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.
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