What is America? A superpower, of course, the mover of global capitalism. For some, the bearer of many inequalities and for others, it holds the dream of prosperity. But what is America for a black man? Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino’s track, and the violent, absurd and chilling video that accompanies it, provide one answer to that question. And, with This is America becoming the first rap song to win the Grammy for both song and record of the year (2018), many are hailing the fact that “history has been made”, that the mainstream is acknowledging the havoc that has been wrought on Black America’s psyche by a history of violence and despair.
Throughout the video, Childish Gambino dances across frames that evoke a history of oppression: He is wearing trousers from the Confederate uniform (the pro-slavery camp in the US civil war), his posture mimics a famous Jim Crow poster, there are riots in the background while people film violence with their cellphones, a KKK member rides across. Gambino shoots a hooded black man, guns down a black church choir, all the while gleeful, dancing with children. What is this joy in the face of violence, this almost Kubrick-esque pleasure in blood? Dance and shake the frame/ We just wanna party (yeah)/ Party just for you (yeah)/ We just want the money (yeah). The black man, he seems to suggest, is distracted and appropriated, the occasional celebrity, the odd success story — and “the party” of consumerism, and violence keeps him in his place.
Childish Gambino did not perform in or even attend the Grammys. He has, since the release of the song, not spoken of its rich symbolism. The question, now, is this: How accurate is This is America? If the point Gambino appears to be making holds true, the honours he has received may even be seen as just another way to keep alive the nightmare that his song portrays. His dance has indeed “gotten him the money”. But, and here there is hope, maybe it can help shake a country out of its slumber.