“this is america” – childish gambino (2018)


Donald Glover is having his moment in the sun and I am all for it.  This month, he released the groundbreaking video for his single “This Is America” and is starring in the Star Wars spin-off Solo: A Star Wars Story.  After seeing “This Is America” on repeat a few dozen times, I reflected on the earliest memories I have of Donald Glover and when his career first started.

Donald Glover came onto my radar when I was in college.  He was one third of an Internet sketch comedy group called Derrick Comedy.  Joined by DC Pierson and Dominic Dierkes, the trio made these visually poor, but hilarious, comedy videos that were just absurd and wonderful.  Classic bits like “Bro Rape,” “New Bike,” and “Spelling Bee” were shared over social media with friends and became some of our earliest introductions to the concept of viral videos.

I actually got to see Derrick Comedy perform live in New York City.  I was sent to NYC to attend a conference with some colleagues from my college radio station.  After long, boring days of panels and discussions, we explored the city.  I don’t remember much of the live sketch comedy I saw Derrick Comedy perform at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, but I had a great time.

When Derrick Comedy released a well-produced feature-length film in 2009 called Mystery Team, I was excited to rent it from the local Blockbuster Video.  It was fine enough, but it seemed like the Derrick Comedy trio milked this sketch group as much as they could.  Where could Derrick Comedy go from there?  Book deals?  Television show on Comedy Central?  I had no idea, but it all started to seem played out and their best material being their early viral videos on YouTube.

Or it could have been the fact Donald Glover joined a television show called Community.  I never watched Community, but I had friends who did and I was aware that the show had a big cult following.  When that show premiered in 2009, I was more focused on my last year of college.  I had an internship at Country Music Television in Nashville during my first semester and my second semester was spent finishing my capstone project and focusing on finding a job.  I didn’t have time to catch up on the latest pop culture trends at the end of the aughts, so Donald Glover faded from my radar.

Until 2013, I had totally forgotten about Donald Glover.  That was the year he released his studio rap album Because the Internet.  I heard some snippets from it, but I wasn’t impressed.  It didn’t really speak to me.  Kudos to Glover for expanding his horizon as a performer, but I remember a lot of people being confused by this direction he was taking because it conflicted with the comedic image he cultivated for himself during his career so far.  So, like before, he just fell off my radar.

So, imagine my surprise when Disney announced the casting for their Han Solo Star Wars spin-off and Glover was casted as a young Lando Calrissian.  I was really skeptical because I only knew him from his sketch comedy work and his foray into hip-hop.  But when Disney dropped the first teaser trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Story and you got a first glimpse as Glover as Lando, I was already sold. Without even hearing him utter a single word, I could see he was born for that part.

I took some time to look back at Glover’s career over the last few years.  The only thing I had heard he was in was Community and that was cancelled.  I then became aware of his show Atlanta which premiered in 2016 and has earned Glover a ton of critical praise.  Friends have also told me to watch that show because of how well-crafted and surreal the show is.  I intend to, but I couldn’t believe how far Glover had gone over the last few years.  Besides his work on Community and Atlanta, Glover has only had bit and supporting parts here and there.  It is quite a big jump to go from viral Internet video to being in a Star Wars film within one decade.

Not only is Glover making serious moves in the world of television and film, he has significant praise for his music as well.  On May 5th, Donald Glover performed as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live has his rap persona Childish Gambino.  During the show, he performed “This Is America” which is a new single from a yet unnamed forthcoming album.  While the performance was fine, the music video for the song was uploaded on YouTube simultaneously and quickly became viral and studied.

The music video is a visual masterpiece that cleverly addresses the issues of gun violence and black deaths at the hands of police and white supremacists.  What makes the music video for “This Is America” work so well is the depth of composition.  The video contains several layers of meaning which require multiple viewings in order to catch everything.  While you’re focusing on something in the foreground, things are taking place in the background or in the periphery that either contribute to or contradict the scene you’re focused on.  There are a lot of visual elements in the video and it is mesmerizing.

In addition to the composition of the video and all the moving elements inherent in it, the video also works because of the deep symbolism throughout which has sparked much discussion and debate as viewers continue to dissect every frame.  For example, Childish Gambino walks and moves in a stance that is similar to the Jim Crow caricature that fueled racism in its time.  Performing as this racist caricature, Childish Gambino shoots a man in the back of the head and guns down a church choir with an automatic weapon.  Both acts are powerful statements about the culture of gun violence in America (the church choir murder referencing Dylann Roof’s murder of nine worshipers in a church in South Carolina), but they hold deeper meanings.  After each shooting, Childish Gambino gently places the weapons in silk to be cared for while the black bodies are hauled away in dehumanizing fashion (and if you missed it, Death comes in a pale horse on the extreme left followed by a police car).  In the end, Childish Gambino runs towards the camera with police chasing after him.

“This Is America” is a powerful cultural and political statement.  However, much of that statement is made with the video.  The song on its own is just ok.  Musically, it feels like a standard trap song.  While the lyrics do address gun violence in America, they are fairly basic and don’t pack the emotional punch as the music video does.

Donald Glover knows how to make a great video.  He is a talented artist who is adept at various mediums.  And the great thing about him is that he continues to grow.  Since the release of “This Is America,” he is being talked about all over the Internet.  While the song alone wouldn’t generate that kind of buzz, he set against a medium that would convey his message in a way that is shocking and memorable.  Since Donald Glover isn’t just a musician, his art relies on blending mediums to achieve the intended impact.  With the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, Glover will reach an even bigger audience that Disney can attract.  For someone who I largely ignored (forgotten about really) for a long time, I am excited in seeing how far he’ll go and how he’ll continue to challenge his audience.