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The Cynicism of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”

Donald Glover is always doing a bit. When he first started performing as a rapper named Childish Gambino, it seemed like an excuse to record updated backpack rap full of dopey punchlines and Asian girl fetishizing. Despite the Gambino persona gathering a legitimate audience over time, it was hard to separate him from his persona as the goofy and unthreatening black guy in Community, Girls and Derrick Comedy. This would be frustrating to any black performer obviously but Glover himself did not seem intent on making the distinction clear. His 2012 standup special is full of wincing moments like him bragging about dating, what he calls, “the blacks girls of every race.” This comedy, present as well in those early Childish Gambino records, heavily relied on his “otherness” from the rest of rap and street culture in a way that read as condescending (see much of the Culdesac tape and 2011’s Camp). Gambino could be as coarse, misogynistic and offensive as the rap he distanced himself from, but at least he could make literary references. At that point in his career, that was enough. Childish Gambino was mostly successful even though it was panned, with Glover collaborating with rappers-by-trade and scoring a radio hit with the lead single (“3005″) from his sophomore album Because the Internet. In the age where Drake, J. Cole and Big Sean were rising stars, nerdy rappers bragging about finally becoming cool was a successful enterprise; Gambino, and Glover himself, fit in perfectly.

By 2016, in the post-Trayvon, post-Ferguson, #OscarsSoWhite era of black activist art, Glover emerged with Atlanta. It’s a good show that benefits from prestige television’s elevation of Lynchian weirdness and high-art storytelling. Glover finally got the black acceptance that eluded him for so long by making a show about real black people, but in a bizarre world that felt new and progressive for television. Glover made the most of this new framing of his career. Two months after Atlanta debuted, he released Awaken My Love!, a watered down Funkadelic album that differs from the rest of his catalogue. Perhaps Glover, who had just become a father, connected with the familial funk and Afro-futurism’s promise of a better, blacker tomorrow. Or perhaps he saw an opportunity in the new age of “woke” black identity art. With his new song and video, “This Is America,” Glover-as-Gambino seems to make use of his new goodwill to attempt a more sonically and structurally ambitious social commentary. The visually stunning and well-choreographed video displays the kind of ambition that leads people to use the word genius, but in a way that is predictable for something so heavy-handed.

Neither the video or the song are aware of what they think they’re aware of. The former deals in shock and violence to distract you from the fact that the latter is a B-grade attempt at a Kendrick Lamar song, capitalizing on the culture’s growing numbness to seeing black people being murdered while claiming to be making a point. Glover depicts violence done to black people in graphic detail–at one moment even showing himself gunning down a black choir in what feels like an allusion to the Charleston church murders–while rapping about partying and making money. The juxtaposition of the two things is obvious and feels infuriatingly cheap. It is pandering to the current cultural climate’s need for art, particularly black art, to be serious, woke, and important without actually having anything to say. At worst, it’s an arrogant finger wag at the culture’s money-hungry attitudes and vapid partying in the midst of racial violence; at best, it’s a lazy critique of capitalism and America’s gun problem. Its argument against treating the death of black people as callous and inconsequential is to depict the death of black people as callous and inconsequential.

It’s not really clear who exactly this is even for. Glover’s method of engaging in the discourse on race and blackness in America comes with its own baggage. When Atlanta first premiered, Glover said in an interview about the series that he “wanted to show white people [that] you don’t know everything about black culture.” However you want to interpret that sentiment, Glover has long had a fixation on how black people come off to the white gaze. It’s an understandable anxiety, but he’s less concerned about how this fixation distances himself from the actual black people for whom he claims to be making art. 

“This Is America” only serves to remind you of how much the death of black people—whether captured on dash cam footage or cell phone videos or used in a “message” video—goes viral in our culture to the point of desensitization. You’d be hard pressed to see anyone try and do the same with the deaths of white people. The commentary around the death of black people is often used for effect, in this case as Glover raps, “We just wanna party / Party just for you / We just want the money / Money just for you.” If this feels like an unfair reading, it’s only because Glover deserves that level of skepticism from any discerning viewer. For as much goodwill as Atlanta has garnered him, the shadow of his hangups in regards to black culture and black people still looms. Artists have a right to grow, but still must answer for the things they have said and done in the past. It was just as recently as 2014 that Glover was on the internet decrying “hashtag activism” as an unproductive endeavor in social justice. It’s fair for him to believe that, but it’s also fair to point out that the “This is America” amounts to not much more. Regardless of Glover’s intended statements in his video, it does what a lot of celebrated black art is doing: portraying violence against black people as entertainment for white people.

It’s hard to decipher any consistent ideology in Glover’s work. This was true in his comedy and in his music as recently as Because The Internet. It was there in his long, exasperating New Yorker profile. The same guy who complained about black women not liking him and making punchlines out of the Virginia Tech massacre and Trayvon Martin’s death is now making political art about black plight. Maybe his position changed, or maybe he’s simply taking the opportunity to be a beneficiary. In that New Yorker profile, when Glover talks about the teenaged rapper Tay-K—whose single “The Race” was one of the breakout rap hits of the year even as he sat in jail on murder charges— he says, “He’s definitely going to die, and it’s sad.” There is a flippancy and remove in the quote that is interesting in that it reveals a black man who’s numb to death in America, but you can’t help but see that same flippancy in “This Is America.” Maybe his jadedness is the point, but then jadedness can’t also be used as a teaching tool. I don’t fully doubt Glover’s sincerity about violence or even about his blackness, but it’s very clear that Glover has a cool antipathy to both things, and it comes out in this video. “This Is America” is full of the same social commentary of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled or KMD’s Black Bastards—Jim Crow and minstrelsy allusions to discuss blackness in front of the white gaze and under capitalism’s control—but with not enough self-awareness about what it’s presenting to an audience.

The counter is always that it’s necessary to send a message about the epidemic of the murder of black people by showing that violence in unflinching terms. But if that’s true, what does it really say about us that the only way we can create empathy for black lives is by constantly depicting black murder. Furthermore, what does it say about us that the goofy irreverence with which black people are murdered in the video has already been fed into the meme production machine. The reception to “This Is America” has turned the mirror on us and the cynicism of the post-Trump age, where anything remotely aligned with our progressive politics is given unquestioned praise while jokes and memes are treated like a form of resistance. If nothing else, it’s achieved that.