Good day, loyal reader family, I have something rather unexpected for you today, and as you might have guessed from the title – it’s not a book.
Even though I mostly write on the topic of literature and motion picture, something as dense and impactful as the video for “This is America” simply cannot be ignored. The song only came out five days ago, but has already accumulated more than seventy million views and the count is continuously rising. The significance of its visual imagery has been discussed by large titles such as TIME and The Washington Post, and there is much to peel back from the symbolism, so without further delay – here is my attempted interpretation of the “This is America” video.
The first important detail we need to observe here is the setting. Gambino and his large cast of extras are working in an all-white warehouse, where everything has been stripped bare. It’s only the foundation that remains. This could be as simple a symbol as the entrapment of the black community in a world of unashamed white privilege. It could also be a way of saying that the building blocks, the structure that is the United States is made for the likes of the white majority, and anyone who seems different could only face a life behind these walls.
Significance can also be placed on the man who walks into frame in the very beginning of the video. People were quick to point out his resemblance to Tracy Martin – a man whose teenage son, Trayvon Martin, was murdered by gunshot while walking in his neighbourhood. The shooting gathered a large publicity coverage due to some of the circumstances surrounding the case. It was widely believed to be the result of unnecessary violence, based entirely on racial bias in the eyes of George Zimmerman – the killer and member of local night watch team. In reality, the man we see in this video is performer Calvin the Second, whose indisputable resemblance to Tracy Martin could have likely been a strategic move.
We see Calvin dressed in all-white. This could be interpreted as the willingness of black communities in past centuries to conform to the white majority. The willingness to have balance and live in peace after years or oppression. He is holding a guitar, strumming to the beat of a very upbeat song. If we skip thirty seconds ahead, we see Calvin, wearing the same outfit and bound in a white mask over his head. His hands are tied, too, creating an air of fear and helplessness. Gambino proceeds to walk behind the man and shoot him through the head in an execution-style manner.
We see Calvin once again, at the end of the video, where he is both bound and holding a guitar. This could be said to show the imminence of his faith. His peaceful manner and desire to bring simple joy through music have always been doomed. He will always be the victim, no matter what his actions might be.
Let’s move on to Donald Glover himself and more specifically – the outfit he is wearing. There seems to be a subtle nod towards history here, made by his lack of a shirt. Often times when black males were transported and shown for sale in slavery, they would remain naked from the waist up. This was done so that a future owner could properly gage the strength and physical ability of the men in front of him. They were human beings displayed and traded like inanimate objects like flour or meat. Perhaps this tells us that we still treat the black community in such a way, looking at people at face value, attaching the colour of their skin as a primary link to outdated and unfair stereotypes.
Gambino also wears two gold chains around his neck. One could say these tie back to the running themes of consumerism, in that they are a signifier of opulence. But they could also relate to the lyric “Get your money, black man”, which is repeated multiple times throughout the song, and according to the storyline it is said by his grandmother. This could refer to the only advice older generations of the black community can put forward, after decades of riots and opposition. The United States is a country built on material possession, so getting your money is the only way to survive. Quite literally, wealth is the way people see each other, numbers in bank accounts, where a game of zeroes is the only one with promised success. It is the only way to be valued as a member of society, because nobody will be willing to see past the archetype and skin colour.
This line could also be interpreted as advice to not let injustice prevail. If somebody takes something rightfully belonging to you, such as reputation, freedom and human rights – you shouldn’t rest until the order is restored – you get it back yourself. Historically speaking, the white community has been guilty of exploiting members of different races in a very systematic fashion. So, this could be an instruction to not be cheated out of simple human liberties in the hands of an oppressor.
Moreover, Gambinos’ exaggerated facial expressions and dance moves have been told to mimic old Jim Crow illustrations, which came forth from the Jim Crow laws. Segregation was fiercely implemented in the nineteenth century and caricature of African-American people were openly distributed. These drawings displayed members of the minority with highly amplified features, bringing attention to Gambino’s performance in the video.
Another potential link to racially propelled violence against a black community could be seen in the singing choir. Two lines of singers in what appears to be Catholic uniform are singing church hymns with a jolly and excited attitude. This is before Gambino grabs a machine gun an slaughters them in the blink of an eye. Many have been connecting this to the Charleston church shooting, a case in which nine African-American people were killed by a white supremacist youth who entered their Bible study group and began a his target act of violence. The actors in the “This is America” video are ten, which makes one think about the very close number to the actual victims.
When one analyses this video, the participation of firearms can hardly be ignored. There are two murder scenes within the first two minutes of footage, both of which we have interpreted separately. But what ties them together is the use of an automatic deadly weapon. There is a clear point being made about the power of guns in the United States, especially when the first shooting takes place, which is synchronised with the lyric “This is America”. The connection is forced upon the audience. Many solutions to gun violence have been thrown around the political terrain for decades, but little action has been done to make a change. In fact, the number of gun shootings is increasing on an exponential rate, and with the recent school massacre in Florida, people all over the world are opening a conversation about control.
It is notoriously easy for people who reside in the United States to acquire a deadly firearm. This has been the downfall of many poverty-stricken communities and many racial minorities, as they feel the need to protect themselves from the even larger number of weapons in other majorities who use them based on religious or supremacist beliefs. In fact , Gambino himself raps “Guns in my area, I got the strap, I gotta carry ’em”, to showcase the injustice in prosecuting black communities for trying to protect their own lives in the turmoil of lacklustre firearm law.
Moreover, the guns are treated with more respect and care than the bodies that they leave behind. Every gun has a human carrier, who comes up after the crime is committed and wraps it in a red cloth, while the corpses are either dragged away or left on the ground. This transcends into the accusation of political figures’ disregards to human life in the face of large payoffs from the National Rifle Association and other weapon-based organisations. The government has been under hellfire this year due to their negligence when it comes to the protection of citizens. It was also revealed that the NRA was a large sponsor of the Trump administration, arguably fighting to keep guns a lucrative business at the cost of human lives.
THE DANCING STUDENTS
Throughout the video, there are five young adults, who appear to be dressed in school uniforms, and act as back-up dancers to Gambino. This can be interpreted as creating a literal wall of acting and entertainment while unspeakable things are happening behind. The children are forced to smile throughout the clip and make exaggeratedly excited faces at the camera. The clothes they wear while performing are in dulled-out colours, and seem to be almost drained of any personality. This can be a reference to the Conservative government that dictates their lives. The black community is still forced to conform, to be stripped of their individuality and originality, just to fit the mould of the white privileged culture in its most archetypal state.
The new generations are raised on the backs of movements, riots and prejudice wars, lasting many years and taking even more victims. It could be said that the smiles on the students’ faces are demonstrative of the way young African-Americans are told to be appreciative and accepting of their way of life, while violence and brutality are just around the corner.
During their second verse together, Childish Gambino raps “I’m so pretty, I’m gon’ get it, watch me move”, which hints that entertainment is used as a distraction to more important issues. The media has been compromised with the modern consumer’s hunger for entertainment on demand, and racial tensions are not happy or funny, they are serious and dangerous. So most remain blissfully unaware and unwilling to learn the details. They are using entertainment as an umbrella from the problematic treatment of innocent people throughout the country.
Going back to the second verse once more, we see the line “This a celly, that’s a tool”, which can be interpreted in two different ways. The first is that a “celly” is a cellular device, or a phone, which is used to capture mistreatment and distribute it internationally within seconds. The importance of cell phones in today’s lifestyles has been critiqued continuously, and more so after the recent case of a Californian girl who live-streamed her accident and resulting death of her sister online. They can be used as tools for staying ‘woke’ and showing the world what hides behind the media wall.
The second interpretation is that “celly” is used as a term for cell mate. It has been theorised that the prison system in the United States has been structured for use with minorities, keeping certain communities under lock-up, thereby creating a stereotype and inciting fear. It is a never-ending circle of incarceration, reputation, release under impossible rules, and back to the beginning. So in this case, the cell mate would be a tool for the government to keep connecting terror and fright with minorities.
THE SEVENTEEN-SECOND SILENCE
Towards the end of the video, Gambino stops the track and points a pretend gun shaped by his hands, towards the side of the screen. Many have connected this silence, which lasts approximately seventeen seconds, to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting, where seventeen students were killed. Just before the quiet becomes final, a girl’s scream is heard in the background and the shutting of a door rings in the distance. During this, Gambino lights a joint and remains idle, almost emotionless in the frame. He could be mirroring the armed guard, who failed to enter the building while the shooting took place, but waited outside instead until the police had arrived.
The case had a very heavy social media presence and even gathered marches across the country, where a conversation could be started on the subject of gun control and violence. The voice of the #WeCallBS campaign was a student from Stoneman Douglas called Emma Gonzalez, which could explain why the final scream made by a female.
Multiple vehicles are scattered in the background of the video throughout its duration, from civilian cars that are set aflame and left open, to police vehicles that are vacant. They are mostly tied to the underlining theme of riots and the modern battlefield.
However, towards the end of the video, Gambino climbs on top of an aged car, in what is the same white warehouse now full of old automobiles. Most, if not all the cars, are from the twentieth century, which could be a sign that society has not moved forward. The treatment of the black community has not progressed since those times and nobody seems to be rushing to disrupt that fact, which is why he joyfully dances on top of them.
In my personal interpretation, the piles of cars with open doors could be referencing back to the Rodney King riots in 1992 and the Detroit city riots of 1967. Both were violent and deadly uprisings against the unfair treatment of the black community, which resulted in tens of deaths and thousands of injured civilians. The riots were taking place on residential streets, where cars could be found abandoned and used as protection from the bullets of the police.
THE PLUG ON OAXACA
Towards the end of the second verse, Gambino mentions that he’s got “the plug on Oaxaca”. Oaxaca is a state in the southern part of Mexico, which is famous for its population of indigenous people. During the seventeenth century Spanish colonialists brought havoc in the territory through disease and forceful work in manual labour. So having the plug on Oaxaca might mean that there was an instance of history repeating itself through the enslaving and exploiting of the African-American minority by the white majority. However, some analysts of the video have connected it to relations with a drug supplier, despite the fact that Oaxaca is not known for drug trade.
These are just some of the interpretations I have made about the video. Most seem to be shared by different analysts, but I would encourage everyone to watch the video and make conclusions for themselves. One way or the other, it is a very interesting showcase of our history and culture, a crash course into some of the world’s injustice.