This Is Black America: Donald Glover's Wake-Up Call
Abiola Oke breaks down the meanings and intentions behind Donald Glover’s revolution-inducing visual for his new song “This Is America”.
If I were to describe the piece with one word, “jolting” would be my preference. As ubiquitous as the use of the word woke in public discourse has been, it is accurate here. Glover portrays a black America that’s still in deep slumber.
The video opens with the lyrics sung by Gambino and Young Thug, “We just wanna party, party just for you/we just want the money, money just for you,” as a black man plays an acoustic guitar right before the camera pans to a shirtless and dancing Donald Glover. This scene, in what could be described as a visual representation of the idiom, lose your shirt, is a metaphor for when one loses all their possessions. Perhaps this is Glover’s way of describing the state of black America, a people without possessions but still dancing to the music that we create.
In a jarring display, Gambino shoots the black guitar player in the back of the head, although the man’s hands are tied and face covered with a sack and twine, he shoots him striking a pose that seems to be inspired by “Jump Jim Crow” which was a performance in 1828, by a white comedian named Thomas Dartmouth who imitated a disabled black man in his routine.
It’s at this point, after the shooting, that reality sets in once the jolly-full music in the song’s prelude transitions via the sound of a gunshot. Glover ushers in the line “This is America / Don’t catch you slipping up,” and you’re reminded of America’s violence towards black bodies. As of May 3, according to a Washington Post study, police have shot and killed 110 people in what can be described as state-sanctioned violence against black and Hispanic bodies.
Gambino also underscores the reality of guns in black neighborhoods with the lines, “Guns in my area, I got the strap, I gotta carry ‘em,” all while black kids dressed in school uniforms perform various viral dances including the Gwara Gwara, a South African dance that Rihanna popularized in her 2018 Grammy performance with DJ Khaled. He also highlights our materialistic obsessions through the lines, “Yeah, yeah, I’ma go get the bag / Yeah, yeah, or I’ma get the pad.”
It’s hard not to draw a parallel between Glover’s “This Is America” and Kanye West’s public rants about the state of black America. Both artists plead to an audience to come to conscious terms about its predicament, but with the latter forgetting which medium he’s been most effective in doing so or even who his audience is, this is where Glover shines, using music and motion in narrative form to address social issues without alienating his audience.
In what is the most horrifying and visceral scene in the music video, director Hiro Murai pans to a black choir singing themes of the all too common gospel of financial prosperity as the choir sings, “Get your money, black man, get your money,” right before Gambino embodies the violence of America by shooting and killing the entire choir with a wooden barrel AK-47. It’s a stark reminder of the 2015 Charleston Church shooting by Dylann Roof.
Subsequently, after the shooting, Gambino is back to dancing with the kids again to the superficial and materialistic lyrics, “I’m so fitted, I’m on Gucci, I’m so pretty, I’m gon’ get it, watch me move / This a celly, That’s a tool… .” It’s as if Glover is saying, no matter the tragedies that occur to our communities, we seem to be so consumed by American capitalism that we dance and entertain ourselves back into a slumber through our mobile phones and social media. We do so even as the world around us is in disarray and chaos.
By now you must’ve have seen the Selective Attention Test, a test where six people are taped passing a ball around, the instructor in the video asks that we focus on the ball being passed around by three of the players wearing white shirts and count how many times they passed the ball around. While many of us are focused on counting the number of times the white shirts pass the ball, we miss the gorilla that walks across the screen. This psychological test shows us how humans tend to miss things around or in front of us when we’re preoccupied with other details. In the video, at the 2:35 mark, you can see a body dressed in all black ride across the background in a white horse, similar to the Selective Attention Test, you miss the white horse and rider if you’re so focused on Gambino and the dancing kids.
In the book of Revelations, the story of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse feature riders on a white and pale horse ushering in pestilence and death to destroy the world. Perhaps as a metaphor, Glover is telling us that we’re so distracted getting “hunnid bands, hunnid bands, hunnid bands,” that we miss the ushering in of our own destruction in the process.
The penultimate sequence features Gambino dancing on the roof of a car in a post-apocalypse world, surrounded by empty old cars with blinking hazard lights. The resurrected black guitarist who was shot in the opening playing his guitar, while SZA who sits on top of a hood as the song’s lyrics continue to urge the black man to get his money.
Finally, we see a terrified Gambino being chased by zombies of white people in what I understood to be a metaphor for the pervasiveness of white supremacy in black life. White supremacy seems to be the zombie that just won’t die, trapping us like a caged dog as Young Thug sings the outro, “You just a black man in this world… I kenneled him in the backyard / That probably ain’t life for a dog, for a big dog.”
Perhaps Glover is suggesting that black America’s tenability from the effects of white supremacy is weakened by our affinity for materialism, dancing, and entertainment.
“This Is America” is genius work. It is a wake up call without disregard for reality, I’ll refrain from calling Donald, himself, a genius, though, because all creatives are fallible and the imperfect nature of our humanity leads to eventual disappointment. Perhaps we must begin to label the works genius rather than the creators of them, for the works live infinitely in definitive form. This way we/society never have to retract our adulation.
Watch “This Is America” above, and share your own thoughts about the video with us on Twitter @Okayplayer.
Correction: The pose was inspired by “Jump Jim Crow” rather than the initial assumption that it was Michael Jackon’s choreography.
Abiola Oke is the CEO and Publisher of Okayplayer and OkayAfrica.