Almanac Music: ‘This Is America’ by Childish Gambino – What Art Truly Is

In 2017 Kendrick Lamar, an African- American rapper, became the first hip hop artist to win the Pullitzer Prize for Music with his iconoclastic LP ‘Damn’.

 

Delving into the impact of current American values on the security and lifestyle of the modern African-American citizen through explosive rap and rhythmic foreboding, Lamar’s album resulted in his work being labelled as art for the way it both endeared hip hop fans, as well as controversially commenting on the volatile society we live in. By winning the Pullitzer Prize, it altered the landscape of whether current music can be truly viewed as art.

 

Fast forward half a year and the game isn’t just changed; it’s ripped up, tossed around and utterly smashed into pieces. Following on from what Lamar began was Donald Glover, an African-American artist from ‘Community’, stand-up comedy and the soon to be released remake of ‘The Lion King’. And in case you didn’t’ know, he transforms into alter ego Childish Gambino, popular for contemporary hits ‘3005’, ‘Sober’ and 2016’s ‘Redbone’. So yes, a pretty talented man.

 

With all of these credentials behind him, fans worldwide were buoyant in expectation regarding Gambino’s latest release. What was released stirred controversy, raised eyebrows and did what no other current musical hit could ever strive for- ‘This Is America’ is art, and a very poignant and beautiful piece of art at that.

 

To completely view Gambino’s message in its entirety, it really has to be listened to while watching the music video. The rhythmic chant at the start that matches the slow camera pan, reminding listeners of the primeval connotations surrounding the beauty of Africa. Of the black community. Hip swaying, rustling behind the jungle leaves. The sound represents the native, the natural, the innocent in all of its clean sound, revelling in itself. By the time an African-American man picks up an acoustic guitar, sits down and gently begins to fingerpick away, the daydream becomes more and more solid. You’re transported- what music is supposed to do to the damned soul. The swaying of Gambino’s naked torso, hips rhythmically in tune and joyfully exuberant. He’s a man in control, he knows the beauty of the sound that he has begun the song with. And then he rips it up and throws it away.

 

Out comes the hand pistol, the bent pose and the shot through the African-American man’s newly sack-covered head, before the careful placement of the murder weapon in the red cloth that is eagerly held by a youthful coloured man. Thoughts of Jim Crow, a nasty connotation towards laws that oppressed and restricted the coloured citizens of 19th century America, instantly spring up, along with other stories of recent unheeded brutality against African-Americans that sound all too familiar to this. And maybe that’s the point- it could be any of the many murders that have plagued American society. Couple this with Gambino’s heavy shift into bass and a sinister introduction of chaotic noise, and you can only stare mouth agape as you really that this truly is “America”. What a shocking horror it is.

 

Then onwards it continues to be a symbolic display of art beautifully shot in limited takes and with some amazing choreography. Gambino glides and dances his way through this open and blandly grey cavern that plays part to the coloured man’s ultimate torture. What can Trump and co say to this? This is political art that can’t be responded to, or simmered down. From the moment the pistol is treated more preciously than the slumped black man in a pool of blood, Gambino is entirely consumed in directing this heated message to the white hierarchy of the Western world’s centre.

 

While dancing and supposedly enjoying the society that he lives in, what goes on in the background is unmistakeably mesmerising, and not particularly in an optimistic way. Even when African-American school children join Gambino’s writhing and grooving, cars fill up the background, people standing all over the vehicles in a way that is completely a disorganised chaos. There’s no structure, everyone is going to and fro, with no direction and no idea of how to arrest the slump that this mini-society is forever mired in.

 

Just as this scene becomes irrevocably awkward, the camera flips and we are transformed to what we began with- innocent beauty in the form of a native sound that is eerily indicative of tribal Africa. Of clean and joyful satisfaction with life. Yet the symbol of red that stripes the church wall and the robes of the gospel choir that Gambino exuberantly supports indicates what will follow, and it’s even more sickening then the first one.

 

In the nick of time, Gambino stops dead still, dead pans the camera and catches a much bigger gun, spinning around and firing excessively on the now-massacred choir. Even more direct than before, Gambino may as well be painting a massive ‘F*** YOU’ to Trump and Congress on the screen as he openly references and hatefully laments the Charleston Church shooting. This is the prime display of criticism towards the treatment of African-American people in the US-of-A, as well as the most blatant and sardonic representation of how the allowance of firearms is only fuelling the racist culture seeping through all over America.

 

By the end of the clip Gambino has returned to his emotionless cavern, jumping on top of a red car and supposedly dancing the night away in this twisted and barbaric society that is scarily reminiscent to ours, yet the symbology of red means that Gambino is next. And by the time the sound simmers down and returns in a techno wave, the glistening white teeth of Gambino appears before his panicked face brightens while being chased by his community through a horrific place that screams the ‘Sunken Place’ from African-American based horror film ‘Get Out’. That’s it, the human mind is officially blown, riddled by shock. Just like Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, this nightmare is done, yet the concluding realisation of the guns, the violence, the treatment of African-Americans in America, ultimately reveals that our world is slowly becoming what we dreaded and dismissed in these texts.

 

And that is what makes Gambino’s work the most inventive and brilliant piece of art that has hit our screens in a long time. It’s what music videos are truly meant to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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