Donald Glover's 'This Is America' Holds Ugly Truths To Be Self-Evident

May 7, 2018
Originally published on May 15, 2018 11:03 am

What a weekend it was for Donald Glover. The 34-year-old rapper, actor and producer hosted Saturday Night Live, appearing as both as the host and the musical guest. He performed two new songs under his stage name, Childish Gambino. But it was the performance and subsequent video release of his new song, "This Is America," that has had everyone talking since its late-night release.

The song's visual starts with this striking juxtaposition. Over South African-sung melodies, a black man in a chair is playing a guitar in an empty warehouse while a shirtless Glover sings with his back to the camera. Glover alternates between tribal dances and viral dances while flashing an exaggerated minstrel-like smile. The first shock in the video — one of many — comes when Glover takes a pistol and shoots the man playing guitar in the back of the head.

"The South African melodies suddenly give way to this really dark Southern American trap music," NPR Music hip-hop journalist Rodney Carmichael says. "The rest of the video is this barrage of symbolism and chaos."

There are Jim Crow imagery, dancing schoolchildren toting firearms and a black gospel choir. Glover opens fire on the choir, a seeming reference to the Charleston church mass shooting of 2015.

"I think in a lot of ways what Glover is trying to do is really bring our focus and our attention to black violence, black entertainment [and] the way they're juxtaposed in society. They seem to cancel each other out in the greater public consciousness," Carmichael explains.

The closing scene of the four-minute video shows the artist running from a mob of people with an expression of horror on his face.

"It feels to me like it's a black man running from a lynch mob," Carmichael says. Some have also taken the scene to depict him trying to escape "The Sunken Place," a reference to Jordan Peele's 2017 racial horror film, Get Out. "Either way, it is representative of this history of violent white supremacy."

Glover is enjoying a mainstream moment right now. His FX show, Atlanta, which Glover executive-produces, writes and stars in, has earned Golden Globe awards. He won his first Grammy Award earlier this year for his 2016 song "Redbone." He is starring in Solo: A Star Wars Story this spring. As Carmichael argues, Glover is using his moment to bring attention to the perils of his people, especially following Kanye West's controversial statements on slavery and public alignment with President Trump.

"We're really kind of grappling with what our entertainers at that level do with the spotlight they have on them; what kind of message are they projecting out into the world," Carmichael says. "I think with Glover, he wants to be putting out the concerns of black folk, of folks who are voiceless in this world. And I think he wants to present it in a way where it's as challenging to his audience as it is to those outside on a mass scale."

Web editor Sidney Madden contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

What a weekend it was for actor Donald Glover.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, Donald Glover.

CORNISH: He started off by hosting "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

DONALD GLOVER: Let's take a walk, shall we? (Singing) I really can do anything.

CORNISH: Now, Glover appeared both as the host and the musical guest, performing under his stage name Childish Gambino. But it was the performance and subsequent video release of his new song "This Is America" that got everyone's attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS AMERICA")

GLOVER: (Singing) We just want to party. Party just for you. We just want the money. Money just for you.

CORNISH: Here to talk more about it is Rodney Carmichael of NPR Music. Welcome to the studio.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: Essentially, this music video takes place in what looks like a giant warehouse, right? It's very stark. And this song that first comes on is actually kind of catchy.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, so basically you have what you hear sounds like, you know, South African-sung melodies, sweet melodic mood. And you see Donald Glover, who was shirtless in the video, and he's kind of alternating between, you know, what looks like tribal dances and also viral hip-hop dances. And every now and then, he flashes this really exaggerated facial expression.

He ends up walking up to a man who had been previously playing guitar, a black man seated in a chair, and he proceeds to pull out a gun. And the next thing that happens is what really shifts the direction in the video.

CORNISH: Right, because now you've just seen an execution, right?

CARMICHAEL: Right.

CORNISH: The simulation of an execution.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS AMERICA")

GLOVER: (Singing) Dance to shake the frame. This is America. Don't catch you slipping up. Don't catch you slipping up. Look what I'm whipping up.

CARMICHAEL: The South African melodies, they suddenly give way to this really dark, Southern American trap music. And the rest of the video was this barrage of chaos. You've got Jim Crow imagery, dancing school children, chaotic jumble of symbolism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS AMERICA")

GLOVER: (Singing) Oh, tell somebody.

CORNISH: One minute, you're watching a choir, the kind of choir you might see - right? - an all-black choir singing and clapping in some pop music song as background and then...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS AMERICA")

GLOVER: (Singing) Black man. Black man. This is America.

CORNISH: ...Glover open fires on that choir. And it seems to be a reference to, for instance, the mass shooting in Charleston.

CARMICHAEL: It definitely seems to be a very direct reference to that shooting. And I think in a lot of ways, what Glover is trying to do is really bring our focus and our attention to black violence, black entertainment, the way they're juxtaposed in society. They seem to cancel each other out in the greater public consciousness.

CORNISH: The video ends with this wild chase scene where Glover is running away from a mob of people with an expression of horror on his face. What do you think is going on there?

CARMICHAEL: Well, it feels to me like it's a black man running from a lynch mob. People have also made reference to him trying to escape the sunken place, which is a reference to Jordan Peele's 2017 racial horror film "Get Out." Either way, it definitely is representative of this history of violent white supremacy.

CORNISH: Because the mob, the people in the mob, those actors are all white.

CARMICHAEL: Exactly.

CORNISH: It's fair to say that Donald Glover is having a moment, right? He's earned Emmys and Golden Globes for his series "Atlanta." He is in a big-budget studio "Star Wars" film "Solo" this spring. What is he doing with this fame in this moment?

CARMICHAEL: You know what's interesting? I think that he feels a sense of responsibility. We're coming off the heels of Kanye West having a couple of very interesting and controversial weeks where we're really kind of grappling with what our entertainers at that level do with the spotlight that they have on them. What kind of message are they projecting out into the world?

And I think for Glover, he wants to be putting out the concerns of black folk, of folk who are voiceless in this world. And I think he wants to also represent it in a way where it's as challenging to his audience as it is to those outside on a mass scale.

CORNISH: That's Rodney Carmichael, NPR Music's hip-hop reporter. Rodney, thanks so much.

CARMICHAEL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.