If the art that comes after Childish Gambino’s This is America doesn’t move the needle in fixing whatever it is raging against, then we should stop making protest art, because it’s not working.
Wearing my artist hat, I’ll be the first to submit a mea culpa for attempts at thwarting gentrification and raising concerns about police brutality. As strongly as I recognize the need to live in affordable and more diverse neighborhoods, the art that I’m making about that is either bad, ineffective, or both. Black people are still getting choked out at Waffle Houses across America, denied the use of bathrooms at Starbucks, and cops are still being called on us for barbecuing in parks or going in and out of our Airbnbs.
To overstate the obvious, This is America is saying this IS America and not this, too, is America. The latter implies that we are more than, or better than police brutality, racism, gun violence, or any other of our myriad maladies. The reality, clearly, is that we are not. Gambino’s song and video is saying don’t front like it’s not, quit trippin’, and don’t play yourself. So let’s dance, have art parties, “like” causes, and dance some more, because the America that gives us killing of children in schools, the shooting of unarmed black men by police, and the urban-chic buildings going up in your neighborhoods (with the eight-dollar tacos) isn’t shook by the art you’re making.
There has been a lot of analysis of America in the less than two weeks that it has been out. This overanalyses has been enlightening, bringing Jim Crow poses and the South African Gwara Gwara dance to light, among other things. I’ll have to admit that I missed most of those references outright, and still have curiosities about others, like the red paint high up on some of the I-beams in the warehouse from the video. Are they blood watermarks that indicate the level of gun violence, or is it meant to offer protection of children, like during the first Passover?
And why is this video different? There have been other powerful videos over the past two years from Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and bits of comedy and music that go even further back to the ’70s, from Richard Pryor and Gil Scott Heron. Pryor’s Niggers vs Police and Heron’s Bicentennial Blues vividly lay our shortcomings squarely at our feet, with both levity and urgency. Heron writes about “Halfway justice, halfway liberty, halfway equality, [and] a half-ass year,” celebrating “partial deification of partial accomplishments over partial periods of time,” while Pryor says a black man has to scream “I am reaching into my pocket for my wallet,” to avoid being an accidental shooting.
Again, why does America feel like a bigger shift from these other offerings? It is hard to imagine what art after this video could look like. More of the same could begin to feel empty and stale, or, if the memes already popping up with references to the video are any indication, Childish Gambino will be another Cassandra, with unheeded warnings about our future present. Or worse yet, a Sisyphus doomed to making repeated songs and videos that make it to the top of the charts as the country rolls back down to the bottom, in an endless cycle that began way before Pryor and Heron.
Could this be why we’re so quick to add ‘genius’ to Gambino’s title? Maybe by cheering on Gambino as a genius, we absolve ourselves of the need to do anything else. We gave the video over a million views in about a week, and it is now a #1 Billboard hit. We’ve made a change. Granted, the singer/rapper/actor is on an undeniable up streak, but we’ve seen it all before and celebrated its power, only to return to the regularly scheduled programming.
It could be argued that Picasso’s Guernica brought “awareness” to its viewers of the ravages of war, and was a particular indictment of the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War. Same with Goya’s The Third of May. But beyond being a witness to their times, and inspiring others to do the same, it is difficult to imagine the scope of impact that artists and musicians have had on the America that they inherited.
Childish Gambino, a.k.a. Donald Glover, has been at this for about a decade, and has had enough time to hone his message and become better at delivering it. From his early start on the really funny sitcom Community, through his first couple of albums, his work was uneven at best. I watched his not-so-special Netflix comedy special and survived his cringe-worthy Five Fingers of Death freestyle on Sway in the Morning. But he came back hard a couple of years later on Rosenberg’s Hot97 FM hip-hop radio show and has been on the rise ever since. From 2014’s album Kauai, to last year’s Awaken, My Love, which featured the breakout hit Redbone, which was the opening music from Jordan Peele’s big hit movie Get Out!, not to mention Glover’s FX series Atlanta, which produced his first viral moment this year with episode 6 of the second season, titled Teddy Perkins. It’s a cautionary tale about the perils of fame on a child star, and the psychological effect on parent-child relationships. There isn’t a shortage of symbolism and intrigue in this episode, or a shortage of fan theories to go around.
With America, Gambino (whose moniker comes from an online Wu-Tang Clan member name generator) gives us more than enough to chew on.