This article was originally published for and edited by ChristandPopCulture.com
A few weeks ago, Childish Gambino (the moniker for actor-director-producer Donald Glover) captivated the internet when he released his music video “This is America”. The video is full of contagious dancing and horrific symbolism. It is not an easy, nor altogether pleasant, video to watch, as some scenes are demoralizing and distressing. But it’s also hard to watch only once, given the amount of discoverable, visual euphemisms—poverty, celebrity worship, respectability politics, and violence—hidden in the background of each scene.
Given that Glover doesn’t offer viewers a straightforward interpretation—besides it being “a good song…Something people could play on Fourth of July”—there remains an opportunity for Christians to analyze and learn something substantial from the intentions of such a provocative work. It is an opportunity to look through eyes of neighbors that may witness political indifferences, gun control issues, misogynistic school and work cultures, police brutality, drug and alcohol abuse, and the ambiguities of a racialized society differently than the majority of American culture. These are complex problems, but they need not be oversimplified nor dismissed to serve a diverse world. By stepping into the complexities of “This is America” with this mindset, one may perhaps process a different America—an America minority Christian brothers and sisters experience everyday.
The video begins in an empty warehouse where a guitar is propped in a chair. A barefooted African American man dressed in an off-white button-down linen shirt and white pants walks up to the guitar, picks it up, and sits down. He begins to play a pleasant guitar melody, unaware of the camera panning past him. In the same continuous shot, the composition moves to a shirtless Childish Gambino. Soon, Gambino begins dancing with a melee of bizarre facial expression, moving toward the African American man who now wears a hood overs his head. Gambino stops his jig, pulls out a pistol, strikes a Jim Crow pose, and then executes the masked man. Onward, the music video now escalates into chaos, subverted by a foreground performance of rap and dance led by Gambino and school children.
The opening scene of “This is America” is a melodramatic metaphor for death by entertainment. The lyrics that play as Gambino dances over to the hooded man are: “We just wanna party/ Party just to go on/ We just want the money/ Money just for you/ I don’t wanna party/ Party just for me.” An American culture ostensibly obsessed with entertainment and celebrity worship, offers one of the few spaces where African Americans can feel accepted and desired—even human. The culture has been designed this way for centuries. So Gambino’s warning in this opening scene is to beware of exchanging entertainment acceptance for human acceptance. Just because one can entertain, doesn’t mean the wholeness of their humanity will be respected.
The black man in the all-white linen suit in the video seems to represent African Americans who ascribe to the philosophy of respectability politics, which includes—but is not limited to—dressing and looking the part of white American culture for white American acceptance. In the past, leaders within the African American community preached the importance of dressing and acting in a presentably acceptable manner that adheres to the dominating culture as the primary means to get ahead. For those who ascribe to the philosophy of respectability politics as the only way for human flourishing in America, the man’s hood is symbolic of the fatalistic blindness (or intentional ignorance) this type of philosophy can produce. The issues of humanity in America are more complicated than this perspective, and Glover communicates well that ascertaining a certain level of respectability is not the cure for African American progress.
If respectability were a cure, even multi-million dollar African American philanthropists and entertainers are inept at dodging the perpetual effects of racism and inhumane treatment. NBA superstar Lebron James had “nigger” spray-painted on the outside of his Los Angeles home. Oscar, Emmy, and Tony Award winning actress Viola Davis still receives discriminatory pay despite her many successes. Billboard charting hip hop artist Meek Mill was the victim of unjust criminalization and was placed on probation for over a decade. And one of the infamous examples used to combat the respectability politics mantra is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder. He was assassinated wearing a suit and working a respectable job—a preacher and minister of the gospel. Like all the aforementioned examples, the man in the chair looks the part. He seemingly just wants to live a free and peaceful life. He plays the acoustic guitar—a genteel form of entertainment, opposite of the brash, in-your-face style hip hop—and goes about enjoying and minding his own affairs. Unfortunately, his blindness, willful or not, proves fatal.
After his execution, the beat changes to a low, grungy octave as the hooded man is dragged away. Gambino’s pistol is handed off to a young man who handles it with utmost care. Gambino, walking away from the scene, looks into the camera, and begins rapping: “This is America/ Don’t catch you slipping up.” The combination of the scene and lyrics works as a warning for African Americans—superstar athletes, hip hop icons, and elementary students—to remain aware of the ever-present dangerous realities of attempting to live free in America. Ignoring theses dangers could prove deadly.
After Gambino symbolically murders the hooded man, he goes on to lead school children in a blissful, jovial, cultural, and carefree minstrel. Meanwhile, anarchy takes place in the background. The environment surrounding the dancing grows increasingly lawless with acts of robbery, suicide, and frustration. However, the attention never wavers from Gambino’s gleeful dance routine, even as the surrounding chaos paints the background of the scene.
As the second act of the music video opens, Gambino peeks into a room from behind a door and finds a cheerful church choir singing and clapping. Gambino excitedly enjoins himself to the joyous celebration with smile and dance. However, his expression soon fades into a look of cynicism. Someone out of view of the camera throws him an assault rifle, which he uses to callously murder the ten choir members. Before the viewers have time to feel sympathy for the victims, they are forced to dislocate from the moment, similar to the first scene, as Gambino carelessly moves on to dance and rap “This is America” again. Duplicating the first murder, his assault rifle is carried away by the same young man with care while the choir members are left to lay in their blood. The evocative scene is reminiscent of the Charleston church massacre where nine church members were murdered in cold blood during a mid-week Bible study.
“This is America,” where seemingly no place is safe enough, nor free enough, for African Americans. Even Christian entertainment has at times disproven itself to be a protective harbor for African Americans to freely express their convictions. When Lecrae decided to be a voice to and for the oppressed, he found himself marginalized and criticized by evangelicals who once held him in high esteem. But instead of running from what his influence cost him (fans and sales), Lecrae says he will continue to be a voice for the marginalized because, “When God’s hand is on you there’s nothing anybody can do to stop that. I’m not afraid of people, I’m afraid of not doing what God created me to do. I’m going to do it regardless of the cost.”
At the end of “This is America,” Gambino frantically runs away from an obscure group of people. Some believe these are police officers, while others think they are the perpetrators of chaos in the background throughout the video. But it has also been suggested that Gambino is running from his influence, perhaps realizing the madness of trying to cure the culture’s malaise by merely entertaining it. This image of an individual fleeing from pain, oppression, and discrimination is both heartbreaking and all too applicable—especially to those within the church.
Christians know well that this life will have much trouble and tribulation, but we take heart because Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33). Since this is the case, as Gambino runs away from the disorder, Christians are called to run into it—no matter what the vocation. Christ-like influence is not reserved for pastors, elders, and ministers, but also teachers, nurses, project managers, parents, and engineers. We run with beautiful feet, eager to build an effective, efficient, and long-lasting culture where the gospel of Jesus Christ shines brighter than the injustices many witness often. There is a cure for these injustices, and it is not cultural appropriation taped over with a fuzzy religious veneer. It is a hope-driven counsel that moves us beyond the comforts of our suburbs and into the communities where the atrocities and chaos portrayed in the “This is America” music video are witnessed regularly. Maybe that movement could be as subtle as paying closer attention to the entertainment we consume, or as life-changing as moving into lower-class neighborhoods to serve and listen to the distresses of broken communities.
American Christians must consider—is this America? Perhaps it’s not everyones version of America, but it’s someone’s. And since it is, Christians, compelled by the love of Christ, should consider how to combat the injustices displayed in Gambino’s work to join in the mission of Christ, uplifting the dignity of all God’s image-bearers. Obviously, injustice isn’t limited to racial inequalities. Christians are called to push back all darkness—abortion, sexism, colorism, economic discrimination, misogyny, poverty, overt and covert racism, colonized discipleship, and any other forms of darkness that conceals the beauty of God’s image-bearers. This work will not be complete until eternity, but the mission is not futile.
So as we nod our heads, bounce our shoulders, and rap with Childish Gambino, we need not disregard the America he and many others perceive, nor dilute it down to sensationalized art. Perhaps the heartrending and disturbing images he gives us in the “This is America” video can move us beyond American cynicism and entertainment consumption, and compel us to move forward into a broken culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ.