Gambino’s new video “This is America” is a thoughtfully choreographed masterpiece, evocative, timely, crucial. I was reminded of others’ work, Danez Smith, Claudia Rankine, Michelle Alexander, Jess X Snow, Myles Golden, George Abraham, Toni Morrison, Khalid Abudawas, and I felt that this video is poetry, that it takes audiences on such a stark, emotional journey, and it does so well. This project uses every imaginable aspect to convey violence, corruption, and terror. Each swell, musical style, and rhythm is meant to bolster the content of the lyrics and visuals.
The very first glimpse we have of Gambino is when he comes into view from behind a beam: taking us by surprise. Before the first sound loop changes into the next section of the song, we see him pull a gun out and execute the guitarist, terrorist / POW-style right after grooving to the intro, aka in the middle of ordinary activities.
After the commentary indicative of a Black Lives Matter / cultural truth “we just wanna party”, the chorus dives into critiques of guns, police, and the divide between people of color (particularly dark-skinned Americans) and inner city police forces (“Don’t catch you slipping up” and “guerilla”).
His main entourage or co-stars in the video are young; including young dancers is a beautiful statement and nod to those learning and dancing young, particularly to those youth of color in inner cities (the school uniform aesthetic) who dance for fun; it also serves, as culture and roots remind us, as an homage to inner city youth of days past.
Obviously one of the most fucked up and therefore powerful images in the video is when he slays the church choir. But the very way the scene is set up is also a powerful statement; Gambino slips in a side door unnoticed, meaning we as the audience probably didn’t even notice the door until he came in, since we were so focused on watching the choir perform. He acts at home, dances, smiles, laughs, freezes, turns, catches an assault rifle, and guns down the choir. During my first time watching the video, I said to my husband, “I almost had to expect that after the first guy he killed.” That in itself is part of the statement. How often do we just feel numb to the news of another mass shooting, another school shooting, another person with access to a gun who had never passed a background check, another bucket in the ocean of reasons assault rifles should not be manufactured for civilian sale. Another instance of Conservative gunowners possessing more rights than victims of gun violence.
The next scene depicts police and violence against individuals dressed in street clothes, hoodies, loose pants, etc. During the middle of this scene, Gambino jumps on beat and makes eye contact with the camera while singing, “Whoo, whoo!” He jumps playfully, sings goodnaturedly, as though the officers are a joke. As though the scene is a joke. Because how Black men are treated in this country by the police SHOULD BE A JOKE. But it isn’t. This irony packs a punch.
He dances again with the group of young people. He plays it off. It’s not ‘serious’; it’s normal for these kids to be dancing in the middle of chaos with the police; their neighborhoods are overpoliced and underserved. This generation is growing up when Black Lives Matter and social media and everyday life in their communities teaches them that this combative existence against the police is normal.
The lyrics during this section focus on a materialistic critique, a critique about caring about superficial things (“geekin out”; “fitted”; “Gucci”; “so pretty”). Then, the content moves in on a critique of guns and international weapons trafficking (“contraband”; “the plug in Oaxaca” (a city in Mexico); “blocka”). You’ll notice also that as the camera pans over some kids sitting on a balcony / second floor of the building, one kid is recording everything on a phone; this serves to critique the normalization of recording violence. I’m sure others who teach or are around teens can attest to this prominent habit of theirs today. When I was in high school six years ago, only a few (and I’ll be rude and call them shitty) of my peers recorded fights instead of getting help or trying to intervene. Now, I see my teen students pull up videos of fights or show off footage they recorded almost daily. They don’t seem to mind the wrongness of laughing at and celebrating violence; they’ve been desensitized. Inner city violence is multi-faceted and has a long history that can be traced directly to racism, segregation, poverty, systemic discrimination, intentional drug ferrying, redlining, gentrification, and on and on. But none of this okays the celebration of violence.
Gambino pauses in the next moments, and the music stops. He lights a joint. Casually. Pointedly. Again, a critique. Others of us light up to escape, to ignore, to waste time and not improve the problems laid out in the video.
I know there are so many things that have escaped my notice or that I can’t catch as references or significant because I lack the knowledge. One of these is the significance of all the parked, abandoned, hazards-flashing cars. I notice a young woman perched on one car’s bumper who seems to blow a kiss as the camera pans out.
The song shifts again, a second moment where we expected the song to be over, yet it continued. Point being, yes, these problems, that’s just it, they keep going. There are that many of them. They remain unsolved, placed on America’s back burner.
The final section of the song sounds like an outro or like background music in a slow-mo or timelapse portion of a movie. The part of the movie that isn’t content persay but filler. The scenes that help you understand the transition or the passing of time. The story being depicted here is Gambino running, terrified, from the police. But this is just something that happens. It’s just filler, just time passing. Right?
The conversation continues in the words of many other, wiser writers and people. Individuals on my Facebook timeline have pointed out references to Fela Kuti and New Jack City. I’m not pretending to be an expert by any means, but I’ve been a fan of Gambino’s for years, and this new video is fucking powerful. Thanks for reading. What do you think of what I unraveled? What did I misinterpret or miss altogether?
And may the universe bless Donald Glover.
Featured image credit: Highsnobiety & Donald Glover