Unless your internet had cut out, there is no way you could have missed Childish Gambino’s new music video. The American jack of all trades dropped the controversial This Is America on Saturday Night Live this past Saturday, and not only is the view count on YouTube already at a staggering 63 million, but it seems like it’s the hot topic of the week all over the western world! Fans, music critics, and artists are all going to town with analyses of the music video.
Much has already been said about this new release, well, every frame has been analysed. But what surprises me is that almost nobody seems to have listened to the track properly! And it’s just as interesting* as the video…
Who is the man behind this maelstrom of protest? I’d never heard of Childish Gambino until the Grammy Awards this past January. That evening he received 5 (!) nominations and won one Grammy. From that point, I was convinced that he was definitely someone to keep my eyes (and ears) on.
Donald Glover a.k.a. Childish Gambino is an actor, writer, producer, comedian, and musician. He got his break with a role in the comedy series Community but stopped acting in 2012 to focus on his musical career under the pseudonym Childish Gambino. (If you’re wondering how he came up with this name, look no further! Glover used the Wu-Tang Name Generator 😅).
His first two albums were widely disparaged by critics, after which he removed himself from the public eye. He did, however, remain active on social media, which did little good for his reputation. According to de Volkskrant this turned him into ‘the symbol of a soft and spoiled generation, the poster child of pathetic millenials’.
But he came back! Glover wrote and produced the series Atlanta and also played the starring role. This dramedy is about two rappers who are trying to make it in Atlanta, Georgia. During the series, many issues are touched on; the issue of race, relationships, poverty, status, and parenting. These aren’t street kids, but they also aren’t members of the glamourous elite. They are ‘normal’ Americans, and as a viewer you get to witness all of their everyday struggles.
The first season came out in 2016 and marked a definitive turning point for Gambino’s reputation. Atlanta was well-received by both his fans and his detractors. His album Awaken, My Love!, which was released the previous December, suddenly seemed fashionable- even amongst the same critics who had previously skewered him.
Taking the events of this week into account, this may well be the ultimate story of the underdog that rises above himself.
This Is America
Back to This Is America. We are going to unravel its messages bit by bit.
The song opens with a gospel choir. At this point, the lyrics aren’t especially defined, but the fact that traditional African American music is used makes for a clear context.
‘Gospel’ comes from the old English goð (good) spell (news, message), so it literally means ‘good news’. Its roots lie in the cotton fields of the American South during the era of slavery. Religious music carries hopeful messages and has helped ethnic minorities cope with the challenges of life for many centuries.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah, go, go away
This is followed by a cheerful sounding bridge in which Gambino describes his desires; parties, money, dancing. Not too out there for the average American Millenial.
We just wanna party
Party just for you
We just want the money
Money just for you
I know you wanna party
Party just for me
Girl, you got me dancin’ (yeah, girl, you got me dancin’)
Dance and shake the frame
In the video, we see Gambino dancing in a large, empty warehouse – representing the United States. At the end of the bridge, Gambino’s innocent dancing makes way for something much more shocking and sinister. He shoots a man in the head.
The pose that he adopts during the shooting is a reference to Jim Crow. Jim Crow is a racist caricature of an African American man; a slave that was the subject of a popular song from the 1830s.
Guns vs. bodies
Perhaps even more shocking than this scene is the fact that the weapon with which Gambino shoots the man is treated with more respect than the corpse.
Whilst the pistol is wrapped carefully in a silk cloth and carried away by a child, the corpse is disrespectfully dragged away.
Corrupt police, weapon ownership
In response to this, Gambino asks himself the question: ‘What is America?’ He describes it as follows:
This is America
Don’t catch you slippin’ up
Don’t catch you slippin’ up
Look what I’m whippin’ up
He makes it very clear in the chorus that you shouldn’t get caught when you slip up.
This is America (skrrt, skrrt, woo)
Don’t catch you slippin’ up (ayy)
Look at how I’m livin’ now
Police be trippin’ now (woo)
The police force in the United States is known to be racist, and studies show that black men between the ages of 15 and 34 are a staggering 9 times more likely to be killed by the police than other Americans.
Yeah, this is America (woo, ayy)
Guns in my area (word, my area)
I got the strap (ayy, ayy)
I gotta carry ’em
Yeah, yeah, I’ma go into this (ugh)
I’m sure I don’t need to go into great detail about the fact that gun ownership is a very hot topic in the United States. Just this week, President Trump came under fire for his speech in support of the pro-gun lobbyists of the NRA.
Not only did he give a nauseatingly vivid description (‘Boom, come here! Boom, come here!) of the attacks on the Bataclan, but he also claimed that this bloodbath could have been prevented if the staff and audience at the show would have been armed. So…
Guerilla vs. gorilla
With Trumps gun policies in the back of one’s mind, the following line really falls into place:
Yeah, yeah, this is guerilla (woo)
Whilst it may seem obvious to interpret this as a reference to guerrilla warfare, there is also a theory which links this line to the Invisible Gorilla-experiment.
In this psychological study, test subjects see a video in which two teams of three players pass a basketball amongst themselves. Halfway through the experiment, a gorilla walks across the screen, even taking the time to vigorously beat his own chest. Guess what? Half of the test subjects who watched the video didn’t notice the gorilla at all! This experiment proved irrefutably that human beings are capable of missing something extremely obvious, even if it is right in front of you.
On one hand, this connection seems a bit spurious, but if you pay attention to the overarching theme of the song and music video, it’s actually spot on!
There has been much discussion about the following lines:
Yeah, yeah, I’ma go get the bag
Yeah, yeah, or I’ma get the pad
Perhaps ‘the bag’ could be a reference to a bag of coke or weed, and ‘the pad’ could refer to owning a house.
Or maybe it means that if Gambino doesn’t get a ‘bag’ of money, that he will have to grab his ‘pad’ – notepad, that is- in order to keep writing and earning his pay.
Whatever the case, it seems to be critical of the current rap scene, which many think lacks substance, with lyrics often only being about parties and money.
Yeah, yeah, I’m so cold like, yeah (yeah)
I’m so dope like, yeah (woo)
We gon’ blow like yeah (straight up, uh)
After this, we once again see a gospel choir singing the following:
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, tell somebody
You go tell somebody
Grandma told me
Get your money, Black man (get your money)
Get your money, Black man (get your—Black man)
I believe that this refers to the widespread belief in African American communities that young men must do whatever it takes to become financially successful in order to gain respect. The fact that this advice comes from his grandma seems to point to the fact that he believes this to be an antiquated way of looking at things.
In the music video, Gambino then shoots the entire gospel choir dead, which seems to be a reference to the 2015 mass shooting in the Charleston Church, South Carolina.
After the chorus comes a second verse in which Gambino criticises superficial, consumerist society.
Look how I’m geekin’ out (hey)
I’m so fitted (I’m so fitted, woo)
I’m on Gucci (I’m on Gucci)
I’m so pretty (yeah, yeah)
I’m gon’ get it (ayy, I’m gon’ get it)
Watch me move (blaow)
Gambino’s impressive dance moves in the music video make it extremely easy to miss what’s happening in the background: a riot breaks out and a man takes his own life.
This chaos is filmed on the onlookers’ cell phones.
This a celly (ha)
That’s a tool (yeah)
On my Kodak (woo, Black)
Ooh, know that (yeah, know that, hold on)
Get it (get it, get it)
Ooh, work it (21)
Here, a ‘tool’ is slang for a weapon. With this line, Gambino is likely making a reference to the police officers who shot 22 year old Stephon Clark dead in his own back yard. They thought that he was carrying a weapon, when in reality it was only his cell phone.
At the same time, this points out the many instances where cell phones have been used to film or even live stream at police shootouts and riots, raising questions about violence against African Americans in general.
A play on words, Kodak is probably not only a nod towards the camera company, but also to rapper Kodak Black, whose music Gambino used in Atlanta.
A man in a balaclava then gallops by on a white, or rather ashen, horse. Could this be the horse in Revelations 6 from the Bible?
‘I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him.’
Gambino sings the following lyrics:
Hunnid bands, hunnid bands, hunnid bands (hunnid bands)
Contraband, contraband, contraband (contraband)
I got the plug in Oaxaca (woah)
They gonna find you like blocka (blaow)
A ‘band’ is a thousand dollars, so ‘hunnid bands’ equals $100,000. ‘Contraband’ is smuggled goods, often drugs. Oaxaca is a Mexican state which is infamous for its many drug cartels. A plug is a dealer and ‘blocka’ is an onomatopoeic word representing the sound of a gunshot.
Gambino also makes the universally recognisable gun sign with his hands, and on that sign all of the dancers around him disappear. A long, icy, terrifying (!) silence follows, but in the end it turns out he’s only reaching for a joint from his pocket.
Social Media Bash
In the next shot, Gambino is dancing on a car. Whilst the newest and most expensive models are usually used in hip hop videos, this is an old pile of junk.
The chorus is prefaced by the following lyrics:
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, tell somebody
America, I just checked my following list, and—
You go tell somebody
—you mothafuckas owe me
Rapper Young Thug – who has 2.7 million Twitter followers and 5 million Instagram followers – complains in these lyrics that that’s not enough for him.
Young Thug also takes care of the outro. It doesn’t matter how successful or rich an African American man is in America, he will still be ‘just a black man’. Racism is (still) the norm in today’s America.
You just a Black man in this world
You just a barcode, ayy
You just a Black man in this world
Drivin’ expensive foreigns, ayy
He even compares his position with that of a dog:
You just a big dawg, yeah
I kenneled him in the backyard
No probably ain’t life to a dog
For a big dog
This Is America – Childish Gambino
At the end of the video, we see Gambino running from the police. Even though he seemingly gets away with several shootings, he is persecuted for smoking a joint.
So what exactly is the message that Gambino is trying to get across with This Is America? I think that he wants ‘us’ to know that we shouldn’t be distracted by superficial entertainment, the trivial aspects of current (popular) culture – parties, money, social media.
He holds a mirror in front of us to open our eyes to the real problems facing American society – racism, violence and gun possession.
What do you think?
It’s clear that Gambino’s message has now been heard worldwide. It has been generally well received; artists are hailing him as a ‘genius’ and according to some fans he is a better version of Kanye West.
However, some people have called This Is America ‘evil garbage’. They say the symbolism is ‘too basic’, that the song is cheap propaganda for the removal of the second amendment (the right to bear arms), claiming that that the lyrics are simply meaningless. What do you think? Let us know in the comments!
Want to read more?
Looking for more razor sharp commentary about American society? Kendrick Lamar and The Carters also have claim to commentary fame.
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*Disclaimer: The interpretation of lyrics is thankfully up for discussion and there are many very different (!) theories, so I am under no illusions that my opinions are gospel. My analysis is based on several articles (the links to which are below) as well as the discussion that has taken place about this song on Genius. If my interpretation has offered even a little bit of clarity or provided any food for thought, then I’ve achieved my goal. Do you have other ideas about the meaning of this song? Let me know!