What Your Takeaway from Childish Gambino's 'This Is America' Says About You

The new music video from Childish Gambino is the perfect litmus test for a viewer's empathy.
May 9, 2018, 10:07pm
Screenshot via YouTube

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

As the host of Saturday Night Live a few nights ago, Donald Glover joked in front of a live studio audience: “Some people have described me as a triple threat. But I kind of like to call myself just a threat.” In retrospect, Donald’s quip pretty much sounded like a warning and prelude to a day later, when he would drop an unapologetically biting music video to the world called “This Is America”—part threat and part unmasking.


Now don’t come in here pretending like you hadn’t seen the already 50-plus million viewed provocation like I have. It was too damn spicy of an image for Starbucks-going hipster types to resist. Black men shooting black men, cake-walking and jigging mixed with graphic chaos—there's a perfect blend of that quasi-deep and pseudo-aware stew for the dude seeking the gold medal in the woke Olympics.

It took days for me to see the real beauty of this Hiro Murai–directed creation that mimics America (and Canada)—so contradictory and non-hand-holdy in its presentation that it’s difficult to firmly articulate and digest a true meaning. What’s left is a music video that relies on the unconscious and deeply felt to be understood for what the hell it is; it's the perfect litmus test for the woke. As a black man, I know what the hell I saw from the start, and the video, in its refusal to tell me what it was, put my own biases to the test. But I’m me, and you’re you. We may not have the same opinion, but first impressions can say a lot about how much thought you’ve put in. So based on these five common takeaways, here’s what it probably says about you.

“It’s about black-on-black crime.”

Listen, I get it. You saw a shirtless Glover with black skin, firearm in hand, killing other black folks between jives and shucks, and this felt like evidence justifying your deep-seated “concern.” I can just imagine you in that global white-people-only meeting after sharing your mayonnaise topped dish, clanking wine glasses together over how right you were about the big-bad-black-folk-killing-other-black-folk thing. Nonliteral imagery duped you into focusing on the one thing that you felt so damn woke about. But that’s kind of how a plain interpretation of black-on-black crime works. It ignores the context and deflects the entire notion of an America that simultaneously fosters the problem.

With those eyes, you’d miss the obvious allusions to an all-black congregation of nine being shot by a white Dylann Roof in Charleston in 2015. You missed the replacement of a handgun by Gambino with that AK-47—a play on America’s gun debate. Frankly, in your throne of faux-care that sits among your suburban pastures, you’d miss a lot of shit.

“It should have been a white man doing the killing.”

This feeling is completely valid, given that white men alone make up at least 57 percent of mass shooters, but it wouldn’t be consistent with the idea that America (and Canada) is a contradiction. This whole music video is a denial of something. Bad shit is occurring—death, chaos, etc.—meanwhile, Glover over-stuffs you with his conflicting illusions; his skin (should be white), his dance (shouldn’t dance), his lyrics (should address the violence), and his pearly white smile (should be frowning). Anything more plain would be on some after-school special schtick, meant to dictate our thoughts (white folks kill black men) rather than inspire our thoughts (How am I viewing this?). Where those answers ultimately come from—our biases, experiences, whatever—amounts to the same shit that makes this video effective.

“It’s exploitation.”

During a moment when black death is beginning to feel like some state-sanctioned sport—retweetable highlights included—you wouldn’t get a pass for using real families and real tragedy to sell records. Pain and oppression are real things, and being forced to relive collective traumas via a YouTube video can be dehumanizing without context. Donald Glover gunned down a bunch of black actors in a music video. This we understand, and a lot of us are exhausted by the reminders of it. But at what cost does it serve to protect our pain wholesale? Do we risk the possibility that others will discard and forget? Do we neatly wrap up these discussions through allegory, statistics, and in-house wokeness? Real conversation starters rarely come from PowerPoint explainers or tweets, they come from challenging art. There’s a power in forcing audiences to interpret something shocking. Our ability to see exploitation needs to be matched with the context that lets us know when it’s just plain necessary.

“Childish Gambino is the Kanye West we need.”

In all that wokeness, you still found the time to divorce yourself from the greater message and play that hot-or-not shit. There’s a reason why Donald Glover’s "This Is America" featured children—their legs dangling carefree off of ledges, taking snapshots of America’s chaos for the ‘gram. There’s a reason why the dances shown were of the viral sort, mimicked by uniformed students who followed “America” (in this case Glover) step by step. From the very moment this video dropped, scenes were already immortalized through animated gifs and memes that consolidated a broad message into something small. When you compared that nonreading, Trump-ass-kissing Kanye to a guy demonstrating America’s inability to focus on the problem, you reduced the message to that of a damn TMZ cover story.

“I don’t get it.”

I almost respect this level of woke. You’re not even trying here. And this isn’t even exclusively a white or black thing either. Anyone can disconnect themselves from racial chaos and black death if they so choose (ask Diamond and Silk). I’m sure it’s uplifting and fulfilling in that tasty bag-of-cheetos way that still clears the path to some early hypertension. But most black Americans can’t afford to not understand “This Is America.”

They can’t just experience several years worth of trauma, brutality, racism, and zero-in on some South African Gwara Gwara by a shirtless Gambino. They’re going to spot the cop cars in the background and absorb the gunshots between the mumble rap. The kind of empathy you’d need to have the audacity to say “I don’t get it,” amounts to zero. And at that point, you’re just a passive observer, like your passive-ass has been during this entire conversation.

For everyone else

Now, if you’ve got feelings about this video that I haven’t mentioned here, congratulations on spending more than 4:05 minutes thinking about the video's imagery. Mission accomplished.

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