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Who is Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ Really For?
Childish Gambino truly made a video for the white voyeurs of Black death.
by Jazmine Joyner
Childish Gambino, aka Donald Glover, has become a force to be reckoned within recent years. The Georgia native began his career as a young writer for the popular NBC show “30 Rock”. From there, he went on to a more well-known role as Troy Barnes on “Community”. With his comedy group, Derrick Comedy, he put his creative energy towards making many popular and offensive videos—including one named “Bro Rape”—which helped launch him into the spotlight.
Glover also explored his talents with stand-up comedy, and his sets often featured problematic “jokes” which punched down at little people, and included attempts at defending the use of slurs and rape jokes in comedy. Around this period he created his rap alias Childish Gambino, and included many problematic lyrics in his songs. Most recently, he made history by being both the host and the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, and he seized the opportunity to release the newest video for his coming album, “This is America”, during the same weekend.
It was initially met with a wave of excitement from Glover’s peers. On Twitter, his fans rained down praise for such a “woke” video which featured Black people being shot and killed. But many people also feel fatigue and even disgust at how Gambino portrayed his vision of America.
Wow I’m pretty tired of “see how woke™️ I am; see see see see see see” as an artistic motif. Where it feels like cosplay instead of introspection and acute social awareness made both visual and melodic, both ethereal and realistic, both arcane and inviting. I…have fatigue.
— 🆃🆁🆄🅳🆈 (@thetrudz) May 6, 2018
“Wow I’m pretty tired of ‘see how woke™️ I am; see see see see see see’ as an artistic motif. Where it feels like cosplay instead of introspection and acute social awareness made both visual and melodic, both ethereal and realistic, both arcane and inviting. I…have fatigue.”
In the video, Gambino doesn’t shy away from showing Black death, and in creating a spectacle of it in the name of “art”, he contributes to the desensitization of violence against Black people. Africana studies Scholar Zalika U. Ibaorimi, puts it eloquently in her Twitter thread as well:
It is much easier to show images of Black trauma, because of Black people’s very violent and subjugated history/ status as a people.
It is much “better” to make Black people uncomfortable than it is to make white people uncomfortable. For his brand, it would take things too far
— Zalika U. Ibaorimi (The Africana WomaNINJA) (@ZalUIbaorimi) May 6, 2018
“In reference to the Childish Gambino video, yes I understood it; however, I found it sensationalistic. It is has become extremely normalized to depict Black trauma or death. In an effort, to turn some heads and be controversial, the video wasn’t controversial at all.
Here’s why, It is much easier to show images of Black trauma, because of Black people’s very violent and subjugated history/ status as a people. It is much ‘better’ to make Black people uncomfortable than it is to make white people uncomfortable. For his brand, it would take things too far.”
Childish Gambino began his career as a rapper who white kids could listen to without feeling offended by pro-Blackness. His fan base has been pretty white, even going back to his YouTube days. His more recent art, which includes show, “Atlanta”, has been more focused on Blackness, and the soul roots of his last album “Awaken My Love”, was a joy to explore and listen to. However, “This is America” is a natural progression of Glover’s politics, which based on his past comments, lyrics and sketches, explains this morbid showing of violence against Black bodies. For the Black viewer, “This is America” creates valid questioning about who the text is meant for, and if white people enjoy watching it so much, what does that say about creating vivid imagery of Black death, especially after events like the shooting by Dylann Roof in the Charleston church and the routinely shared videos of Black people being assaulted by white police officers?
As I continued to watch and re-watch the video for the sake of understanding the questions we were asking ourselves this weekend, I was triggered, but I also saw the value in what Glover was doing. But is Black death and pain art? I learned early in my art school days that artistic expressions are subjective, but I feel that all the critiques by Black people about Glover’s latest expression are valid and meaningful. His depictions of Black pain are violent and sudden. The more I watch this video, the more upset I become. I don’t know if this is the desired effect, but the video becomes increasingly performative with each viewing.
Violence against Black people is something we see with such regularity, that it becomes overzealous punctuation in our lives. I actively avoid the police shootings, beatings, racist white people degrading Black people in public, and the slain Black bodies that are consistently shared on social media. As a Black woman in this America, my mental health is in constant danger; to see violence against us reflected in a video created for consumption, entertainment, shock-value, and perhaps reflection, I can only wonder why people are in praise of it.
Gambino’s “This is America” is actively saying we should push away the distractions of Trap music and social media and see the country for what it is. He is implying that we don’t already know what kind of world we live in; he is assuming that seeing even more violence is necessary. But we do know. I couldn’t shake the choir being mowed down, and the children dancing in obvious danger. Using Black trauma to sell a track is something I’m not comfortable with.
When I set out to write this it was something completely different, a celebration of Donald and his work but, “This is America” made me realize how fresh that trauma was and still is for me. The song is a fun trap fusion that I plan to listen to again, but Childish Gambino could learn a lot by reading this analysis:
black women and femme artists are expected to cultivate images that allow us to imagine otherwise, to imagine something other than a one-dimensional existence of suffering. they are burdened with instructing care. meanwhile, black men dance in black blood and call it high art.
— decaffeinated daddy (@hoodqueer) May 6, 2018
“black women and femme artists are expected to cultivate images that allow us to imagine otherwise, to imagine something other than a one-dimensional existence of suffering. they are burdened with instructing care. meanwhile, black men dance in black blood and call it high art.”
We need Black men to do better, we need them to create art which celebrates our lives rather than creating imagery for the white voyeurs who salivate over our deaths in the same way they used to when they exchanged photographs and mailed postcards of our lynchings. Childish Gambino truly made a video for the white voyeurs of Black death.