This is America: Exploring Lyrical and Visual Symbolism

The Unites States has had a long history with strong elements of racial oppression. Despite many great leaps forward in the Civil Rights movement, most prominent in the 1950’s and 60’s, there are still various issues that remain sadly prevalent in the 21st century. There may be some who state that these problems are exaggerated, but those voices probably aren’t too steeped in personal experience. In the last few years, social media has significantly boosted awareness of violent racial oppression, particularly towards black men. Shootings involving black men and police officers became a prominent focal point of social media outlets. The sad truth is, these unfortunate altercations are simply putting a deeply embedded issue under a much brighter spotlight. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” highlights this unfortunate state of events both through the lyrical poignancy, tonal contrast and disturbing visuals through the accompanying music video.

A Lyrical Examination

Gambino’s lyrics are fascinating due to a certain ambiguity of specific meaning. However, enough focus on verbal choice to create thoughtful and somewhat haunting possibilities is strongly suggested. The song is probably most effective in the jarring transition between the verses and chorus. The opening is introduced with a gentle gospel choir in the background singing, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, go, go, away”. This is one of the first of many repetitive phrases, creating an almost hypnotic suggestion. It’s almost as if the choir is suggesting that there isn’t really any problem and that we don’t really have to pay to close attention. We, the listeners, can just “go away”. This could be indicative of the tendency of society to ignore blatant social issues, simply going about the business of their day to day lives.

This is further emphasized by the following lyrics, “We just wanna party, Party just for you, We just want the money, Money just for you”. This echoes the general consensus of a reflection of a society focused on excess and monetary gain. In this instance, the voices could be from the perspective of minorities, African-Americans, who simply want the benefits of financial stability and the benefits of it. The opening also could suggest the idealized version of America. In a nation where social issues are often ignored in favor on individuals focused on the material, problems could continue without any changes enforced. The jarring shift comes during the chorus, as the transition begins with the sound of a gun shot, leading into a faster and more hectic tempo, complete with a more traditional hip-hop beat and an ominous electronic bass sound. Lyrically, the song takes on an almost different identity. The chorus flows into the verse, leading to a more chaotic contrast. The chorus goes, “This is America, don’t catch you slippin up”. This refrains from the first verse, in which everything seems fine. This sharp turn interjects with a statement accompanying the gunshot. The gunshot is America, or rather a bigger part of American culture than some may want to accept, almost breaking through the façade that everything is perfectly acceptable in modern American society.

The lyrics continue with more narrative focus by our narrator, “Look at how I’m livin now, Police be trippin now, Yeah this is America, Guns in my area, I got the strap, I gotta carry em. ” Here the lyrics are a bit more blatant. Gambino may simply be stating the facts of living as a black man in the United States. It’s far from perfect. He asks us to take a look at how it really is to live as a black man in today’s society. He asks us to look at the relationship between police brutality and African-Americans. Many ideas could be suggested by the lines regarding the presences of guns and gun violence. Gambino, representing a black man, sounds as is if he is confirming that he does indeed have a gun. In fact, he states that he must carry one. From that perspective, this indicates a choice. It should be noted that this line doesn’t take into account specific racial, cultural or socio economic factors. Gambino doesn’t state that he’s a criminal or even that he feels the need to use a gun for violent purposes. Rather, it seems almost that he’s stating the need to carry guns due to the environment pressures he feels around him. Due to his cultural living conditions and specific fear of the police tendencies towards racial violence, it proposes another side to the gun violence problem.

Gambino and his featured artists make it even clearer regarding the lack of priorities in our society in following verses, “Grandma told me, Get your money, Black man.” This demonstrates a generational message many African-Americans may feel. Due to the longstanding effects of racial attitudes, this had led to many disadvantages for people of color since the ending of slavery and the Reconstruction centuries before. For years since, minorities have been fighting the odds to reach a general level of equality in the United States. In simple terms, achieving a more stable economic status could hopefully guarantee a safe and happy place in the culture. However, as events have shown, simply having more money and achieving a greater status is not enough to dilute hundreds of years of embedded racial attitudes. Gambino uses examples of status that should suggest stability and happiness but ultimately mean little in the grand scheme, “I’m so fitted, I’m on Gucci…this is a celly, That’s a tool, On my Kodak.”

Perhaps the heaviest weight is in the final verse of the song, “You just a Black man in this world, You just a barcode…Drivin expensive foreigns.” This reinforces the dynamic between the pursuit for material gain being the dominant focus of black men, though it has done little to help provide a life of true freedom and prosperity. The final lines inform us of Gambino’s feelings regarding the status of African-Americans today, “You just a big dawg, yeah, I kenneled him in the backyard, No probably ain’t life to a dog, For a big dog.” Here Gambino twists the shallow lifestyle with the use of the slang term into what he claims he feels. In American society, it’s being suggested that black men are equated to a lesser class, simply pushed to the side and treated as less than human. This final line is both haunting and damning in what it states regarding race relations.

The Music Video

The lyrics are certainly strong in their message, but the themes are strengthened further by the images in the video. Accompany the gospel chanting of the introduction, the first image is that of a black man sitting solitarily and playing a guitar. Gambino appears and is dancing happily. The image further emphasizes the idea of African-Americans having perceived idea of what is hoped for or even expected of them. This is then interjected with Gambino shooting this man in the back of the head, leading into the previously mentioned chaotic chorus. In the background, the video is a clash of images . We see Gambino accompanied by school children who dance with him. However, the video continues to escalate with conflicting images of him dancing with children, while more violence seems to be going on just out of focus. The video could be suggesting that the society’s collective view of the topic is, in fact, out of focus. It’s also fitting that children would be at the center of the chaos, as the problem would certainly have an effect of future generations.

The video, much like the song itself, seems to demonstrate the conflict within the singer and perhaps black culture overall. Characters in the background are just interchanged between dancing and singing together to running in fear as riots appear to be escalating around them. This type of dancing could have another meaning as well. In addition to the suggestion of naïve and even manic glee, the style of dance has been suggested as a nod to a type of dance called Gwara Gwara. This type of dance originated in South Africa, a nation with a long history of oppression between races. The historical context is there as well, hinting that the roots of the issues have had lasting implications linked all the way back the origin of the slave trade. Much like the shift tempo of the song, the images shift contrastingly with bursts of violence. For instance, Gambino comes across of a group of people dancing in a choir. He starts dancing with them, but then mows them all down with a machine gun. He then moves as the camera turns, revealing a team of police swooping in. The dancing and singing seems to be a representation of the ideal status quo. However, much like the media’s typical reaction on a mass shooting, there is an immediate focus and discussion on it. Ultimately though, each instance of gun violence is quickly swept under the rug and everything seems to go back to normal, until the next burst of violence. Following the pattern of the song, this is the cycle of violence which keeps repeating.

One of the most interesting aspects of the performance is of the demeanor Gambino has throughout the video. Another example of the internal strife he is feeling, Gambino not only sharply contrasts his body movements from dancing to murder, but through facial expression. Throughout the video, Gambino shifts his facial features from showing joyful smiles to pained looks somewhere between rage and fear. All the while, he is often directly addressing the camera (and the viewer) with each moment of intense eye contact. The most frightening image is probably the final one, featuring Gambino running in terror from a crowd of Caucasian Americans. Conclusively, the video seems to suggest that Gambino, and by extension black society, live in fear of their white neighbors.

Some Lingering Questions

Childish Gambino is an artist with work that has often been soulful, thoughtful and sometimes heartbreaking. Most of his songs are established as being rather upbeat, but often had lyrics which suggest introspection and a truly personal reflection, often with a sad and melancholy tone. “This Is America” is probably his darkest piece yet and can now be counted among other songs such as Joyner Lucas’s “I’m Not Racist” as biting commentaries on the tough questions regarding race relations, classist divisions and violence 21st century culture. A few years ago, the documentary I Am Not Your Negro was released. Based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin, the film explores the history of racism in the United States and the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. It’s very possible Gambino probably took inspiration from films like this, incorporating the general mood of the public in through his vocals and accompanying imagery. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Gambino doesn’t outright tell you what he thinks. With symbolic word choice and specific musical dynamics, Gambino seems to focus on gaining a strong emotional response with both his voice and images. The problems he discusses in “This Is America” can’t simply be solved in a short time. However, much like the wave of social media awareness over the last few years, songs like these force us to ask questions about how we can improve our society and start communicating with each other about these issues.

Childish Gambino - This Is America (Official Video)

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  1. Dope tune…and I thought hip hop, or at least the hip hop I use to like, died many moons ago. Great bloody tune.

  2. The rise and rise of Donald Glover.
    One minute he is building a pillow fort with Abed in Community.
    Next thing you know, he’s creating TV shows, Childish Gambino is 229th most listened to artist on Spotify and he’s playing Lando Calrissian in Star Wars, having already blagged a Marvel cameo.

    Kardashian levels of fame await.

    • Please… Why you have to finish that lovely post quoting the kardashians.

  3. He’s a talented dude, loved his time in the great ‘Community’ but then got into his Childish Gambino stuff. He certainly looks like he’ll be the best thing in that new Han Solo movie. This new video is one that deserves multiple re-watches, so much stuff to pick up on… can’t say that too often these days.

  4. An amazingly well made video. Horrific scenes and vile attitudes. Childish Gambino has shown us what America seems to be allowed to be.

  5. Gaylene

    Great video and music. I think it’s quite obvious what the song means. Being black in America is deadly.

  6. Eldridge

    Donald Glover is the most annoying man in the world. He’s good looking, he’s got a good body, he’s funny, he can sing, he can rap, he can act, he can do stand up comedy, he can write and direct his own show. And he seems like a good bloke.

  7. Linn Arrington

    Brilliantly creative video.

  8. Ferrara

    I’m surprised that this movie isn’t 30 seconds long, with him walking on set and then some police shooting him.

    That would be a more accurate description of the US.

  9. It’s unbelievable how layered the video actually is.

    The people on the girders with their mouths taped filming it on their phones.

    The man on a horse that goes past like General lee when they are rioting.

    As a protest piece of visual art it’s stunning.

    • You can watch it several times, and still miss so much. Because Gambino is in the foreground, dancing away and distracting you from the harsh reality all around.

  10. I’m not sure what I’m meant to be getting from the more violent sections of the video – the reduction of the murders of black people as entertainment? A comment on black on black violence? Or is it meant to shock my out of my middle class comfort zone?

    Visually the video is just stunning, trying to keep track of so many layers and movements is nigh on impossible as the brain gets pummelled with message after message, so many parts where the brain makes you see what is not there, and the track itself just pushes the boundaries of rap – and what can be considered popular music. Mindblowing stuff,

    • The murders show what life is actually like on the streets right now for average black dudes in America. It isn’t meant to shock, just show what things are actually like. A black church congregation was gunned down a few years ago. Black people killed in pais, and groups every day. If you don’t show something in compact form, it will not be known by those who aren’t a part of the situation.
      I don’t see the murders as shocking, more than I open a page online to read about YET another shooting of a black guy.
      If I’m not shocked at that, I have no right to be shocked at this video.

      Violence made this video. The real violence on the street that kills people ( FYI blacks not whites) every minute in America. Are you so sanitized and clean you don’t like to see this stuff? You couldn’t be black then, or black American. Because it is a daily, real life situation in America.
      ANd I guess the many layers of action you see are not trying to confound you. It’s clear what they are. This is life on the street. A black man being chased by a police care, someone running as he’s being accused of having a gun. It’s not hard to understand.

      Trying to overanalyze it all means you have never been in this situation.
      As such, you need to watch it a few more hundred times to start feeling the feels that any black baby is going to feel in America right now. Chaos without reason , people running scared, panic in the streets, fear, stupidity. Just accept that this is the status quo.

  11. I can’t say it was my cup of tea. I’m not really a rap guy (although I enjoy Donald Glover’s work as a comic actor), but it was an interesting piece of film-making.

  12. He reminds me of a black Spiderman.

  13. Kerstin

    That was quite clever, but the theme left me with the feel bad factor.

  14. Love it.

    Kanye is all talk, Donald Glover is the real thing.

  15. a) it’s mesmerizing
    b) I think he’s been watching some Aphex Twin
    c) I think there’s a Chomsky/Adorno critique: you can’t be clean in a dirty world/we’re all complicit.

  16. peterzt

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I think more discussion should center around topics like this; I would like to hear more thoughts on how this work impact(s/ed) American society, or st least their diverse reactions.

  17. Food for thought, right enough.

  18. GuessWho

    Clever and multi layered – there’s a huge amount going on behind him that it takes a few views to try and take it all in. It’s very bright to be able to pack that much opinion into a few minutes work.

  19. I have no idea what all of its about, but if I had to dance on top of a car like that, I’d fall off and break an ankle.

    Quite like it, though.

  20. He’s absolutely brilliant.

  21. BlueColour

    I watched this twice and it meant stuff to me. Hope other people watch it and it means stuff for them…

  22. Childish Gambino shows his sanity and humanism by showing and condemning random violence and madness. Kanye shows his ignorance and inhumanity by praising madness and racism.

  23. It is interesting focus point based on moder song . However I tend to believe if you will look at artist like j cole , and compere his lyrics ideology In which he shows modern brutal truth of racism in his song like, neighbors or if you look at vic Mensa in his song “16 shots” he talk about brutality of today’s worlds . I enjoyed reading your article but if You would compare different artist from same music class it would be more philosophical and interesting to read.

  24. I really appreciate how you can discover something new with each rewatch of this music video. For example, at 2:14 you can see a person jump and commit suicide in the background. Nobody runs to help or even seems to notice, which could be a commentary on how America deals with mental health issues. You also see throughout the video how guns are handled. After Gambino fires guns, someone comes with a cloth to carry it off with great care. Meanwhile, his murder victims are brutally dragged away.

  25. I think the music video is pretty great. In the hyper-stimulated world we live in now, it’s much easier to view art with a sense of emotional detachment. We’ve become a bit numb to expressions of deep human feelings and thoughts. Childish Gambino was able to not only shock and surprise viewers with “This is America,” but I think he also made them care a little bit more because of it. It wasn’t just cheap tricks to sustain an audience’s attention. That’s quite refreshing.

  26. I like the fact that this song and its accompanying video have got us all talking. There’s certainly a lot of layers that can pulled back from this video.

  27. This new song is definitely something that’s rocked our nation’s culture. If anything, Childish Gambino is the poster child of a true artist’s take on the disparities and injustices prevalent in our society today. This work exemplifies his artistic skill and his ability to apply this skill in a way that sends a powerful message to his audience.

  28. This Is America is incredibly powerful in lyrics, and the video presents itself almost like a visual satire… Similar to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, it’s very obvious that something is wrong: the casual nature of massacre… as you mentioned, the nonchalant way that the video moves on with rhythmic dancing, and an almost caricature-like upbeat tone in Childish Gambino’s face as violence and brutality begins to coagulate in the background. I also find it interesting how the gun itself is handled. In both shootings, the gun is placed on a red cloth while the bodies fall, and no one attends to them. It is a vary powerful echo as to how America currently handles its gun violence; no matter how many people end up grieving, the topic returns to protecting the gun and its “rightful place” in the hands of the common people… despite the potential tragedies that play out over and over.

  29. Donald Glover is an artist- he has something powerful to say and he puts it in the work.

  30. Really interesting analysis! I remember watching this for the first time and was hoping I would find a detailed analysis such as this.

  31. What is so fabulous about this music video is that there is room for another fifty articles analyzing this music video.

  32. Munjeera

    Great article!

  33. Cool analysis! I’m so much more aware of the symbolism now that I watch the music video. It’s amazing how much thought was put into it.

  34. iamthatroby

    This music video is an analytical wet dream.

  35. It seems a common thread in hip hop is either talking about how the artist is trying to make their way in the world, or talking about the streets. What this song seems to be saying is both are traps, but there’s no alternative. If you “make it”, then you are like a big dog kenneled in a back yard. As long as you provide entertainment, you stay in the yard happily chained up, but if you get out of line they “wesley snipe your a%&” to quote K dot. The alternative is getting killed in the streets, or at least living in fear and anger at the thought that you might be killed. I think the song alone is good and it does what a lot of other thoughtful hip hop songs do, but with the added depth of the video it is a masterpiece

  36. Really good job breaking it all down. Thanks a bunch. But, what’s that chick just sitting on a car in 3:19 represent? I genuinely wanna know.

  37. It’s heartwarming to see Childish Gambino’s work generating so much engagement.

  38. Symbols and lyrics within music change peoples lives.

  39. This song has such a powerful message and started a great conversation- plus its a great song!

  40. Ruby Ellam

    Great song, songwriter and analysis. Great job!

  41. The special thing about this specific music video is that every time you watch it you discover something new. I thought I knew a lot about the video and the symbolism until I read through this article! The way he dances kind of distracts you from what’s happening in the back but the more you watch it the more you understand the plethora of messages he’s trying to convey. Overall an interesting read on an amazing video!

  42. It is astounding how I seemed to have missed so much about the video at first glance.

  43. Very informative article, it presented ideas that upon first watch I would not have initially picked up on. I love when artists create media which is thoughtful, insightful, and full of introspective messages.

  44. Debra Harrow

    This piece leaves me heartbroken. I cry every time I see/hear it. Childish Gambino is masterful in weaving visual, lyrical and musical elements together to illustrate the plight, and likewise the strength of people of color. His work shots straight to the heart. The first piece of art that comes to my mind, in comparison, is “Guernica,” by Pablo Picasso.

    Art can be so powerful when it wakes people up!

  45. I love Childish Gambino’s ability to turn a phrase. He begins a line and you have no idea where it’s going to go and that ability plays well here: the gun shot catches us off guard and is a jarring contrast to the almost whimsical start of the song.

  46. Morgan Dancy

    I actually use your article in my Composition classes. My students write an essay analyzing song lyrics that speak to social justice issues. We start with a visual analysis of this video, and it’s a fun discussion to jumpstart their thinking.

  47. Samantha Leersen

    I think this is a good analysis of what is an incredibly important song and music video. This is America is truly an intelligent and honest articulation of the systemic problems in urgent need of attention.
    I just stumbled upon this article today (in 2020), two years after the music video was released. After any media loses virality, the song’s spotlight has certainly dwindled after two years, it is easy to forget about art like this. It gets lost in the archives, no matter how poignant the message it sends.
    I’m definitely glad to have had Glover’s genius brought to my attention again. A very interesting read!

  48. Joseph Cernik

    An interesting essay.

  49. Nonah Smith

    What about the sound bite of Bill Cosby’s voice as Fat Albert, saying “Hey!” right before Glover sings “I’m so fitted”? I’ve looked for references to that and haven’t found any.

  50. This is going back to what rap/hip-hop was in the 80s.

  51. Sunni Ago

    Good analysis. One of my favorite songs. There is a lot to be said about the Gambino’s refusal to define his art leaving it open to speculation but there is a lot in the text that could be said to be “interesting” with regards to perceptions of black masculinities in America.

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