Donald Glover may be done making things for you to enjoy. His newest single as Childish Gambino, “This is America,” joins the second season of his FX series, Atlanta (“Robbin’ Season”), in showcasing a darker, more sinister vision than anything he’s done before. Both works take his audience on a macabre journey through a nation where entertainment is more important than justice. People are dying in “This Is America,” but all they want us to do is sing and dance. It’s an upsettingly vivid illustration of the Faustian bargain that black America makes on a regular basis, trading our bodies for our expression and freedom.
Directed by Glover’s longtime collaborator Hiro Murai, the video for “This Is America” opens with an act of horror: Glover shoots a hooded, handcuffed black guitarist execution-style, and a couple of schoolchildren rush in to drag his body offscreen. More children join Glover to dance around the massive warehouse where the video takes place as more and more chaos unfolds. The setting evokes Michael Jackson's 30-year-old landmark "Bad" video, which made use of a similarly abandoned city space to grapple with internal conflicts about a black artist’s placement in society. In "This Is America," cars are set ablaze, a man drops to his apparent death from a balcony, and Glover mercilessly guns down a joyful church choir. The children dance unfazed all the while, each time bearing a different type of witness to what’s happening. A child is the one to handle Glover’s weapon after each shooting, and it’s children who sit in the rafters above, recording the bedlam with their phones. Our normalization of racist violence has come at the cost of not only black lives, but black innocence.
Like several other notable works of black American art in recent years, “This Is America” is about absorption. Onscreen and in real life, the black body gets exposed to so much terror and injustice and keeps going. How does the black body endure, and in what ways or spaces is it allowed to live out its emotions? Beyoncé’s Lemonade used the body as a diary of past pains and potentially redemptive experiences. Get Out showed us the price of a body that is literally inhabited by the constant white gaze. Lena Waithe’s The Chi on Showtime has reminded us of how often black people – particularly children – are asked to absorb the dangers of America and still required to be happy. Black Panther is about a hero who has the ability to absorb the violent energy thrown at him and reflect it back.
But this is America, and while there are no superheroes here, Glover’s video calls back to the long history of black folks coming up with ways to barter our physical existence for a slice of the pie. It’s meant trafficking in our pain to get paid even a little, a dynamic steeped into our conjoined history with America. Throughout the video, he acts out a familiar tightrope walk for many hip-hop artists who have found success through revisiting painful experiences. “Get your money, black man" is sage advice that has been passed on through generations. Glover keeps dancing as he talks about the relationship between materialism, blackness, consumption and exploitation.
“This Is America” reflects the desire to use every one of our available platforms to punch at America’s conscience. So we keep recycling our trauma into art, which mainstream America then consumes and judges on the same scale as black entertainers’ less burdened white peers. That tension has been at the heart of countless pop-culture flashpoints: Kendrick Lamar losing the 2014 Best Rap Album Grammy to Macklemore; Lemonade losing 2017’s Album of the Year Grammy to Adele’s 25; the dramatic Oscars finish between Moonlight and La La Land in 2017. It bears repeating that blackness rarely gets the liberty of being free from its circumstances, while the rest of America gets to sit back and be entertained by us. Glover forces us to look at exactly who we are as a result.
With Get Out’s Sunken Place, Jordan Peele gave a name to the desperate, gasping, hellish depths that surround Black America – a place that so many of us are trying to escape while others seem to dive and wallow in it. There’s an echo of this image in “This Is America,” which closes with Glover running frantically in the dark with indistinct people in close pursuit. After a breathtaking four minutes of violence, somehow this moment is the most terrifying of all. Why are they trying to capture him: for causing so much destruction, or for revealing the truth about our country? As the mob closes in on him, the thought occurs that his captors plan to return Glover to his scripted role in a culture where the black entertainer isn’t a mirror, but a toy. This is America. Shut up and dance.