Childish Gambino, the stage persona of “Atlanta” actor and director Donald Glover, has inspired a surge of discussion and controversy with the recent release of his new single, the chart-topping, irony-laced “This is America.” First performed by Glover during his appearance as both host and musical guest for a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, “America”- and its accompanying music video, which has spearheaded the song’s rapid rise to fame- hits hard with striking visuals, well-executed choreography, and a powerful underlying message concerning racism, American entertainment, and mass violence in the modern-day United States.
Regardless of what the public thinks of it, “America” could not have come at a more appropriate time. Collaborating with Los Angeles-based director and filmmaker Hiro Murai, Glover skillfully combines skin-crawling brutality with celebratory, playful lyrics, crafting a performance that both forces its audience to consider the issues of our day and elevates Glover from nerdy comedian to slick, socially aware rapper in a single fell swoop. The video, which has now racked up over 200 million views on YouTube, is a disturbing spectacle, opening with Glover dancing up to a black man with bound hands and a sack over his head, striking a pose, and shooting him dead. A school-aged child rushes in to offer a velvet cushion for Glover to place his pistol on, a subtle yet scathing commentary on America’s continued glorification of guns and those who use them. What follows is even more unsettling. Jiving and rapping his way through a warehouse while rapidly collapsing into anarchy, Glover goes on to massacre a gospel choir in a scene that brings to mind the Charleston church shooting of 2015, pausing only to turn to the camera and declare “this is America”.
Glover’s character, who some have speculated to be a representation of Jim Crow, alternates between killing and dancing with repulsive ease, and perhaps that’s the point- it reflects the view of America. Glover seems to be portraying in his video, a dystopian world where children play, peaceful and oblivious, while amongst riots and entertainment, only serves to distract from the violence lurking beneath. This vision has earned Glover both praise and fervent disapproval; some critics are already declaring him a genius, while others wish he hadn’t produced the video at all. One common (and well-founded) complaint against “This is America” is that it only contributes to the trend of depicting violence against black people for the sake of shock factor, rushing through the deaths of Glover’s on-screen victims without giving the audience time to process what they are witnessing. Another is that Glover’s message is contrived and vague at times, and what it lacks in true depth it makes up for in action, directly contradicting the video’s disdainful attitude towards the entertainment industry.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about “This is America”. With expert cinematography and choreography so complex and flawless the viewer can watch the video multiple times over and still discover a plethora of new details and activity, there’s no denying the video’s a masterpiece. However, this does not make it the revolutionary social statement many are beginning to interpret it as, nor does it mean the song will be able to stand on its own once the hype of Glover’s performance has faded. The true recipient of Glover’s criticism feels unclear at times, with his attention skittering between racism, the media, and American culture as a whole, to the point where it sometimes feels as though he’s more concerned with appearing politically involved than with actually addressing the issues faced by the black community and our nation as a whole. That being said, Glover’s single has inspired a slew of thought-provoking conversations, debates, and analyses, and for this reason alone, I believe it is more than worth the watch, particularly for people of faith.
The time has long passed for Christians to keep to themselves, consuming and producing only faith-related media. “This is America” is a burning reminder of why this is so. Christian entertainment in its present form does not address the racism and systemic inequality that has been inextricably bound to the United States since the nation’s conception. It doesn’t dissect a culture that is all too happy to turn to ignorance and entertainment in the hopes of ignoring the crimes and violence our country’s citizens, police force, and government regularly commit. Yes, Gambino’s newest performance is raw, violent, disturbing, and even difficult to watch. Many modern Christians strive to avoid when they sit down to enjoy a new music video or the latest hit single- and that is exactly what makes it important. Regardless of whether or not an individual agrees with the vision of America presented by artists such as Glover, it is important that they at least take the time to consider them, especially when all said consideration requires is watching a four-minute-long YouTube video.