Childish Gambino's new music video for 'This Is America' is a perfect lesson in political satire
Gun violence, racism, police brutality and the smoke and mirrors of the media are all issues deftly addressed in Childish Gambino's new music video.
The intertwined relationship between art, music and politics is something that cannot be questioned. For eons now, music has played a key role in shaping cultures and never has it been as rampant as today. Ever since the presidential elections of 2016, there's been a slew of politically charged music on the rise. It's as if artists felt an urgent need to put their voice out, a call that was last felt with such magnitude during the era of protest music through the Vietnam War.
Apart from contemporary, active acts, we've also been privy to a huge wave of comebacks, especially from bands that saw their heydays in the 90's. Of course, balancing musical expression and political thought is a delicate craft and not everybody gets it right. Earlier this year, we saw Eminem's spitfire freestyle rap at the BET awards. But soon after, when Slim Shady released his album 'Revival', it fell flat. Even spearheading legends of political dissent like Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine couldn't quite make an impact like they would have wanted.
A few acts did manage to get it bang-on though. Bands like Superchunk, LCD Soundsystem, Ride, The Pixies and more struck the right chord as they tackled the difficult political landscape of the times. Most recently, A Perfect Circle released their first album in 14 years 'Eat the Elephant' and suddenly set the bar for weaving music and politics together.
And now, continuing the onslaught of politically charged music, the musical alter ego of modern renaissance man Donald Glover - Childish Gambino - has just dropped a new music video for the track 'This Is America'. The video has already amassed over 16 million views in just two days and is practically a lesson in making a timeless classic of a politically charged song.
The video starts off with a jaunty Gambino dancing into the opening scene, with seize-the-day lyrics that go "We just wanna party / Party just for you / We just want the money / Money just for you,” all reminiscent of something chilled out, like his previous hit Redbone. But that all takes a sharp U-turn when the crooning takes a pause and Glover whips out a gun and shoots a man with a bag over his head at point-blank range. "This is America," he lays the first line of rap before we even get the time to process what just happened. Ominous stuff!
Suddenly, the video, directed by Hiro Murai, Glover’s close collaborator who helms many episodes of 'Atlanta,' takes a dark turn. Glover looks maniacally enthralled as he bursts into dance moves, front and center of the camera. Another minute in, and we are introduced to an all-black choir cooing out the backing vocals as we've almost forgotten the first gunshot in the video.
Before we have the chance to get comfortable, yet again, Gambino pulls out an automatic rifle and shoots the entire choir to death. There's no subtlety to the whole thing. The message is very clear and direct - these are tumultuous times. Gun violence is at its peak, police brutality is rampant and the entire country is closing off its borders and turning reclusive. Glover reminds us of all that but continues merrily dancing through the whole video.
The analogy is crisp. In the age of Internet, it only takes a few days before a serious issue to get swept under the rug and forgotten. With all the song and dance and merriment providing a convenient distraction to what's actually happening behind the curtains, it's almost next to impossible to hold the country's attention on any issue as the media bombards you with infinite content.
There is a striking disparity between what's happening in the background and the foreground of the video. While the foreground is mostly focused on Glover's song and dance sequence, the background depicts total chaos - cop cars racing in, people running around in utter chaos and more pandemonium.
Contemporary artists have taken several approaches to setting the political tone in the last two years. While Prophets of Rage and Eminem decided to belt out the rage with no filter, acts like A Perfect Circle weaved the rage intricately into biting poetry and gloomy riffs. Gambino does a fine balancing act between the two, as is evident from the dissonant, bittersweet images from the video. Childish also provides moments of quiet, contemplative lucidity. At the interlude, the song gives way to a few seconds of silence as he lights a joint and fades out of the frame. But he jumps right back into the chaos, reminding us that no matter how much we choose to ignore the times and drown ourselves in distractions and entertainment, the ever pervasive sign of the times constantly hovers around us.
Featuring background vocals from a star-studded cast including Young Thug, 21 Savage, Quavo, Rae Sremmurd’s Slim Jxmmi, and BlocBoy JB, 'This Is America' paints a surreal picture that reaches straight into the listener's gut and gives it a squeeze. The song debuted as Glover hosted 'Saturday Night Live' last Saturday (May 5). As the musical guest, Glover performed the song after being introduced by Daniel Kaluuya.
'This Is America' marks Donald Glover’s first new material since his Grammy-nominated full-length 'Awaken, My Love!' was released at the end of 2016. If the song is a taste of things to come, then one thing is for sure - the new album is not going to be a pretty affair. It could very well mark a sudden change of tracks for Gambino - a stripped back, raw and guttural show of song, dance and rage that blur the lines between art and political force.
As we wait with bated breath for Childish Gambino's new album, 'This Is America' serves as a note of inspiration to other artists trying to express their take on the current political climate. A note that doesn't beat around the bush and makes a clear statement - don't let the smoke and mirrors distract you from what's really happening. Wake up and do something about it. Anything!