In the early hours of May 6th, the internet (especially Black Twitter) received a blessing in the form of a surprise music video release for Childish Gambino’s new song “This Is America,” following his performances as both the musical guest and the host on a brilliant episode of Saturday Night Live. The visual is a lot to unpack, with a highly animated and shirtless Gambino slinking through an empty warehouse with grinning dancers, a background of racially charged pandemonium, and a SZA cameo — all set to the kind of trap beat you might expect from rappers like Migos, not Childish Gambino.
The choice to not only drop a provocative video — but to drop it when most of us are still reeling from Kanye West’s recent dangerous (and completely baseless) “revelations” about Blackness in America, courtesy of so-called “free thought,” is a bold choice.
It seems that much of the internet is split on whether the video is a scathing satirical masterpiece or four minutes of gratuitous trauma for Black folks. It begins with Gambino shooting a bound Black man in the back of the head, evoking police brutality, and later shows Gambino slaughtering an all-Black church choir with an assault rifle, evoking the Charleston church massacre. A quick Twitter search on #ThisIsAmerica reveals that some viewers are praising Gambino as the hero we need in light of Kanye’s antics and affirming his call for us to reckon with our own numbness to violence we experience as Black people in America. The other side of the reaction includes critiques of the video for its absence of white people as perpetrators of violence against Black people and calls out its depictions of violence as sensationalistic.
The video is undeniably both jarring and uncomfortably mesmerizing at the same time.
If you choose to stop watching after you see Gambino (in a Jim Crow-inspired pose, no less) shoot a Black man in the back of the head, you are justified in your disgust. The themes presented to us in the video are nothing new because we see instances of police brutality, Black death, and Black denial (in the form of capitalistic distraction) all the time. It’s in our news and on our timelines, and you can’t deny that being constantly and involuntarily bombarded with the real-life dehumanization of Black lives and Black bodies causes Black people emotional and mental trauma.
As much as we can mute notifications to avoid news and triggering footage, and as valid as emotional trauma can be, we can also fall into a trap of masking emotional lethargy by labeling it as trauma. America was built off of the backs of the marginalized — just because we choose not to engage does not make the cruelty against us disappear.
Watching Gambino wield a rifle with more care and respect than he has for much of the Black life or for the dead Black bodies quickly dragged away in the video is not at all easy, but it is necessary.
But we can no longer separate the art from the artist, and you can’t watch “This Is America” without considering whether the message’s execution is innovative or a visual cooptation of racial violence and Black trauma. If we can’t separate Gambino from this particular work, let’s take a moment to separate Childish Gambino from Donald Glover. As a comedian and writer, Glover has been accused of writing misogynistic lyrics, creating less than encouraging stories for Black women characters on Atlanta, and being forced to portray a palatable Black man to appeal to a wider audience.
To me, those criticisms do not make watching Childish Gambino’s video for “This Is America” less powerful or discredit the video’s painful imagery.
Gambino could have been painfully true to our country’s reality by prominently featuring white people as attackers in the video, instantly startling white viewers and hampering his once-digestible brand.
Perhaps he chose to speak to society’s atrocities another way: By layering Black joy and violence in a way that goes outside of the supposed “Black-on-Black crime” narrative that we are constantly sold.
You can’t unsee the images in “This Is America.” You can’t unsee the real-life images that inspired them, either. Many of us don’t have the luxury of becoming numb to all the things that Gambino speaks to, but we are exhausted. By melding together cultural commentary about threats to Black life and how Black people internalize those threats, he visually slapped us all awake with images we want to turn away from because we see them far too much.
During a time when a dope beat and empty lyrics are quick to amass a blind following and Black people are simultaneously gunned down while worshipping, Gambino’s art is uncomfortable and questionable — but also timely, complex, and necessary.
In 2018, we live in a world where Black death becomes a trending topic. Where you can see cell phone-captured video of a murder wedged in between Facebook birthday reminders and ads for overpriced clothing. Where the law protects guns more than it protects us from them. Where Childish Gambino can dance awkwardly enough to distract us while society descends into violence and mayhem in the background — all to the tune of a song that will still get played in the club. This is America.