In recent years, it’s been inspiring to see some artistic shifts in some of music’s most prominent artists of color, as many of them have turned to using their platforms to raise the profile of issues affecting their communities. Kendrick Lamar released the masterful To Pimp A Butterfly in 2015, targeting systemic discrimination, racial inequality and mental illness. In 2016, the emotional catharsis of Beyoncé’s Lemonade resonated with women of color, with its stories of struggle, infidelity, perseverence and release. The gritty truthfulness of Common’s Black America Again compelled listeners to self-evaluate and come to terms with America’s many sins, especially it’s treatment of its black citizens, who still find themselves protesting to achieve parity. These are only a few recent examples out of many but increasingly, it seems as though artists of color are willingly stepping into the role of making more than just “feel good” music; for some of them, the time to create rebel music has arrived.
We last heard from Childish Gambino on 2016’s stunning Awaken, My Love!, the gold record that was propelled by the viral hit, “Redbone” and its melodic reminder to “stay woke”. Since then, Donald Glover has divided his time amongst his other artistic pursuits, most notably his burgedoning acting/film career. He currently writes, directs and stars in FX’s award-winning TV series Atlanta and has appeared in a variety of film projects, including his starring role as the young version of intergalactic playboy Lando Calrissian, in the soon-to-be-released Star Wars epic, Solo. Since graduating from NYU in 2006 with a degree in Dramatic Writing, Glover has artfully used his many talents behind the camera to assist in his ascendency in front of it.
On May 5th, Glover hosted NBC’s Saturday Night Live, and during the show, he released a new song that instantly sent the Internet into meltdown mode. The striking single, which Glover calls “This Is America”, is all at once an uplifting and alarming track, led lyrically by the repeated mention of its title throughout the song, and punctuated by both joyful and sobering moments. Produced by Glover and Ludwig Göransson, the song features occasional ad libs and vocals from Slim Jxmmi of Rae Sremmurd, 21 Savage, Quavo of The Migos, BlocBoy JB, and Young Thug. Thematically, it deals with issues of race, gun violence and more generally, the often perilous experience of blackness in America:
You just a Black man in this world
You just a barcode
You just a Black man in this world
Drivin’ expensive foreigns
The visuals for “This Is America” are striking and some will surely find its content to be disturbing. You’ll probably need to watch it more than once, as there are important things that are continually occurring in both the foreground and the background. Directed by Hiro Murai (who directs Atlanta and has also directed videos for Childish Gambino, Earl Sweatshirt and others), viewers are shown multiple scenes of a shirtless Glover dancing happily, in what appears to be the inside of an empty warehouse, while passionately singing each of the song’s verses. The video takes the stylistic approach of appearing to be one continuous scene. Police officers can be seen in the background of a few moments, giving chase to suspects and causing them harm. In another moment, the camera pans up to some spectators who are witnessing the chaos but choose to remain uninvolved and simply record the unfolding events on their smartphones. The contrast between all of these events is perfectly choreographed.
There is material in the video that is almost certain to shock some viewers, including scenes where Glover casually guns down multiple people, including an entire church choir that was singing with him in the video, only moments before. Some have interpreted this as a nod to the 2015 Charleston Church Massacre, as the count of those shot in the scene is nearly equal to the count of the fatalities that occurred in Charleston. Correct and incorrect interpretations notwithstanding, it’s clear that Glover’s portrayal of random gun violence, police brutality and the glorification of excess are central to the overall message that “This Is America” delivers: it is often a glorious yet life-threatening proposition to be black in America.