“This is America” Leads a Quiet Resurgence of Black Music Videos
Childish Gambino’s (Donald Glover’s) music video for “This is America,” a brilliant and provocative take on gun violence, minstrelsy, and Black life, has sent shockwaves through the nation. At a time when recent school shootings have ignited fierce public debates over gun violence and images of Black folks having the police called on them for life’s most banal and innocuous activities (hosting a Black barbecue, for example) are coursing through the veins of social media, “This is America” presents a sonic and visual masterpiece of powerful symbolism.
Musically, “This is America” offers a schizophrenic mixture of soulful vocal runs and genteel guitar lines in a major, pentatonic texture in one moment, and in the next trap-music-style rhythm and a droning bass line that creates an alarming and unsettling effect. This sonic texture serves as a large part of the mise-en-scène, by mirroring the stark visual contrast between Glover and the actions that take place around his singing, rapping, and dancing. Perhaps the most jolting aspect of the video is the lively and entertaining dance routines from Glover and a cadre of youth dressed in school uniforms amid the complete chaos unfolding around them.
Directed by Hiro Murai, the sheer volume of acts that occur in the background of the video invites multiple viewings. This fact contributes most to the excitement this video has generated as viewers have auspiciously offered their own commentary and analyses, seemingly amazed at the quantity of details unnoticed at first glance. Such details include the delicate handling of weapons (each passed to a youth and wrapped in soft cloths) compared to the indelicate dragging of victim’s bodies (a clear reference to ideologies surrounding gun violence), the biblical pale horse of death seen riding through the background (see minute 2:36), as well as the depiction of a man jumping to his death (see minute 2:14).
The first shot of the video begins with a shirtless Glover, dressed in only pants and tennis shoes. While many have described the pants as resembling those worn by Confederate army soldiers, few have considered Glover’s overall appearance and his uncanny resemblance to black men as they were sold into slavery, his gold chains replacing those worn on their necks.
As Glover begins dancing, out of nowhere he pulls out a gun and shoots a man who is posed as a hostage: hands tied and blindfolded with a bag over his head. As Glover pulls the trigger, he moves his body into what many have considered to be the exact pose of Thomas Dartmouth Rice’s infamous Jim Crow caricature. Racial stereotypes are indeed lethal. The overtones of minstrelsy are unmistakable as the video’s showcasing of viral dances speaks to the larger role of social media and the hyper-visibility of Black entertainment. If Black people are not smiling and dancing, they are running and fighting to survive in the America Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as “the burning house.” Thus, distraction, discordance, and distortion emanate throughout the video, a clear reference to America’s unquenchable thirst for entertainment in lieu of confronting societal problems. The chorus of the song solidifies this theme:
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
As an artist, Glover doesn’t cater to the ethos of street credibility (which, despite his middle-class upbringing and NYU pedigree, is not impossible in today’s Hip Hop landscape), therefore, the violent acts he commits in the video create a chilling effect. The setting of the video takes place in what seems like an endless warehouse (perhaps MLK’s burning house fully realized). While Glover and his dancers work in the foreground, scenes resembling rioting and looting occur in the background. As Glover continues to dance his way throughout the warehouse, he eventually encounters a church choir. As they clap and sway while singing, “You go tell somebody / Grandma told me / Get your money, Black man (get your money),” Glover is handed another gun and proceeds to shoot them down. This scene has been discussed at length as a reference to the Charleston church shooting in which nine African-American church members were killed by a white supremacist. The video concludes with a shot of Glover running for his life from a mob of people. Due to the darkness of the scene, some viewers have suggested that it is a nod towards Jordan Peele’s film, Get Out, which featured “the sunken place,” as the fictional embodiment of the mental, physical, and spiritual, marginalization imbedded within the Black experience since the era of American slavery. After all the fame and accolades, Glover is still a Black man running for his freedom.
Yet, as we revel in the depth and richness of “This is America,” let us not forget that there is a quiet resurgence of Black music videos. That is not to say that they ever left, but few would disagree that the decentering of music videos from television platforms such as B.E.T. (Black Entertainment Television) and MTV (Music Television) altered their place in the music entertainment ecosystem. The ease with which viewers can share music videos across social media has opened a new avenue for such content outside of the traditional television platforms. Beyoncé’s groundbreaking Lemonade was just the beginning of a new wave of creative experimentation with this genre, and a host of artists are carrying the tradition forward.
Take, for instance, the incredible imagery presented by Thundercat, bass guitarist extraordinaire, in his video for “Them Changes” and its sequel “Show You the Way.” In “Them Changes,” directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada, Thundercat presents the story of a Black samurai warrior who suffers a career ending injury (both his arms are lost in a sword battle). The samurai then enters the throes of depression as he grapples with both his loss of identity as a warrior as well as his realization of the absurd social logic that led to his choice of lifestyle, a clear allegory of gang life and its accompanying cycles of violence. The deep humanity and vulnerability of the samurai warrior offers a rare glimpse of the interiority of Black male subjectivity and the psychic toll required to normalize frequent experiences of violence. In the sequel, “Show You the Way” (which features Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins), the samurai warrior is convinced to seek treatment by his wife and daughter. There, he manages to find the ability to look beyond his injury and discover the joy of living once again. The surreal juxtaposition of anime-inspired imagery with the Black experience is transformative. Black men do feel pain. They hurt. They cry. They are human beings with emotions and dreams, and Thundercat’s lucid and sublime creation presents these ideas in fascinating ways.
Or, consider the harrowing video for “Never Catch Me” by Flying Lotus featuring Kendrick Lamar (also directed by Hiro Murai). Two Black children, a boy and a girl, are shown as victims of an untimely demise. As they lay in their caskets at the funeral, their eyes suddenly open and they jump out and begin a jubilant dance routine. As they smile and dance their way out of the church, the funeral attendees seem unaware of their movements. After the children leave the church and explore the outside world, they decide to hop inside of their hearse and drive it off into the sunset, a stunning and heartbreaking celebration of Black joy in the midst of devastation.
Then there’s Janelle Monáe’s incredibly daring video for “Pynk,” a celebration of women in all their glory and beauty. This track is one of the leading singles from Monáe’s album Dirty Computer, and the influence of Prince, one of Monáe’s mentors, is a welcome homage to his enduring musical presence in Black America. Directed by Emma Westenberg, Monáe flips the island-of-Amazonian-women motif and presents a dessert oasis inhabited by only women of color. While the color pink shades various aspects of the video, including the natural landscape, Black bodies become the canvases for vibrant colors and textures that showcase the contrasting messages of power and tenderness. The video depicts all kinds and shapes of Black women, joyful, fearless, and unashamed to love themselves and each other. Unfortunately, what should be a simple concept remains an incredibly subversive proposition. In addition to costumes that resemble vaginas, the video is laden with feminist consciousness, sexual freedom, and a clear rejection of heteronormativity. Monáe’s message is clear: “deep inside, we're all just pink.” Feminine power isn’t a one-way street, it is a lifeforce that bonds us all.
As someone who grew up watching Rap City, Video Gospel, 106 & Park, TRL and other staples of television during the 90s, the resurgence of Black music videos is a reminder of the powerful force of Black art, particularly it’s penchant for fusing entertainment and social critique. More important, it is a testament that, in our current moment of reckoning with propaganda, disinformation, and outright political tomfoolery, W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926) remains a clarion call to fight fire with fire. Along with Black novelists and poets, Black musicians are writing the counter narratives that will define Black life for the next generation. As Du Bois wisely proclaimed, “when through art they compel recognition, then let the world discover, if it will, that their art is as new as it is old and as old as it is new.”