult of arms in the United States; denunciation of the shameful legacy of segregationist laws.1 The execution of a black man, seated and with a cloth bag over his head, by a bullet in the back of his head could be seen as the denunciation of the armed violence in the United States on African-American citizens. Gambino’s gospel choir shooting could be a reference to the shootings perpetrated in the United States in a Methodist church in 2015 and in a Baptist church in 2017. The various dances performed by Childish Gambino accompanied by black girls and boys dressed in school uniforms would aim to divert our attention away from the violence that takes place in the background, similarly mass consumerism and social networks distract us from the violence endured by our fellow citizens. Gambino’s exaggerated movements and postures could be a reference to the racialized behaviour of the character of Jim Crow, whose name was given to laws legitimizing racial segregation in the southern states of the United States from the late 19th century until the mid-1960s. The knight who crosses the back of the post-industrial scene of the video on a white horse could be one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Finally, the nightmarish chase at the end of the video could refer to the horror movie Get out.

Donald Glover refuses to provide the media with a ready-made explanation of the meaning of his work. He insists that it is the viewers who must form their own opinion and, therefore, that all aesthetic and political readings are valid. In doing this, Glover introduces what the philosopher Jacques Rancière called the ‘aesthetic distance’, a form of art effectiveness based on “the suspension of every determinate relation correlating the production of art forms and a specific social function.”2 This assumed polysemy of the work allows its appropriation and mobilization by various actors in the political field in order to break the dominant consensus. According to Rancière, this makes it possible to create a political community where “the excluded is a conflictual actor […] carrying a right not yet recognized or witnessing an injustice in the existing state of right.”3

Armed violence and sonic spaces

When watching ‘This Is America,’ the viewer is surprised by the abrupt changes in the attitude of Childish Gambino, the character played by Donald Glover, which precede the performance of the African American guitarist and then the members of the church choir. The contrast between Gambino’s emotions and gestures before the executions and the moments of the act is brutal. Moreover, these outbreaks of armed violence seem arbitrary and inexplicable in the context of the actions shown to us. They are all the more incomprehensible as the people executed participated in the smooth running of a collective musical action. Before they were shot to death they were part of the music.

Structurally and narratively, the moments of the performances mark the transition between lyrical sections, with voice-overs and/or the choir singing and dancing, with sections where Childish Gambino begins rapping in the first person with the phrase “This is America”. The perception we have of an acceleration of things happening in video is subtly driven by the mixing of two heterogeneous sonic spaces within the video clip. On the one hand there is the song itself: it was recorded, mixed and mastered in the studio (so the video is not a live recording of the song). On the other hand are the sounds that seem to come from the space where the video is filmed: screams, sounds of riots. The postindustrial hangar is first shown empty, then gradually fills up with people facing the police symbolized by a car, people running or dancing and even an ‘apocalyptic’ white horse.

Sonogram of ‘This Is America’: structure and narrative elements

Our attention is constantly held by the contrasts between the sections, the unpredictability of the narration and the growing presence of the hangar’s sonic space. Then suddenly, there is a 15-second break, when Childish Gambino shoots an imaginary weapon at an off-field target. We hear the sounds of people running and screaming, before he lights what appears to be a cannabis joint. Donald Glover gives us clues about this gesture in a recent interview published in The New Yorker, where he makes the link between the trauma caused by the violence suffered by African Americans and their use of cannabis, stating that the black characters of his TV series Atlanta “aren’t smoking weed all the time because it’s cool but because they have P.T.S.D.—every black person does.”4

The politics of the black body and structural violence

The silence of the long 15-second break sets in motion a transition that leads us to another space, a nightmarish reality where Gambino is pursued by a crowd of people who probably want him dead. He runs for his life while the voice-over sings “You just a black man in this world, You just a barcode, You just a black man in this world…”

Throughout the video we are caught up in the gestures and movements of the bodies dancing in the foreground as well as the bodies moving, struggling and shouting in the background. They are black bodies that denounce through their gestures the historical violence to which they have been subjected, the null value of their lives in the face of firearms that take their existence away in a second. Childish Gambino’s body does not leave us indifferent, it seduces, surprises, frightens. He recalls the price to pay for centuries of oppression, this coming only a few days after rapper Kanye West, a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, declared that 400 years of slavery seemed to him to be a choice for those who had suffered it. As Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.”5

On the paradoxes of ‘This is America’: to whom do our bodies belong?

Just as Donald Glover uses his body to denounce gun violence, the confusion of genres and contradictions of the entertainment industry are also manifestly embodied in his body and in the use that the Walt Disney Company can make of him. Glover asserts: “I’m scanned into ‘Star Wars’ now, my face and body.” He is aware of the consequences of Walt Disney owning the image of his body, not only for the purpose of marketing Star Wars products but also for producing other films based on his digital image. “Who’s to say that at some point they won’t take that scan and say, ‘Let’s make another movie with Donald. He’s been dead for fifteen years, but we can do whatever we want with him’.”6

The contrast on how Donald Glover uses his body in this Star Wars ad and in ‘This Is America’ is striking. He embodies the paradoxes inherent in the neoliberal chaos of the United States, this ‘America’ of which he speaks. The considerable impact of ‘This Is America’ should not hide the issues raised by its commercial dimension and the appropriation of this work by the entertainment industry and web giants. Even if the mix of genres assumed by its author could be considered as a strategy of circumvention or symbolic inversion, ‘This Is America’ asks the question: to whom do our bodies belong? This question is fundamental because it is closely linked both to slavery – the power to dispose and destroy bodies – and to the consumerist enslavement produced by our societies of control.

Cite this article as: Luis Velasco-Pufleau, "‘This Is America’: strengths and paradoxes of a critique of violence," in Music, sound and conflict, 01/08/2018, https://msc.hypotheses.org/937.

  1. According to the recent report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on his mission to the United States of America, « the United States remains a chronically segregated society. Blacks are 2.5 times more likely than Whites to be living in poverty, their infant mortality rate is 2.3 times that of Whites, their unemployment rate is more than double that for Whites, they typically earn only 82.5 cents for every dollar earned by a White counterpart, their household earnings are on average well under two thirds of those of their White equivalents, and their incarceration rates are 6.4 times higher than those of Whites. These shameful statistics can only be explained by long-standing structural discrimination on the basis of race, reflecting the enduring legacy of slavery », Philip Alston, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights on His Mission to the United States of America’ (United Nations Human Rights Council, 4 May 2018), 14–15. []
  2. Jacques Rancière, ‘The Paradoxes of Political Art’, in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. Steven Corcoran (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 138. []
  3. Jacques Rancière, ‘The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics’, in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. Steven Corcoran (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 189. []
  4. Tad Friend, ‘Donald Glover Can’t Save You’, The New Yorker, 26 February 2018. []
  5. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 12. []
  6. Friend, ‘Donald Glover Can’t Save You’. []

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