Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ and the New Shape of Protest Music
In 2014, a Rolling Stone poll declared Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” the best protest song of our time. Recorded in April of 1963, during that fierce spell of racial and economic tumult, Dylan, in his folksy pragmatism, rages against the Cold War and the military industrial complex. “You play with my world/ Like it’s your little toy,” he sings. Hemmed in by social margins during the same era, the tenor of resistance for artists like Sam Cooke (“A Change Is Gonna Come”) and James Brown (“Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud”) was defined in anthems of anti-racism and self-pride. Out of the 1970 Kent State shootings—where the National Guard killed four students during a school protest—Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded the stringent “Ohio.”
Donald Glover’s trap gospel “This Is America” is a piece of trickster art that soundly rebukes the natural DNA of the protest song and constructs it into a freakish chronicle of imprisoned torment. In the dozen or so times I’ve watched the 4-minute video, which was released last Saturday and has already amassed nearly 50 million views on YouTube, I kept thinking how much it reminded me of Kara Walker’s grand Antebellum silhouettes, which juggle themes of the grotesque—torture, death, slavery—in one graceful sweep.
Working under his rap pseudonym Childish Gambino, Glover, like Walker, suggests a story of impossible escape. It’s tough work, blood-soaked and vacant redemption, but—and here’s where the artifice begins to reveal traces of brilliance—it’s playful and soul-moving to the point one only wants to keep peering into its dark interiors, waiting for the next truth to sprout.
Hiro Murai, who directed the video, is no stranger to Glover’s rhythms and deceptions, having lensed Atlanta’s wooziest, most disorienting episodes (“Teddy Perkins,” “The Woods”). Here, he seems content to let the scene unfold simply; all the kineticism comes from Gambino, who slinks, then transforms with cartoonish ferocity. With hollow-eyed conviction and no forewarning, he shoots a black man in the head from behind in one sequence, and rifles down a 10-person choir in another. The warehouse tornadoes into chaos and smoke. “This is America,” Gambino insists. “Don’t catch you slippin’ up/ Look at how I’m livin’ now/ Police be trippin’ now.” The lyrics are unadorned, raw, hauntingly spiritual. Later, over a ribbon of oily vocals, he tells us: “Grandma told me/ Get your money, black man.” But the ironies have run flat by then—there are no riches to be had. The jig is up.
Notice, too, how the beat is uptempo, sporadically layered with African rhythms and church hymns. Gambino and his co-producer Ludwig Goransson trick the ears; they fabricate joy and stack it against Murai’s jamboree of ruin and violence. Atlanta rap contemporaries—among them, Young Thug, Quavo, Slim Jxmmi, and 21 Savage—enter the song’s orbit through a gumbo of yelps, ayes, skrrts, and woos. Both song and video take on the impression of collage.
“This Is America” is successful in the way all art should be: Its meaning wraps around each listener differently, a beautiful, nebulous showpiece with a thousand implications. How Gambino and Murai go about bringing those implications to the surface—turning the suffering and trauma of black people into a cinematic playhouse with no way out—and whether that makes it truly vital, is harder to sift through. (Notice that Gambino’s grim odyssey never takes him beyond the white walls of the warehouse, almost as if he’s trapped.) What “This Is America” ends up becoming is one of the most unconventional protest songs of the modern era.
The images are especially significant to Gambino’s puzzle. For most people, “This Is America” was first consumed in video form—the song and footage were released simultaneously during Glover’s Saturday Night Live performance last weekend. The images, above all I believe, are what Gambino wants to resonate, to burn, to damn. The sum is one of naked invention—destruction so bare in its presentation it’s hard to know what exactly the viewer should be looking for.
There are actually three videos happening within Murai’s scope. The first is in the foreground, where Gambino and a cluster of school kids perform choreography sewn together from across the black diaspora, invoking the Gwara Gwara with identical rigor as they do Memphis rapper Blocboy JB’s popular “Shoot” dance (which went viral thanks to a collaboration with Drake). The second video is the background, a canvas of unblinking devastation: burning cars, falling bodies, raging crowds. A world of gun and flame. The third is both of these ecosystems working in symbiotic tandem. Together, they imply complicity on the part of its black actors—that there is plenty of fault to share in the destruction.
‘This Is America’ diverges from the protest song lineage, insisting instead on pain: working to accept it, to get past it, but never being able to.
That very duality, even if just teased at, is precisely what makes “This Is America” such an unorthodox protest song. Whether imbued with a social or political slant, songs of resistance typically envision a clear villain or threat—a president, a war—but Gambino doesn’t just cough up one, he gives us a multitude. There are no solutions. No paths forward. Just a trove of questions.
After the antiwar soundtrack of the 1960s and ’70s, the protest song pushed forward. Under the boot of Reaganomics, incendiary rap group NWA found a target in law enforcement with 1988’s “Fuck Tha Police,” followed by Public Enemy’s rallying call “Fight the Power.” Years later, in 2004, Green Day would damn the Bush administration with timeless punk brava. “Well, maybe I’m the faggot, America/ I’m not a part of a redneck agenda/ Now everybody do the propaganda/ And sing along to the age of paranoia,” they sang on 2004’s “American Idiot.”
With Black Lives Matter (Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout”) and #MeToo (MILCK’s “Quiet”) came resounding psalms to the opposition of the day. In 2016, YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT” gave us a plain-spoken mantra—”Fuck Donald Trump”—that has yet to lose bite. Collectively, these were songs meant to check the power-drunk, the intolerant, the warmongering, the racist. Their force lay in their ability to defeat apathy, to anger, even to galvanize.
“This Is America” diverges from this lineage, insisting instead on pain: working to accept it, to get past it, but never being able to.
And in this, his final trick is his most nightmarish. Throughout the video, Gambino and the school children are the lone people untouched, dancing with the history of Jim Crow alive in their feet, contorting and romping, faces plastered with sly, elastic grins. But it turns out to be a mirage—in the final flash, Gambino’s character is seen manically fleeing down a dark hall, a mob at his back. With harrowing clarity one last note boils, then pops: even when you play their game, they still turn on you. “This Is America,” unlike so much protest music, ends as it began—with death, pain, blood. We never know what exactly comes of Gambino, but Young Thug’s closing lyrics bear the impact of a dagger. “You just a big dawg, yeah/I kenneled him in the backyard.”