Donald Glover released a new song and music video “This Is America” under his musical moniker Childish Gambino on Saturday Night Live this weekend — and the four-minute, single-take music video is laden with metaphors about race and gun violence in America.
The “This Is America” video, which has already racked up more than 20 million views on YouTube, reveals provocative imagery of the rapper as he guns down a choir at one point and dances while violence breaks out all around him. Childish Gambino/Glover‘s decision to wear just a pair of gray pants without a shirt in the video, allows viewers to identify with “his humanness,” as he raps about the violent contradictions that come with being black in America, says Guthrie Ramsey, a professor of music history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Warning: Graphic violence
“The central message is about guns and violence in America and the fact that we deal with them and consume them as part of entertainment on one hand, and on the other hand, is a part of our national conversation,” Ramsey tells TIME. “You’re not supposed to feel as if this is the standard fare opulence of the music industry. It’s about a counter-narrative and it really leaves you with chills.”
The first gunshot
The opening moments of “This Is America” show a man strumming a guitar alone to choral sounds. Within the first minute, Gambino shoots the man, who has been tied up with a head cover. Childish Gambino hands the gun to another man, who safely wraps it in a red cloth as the obscured man is dragged away. The moment goes right into the first rapped chorus: “This is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ up.”
Ramsay says the timing — that this happens during the song’s move from choral tones to a trap sound — allows Gambino to straddle contradictions and also allows the viewer to identify with his humanness.
“He’s talking about the contradictions of trying to get money, the idea of being a black man in America,” Ramsey says. “It comes out of two different sound worlds. Part of the brilliance of the presentation is that you go from this happy major mode of choral singing that we associate with South African choral singing, and then after the first gunshot it moves right into the trap sound.”
The early moment shows, too, that Gambino “could be anyone,” according to Ramsey. “You have him almost unadorned, as if he were totally without all the accoutrements of stardom,” he says, noting that Gambino dances in neutral colored pants, dark skin and with textured hair. “It’s just him, and therefore, it could be us.”
Gambino dancing with schoolchildren amid violence
Gambino and a group of kids clad in school uniforms dance throughout much of the “This Is America” video, smiling through impeccable moves as violence erupts behind them. The moment could be open to numerous interpretations — for example, Ramsey says, the dancers could be there to distract viewers in the same way black art is used to distract people from real problems plaguing America. But, Ramsey says, it’s better to absorb the video as a whole because America itself is a country of “very strange juxtapositions.”
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