A man dances skillfully around the truth, thoroughly distracting us while chaos reigns in the background.
“This Is America,” the music video released over the weekend by hip-hop artist Childish Gambino, deftly illustrates the political and social climate of our time, and therein lies its brilliance. In turns disturbing and thought-provoking, violent and absurd, “This Is America” holds up an artist’s mirror to the conflict-driven reality-show culture of our country. By doing so, Donald Glover, the Grammy- and Emmy-winning artist whose rap name is Childish Gambino, has forced us into a nationwide conversation centered on American identity.
It is a conversation that has moved quickly from social media, where the video racked up nearly 40 million views on YouTube (at the time of this writing), to the mainstream media, where outlets such as the New York Times and BBC have dissected its meaning. This is, perhaps, a conversation that is long overdue.
The video begins with a shirtless Childish Gambino dancing his way up to a bound and hooded musician, and in a shocking moment of violence, shooting him in the back of the head. Gambino dances away, appearing unconcerned, as children dispose of the evidence. As they do, Gambino raps a haunting set of lyrics:
Yeah, this is America (woo, ayy)
Guns in my area (word, my area)
I got the strap (ayy, ayy)
I gotta carry ’em
As a group of children join him in the dance, I am only half-watching, because my mind is consumed with questions about the shooting: Does it represent the videotaped killings of African Americans that we’ve replayed millions of times on our phones? Is it a reminder of the lesser-known shooting of Corey Jones, a musician killed by a police officer when Jones’ car broke down on a dark Florida road three years ago?
I am processing those questions when my mind comes back to the screen. Ten people in choir robes stand in a bare room singing about money. Then Childish Gambino walks in, and with a practiced nonchalance, takes an automatic rifle and shoots them all dead. If this is a reminder of Dylann Roof killing nine black church members in Charleston, S.C., it is a shocking one. And if it is meant to make us examine the link between our love of money and the evil that springs from it, the message comes through loud and clear.
Because this is America, where there are 33,000 gun deaths annually. This is America, where our citizens own nearly half of the estimated 650 million civilian-owned guns in the world. This is America, where 5 percent of the world’s population includes 31 percent of the world’s mass shooters.
This is America, and because gun violence is who we are, we must remain ever vigilant, as Childish Gambino makes clear in his jolting refrain.
This is America (yeah, yeah)
Don’t catch you slippin’ up (woah, ayy)
Don’t catch you slippin’ up (ayy, woo)
Look what I’m whippin’ up (ayy)
That’s just it. You can’t stop looking, because while Childish Gambino dances through a stark warehouse ripped from the set of the violent video game Grand Theft Auto, we see truth in all its ugliness raging behind him.
This is America, where bodies fall from balconies and cops run roughshod and gangs steal cars and kids wear masks.
This is America, where the Grim Reaper rides by on a horse as dome lights splash red and blue against the walls.
This is America, and the brilliance of Childish Gambino is that he dances through it all as if this is normal, pausing only briefly to get high and demand his money.
This, after all, is America, and that’s what many of us do. We get high on drugs, get turned by money, and sink into the madness of it all.
Then America offers to help, but instead of treatment for addiction, we are offered safe injection sites, a solution I believe is equivalent to enabling addiction. Instead of strategies to stop gun violence, we get arguments for the Second Amendment. Instead of punishment for greedy businessmen, we elect them to office.
Because this is America, and drugs, guns, and money is what we are.
Those thoughts consumed me as I watched Childish Gambino dance through the ugly aspects of American identity. Then something caught my eye, and I realized that even as I watched the worst of us, I was also seeing the best of us.
Dressed in school uniforms and ignoring the chaos around them, a group of schoolchildren danced near Childish Gambino. They moved as if no one is watching, and struck me with a truth too deep to ignore.
Kids are the hope in this America where guns are power and money is king. That’s because kids have seen the worst we have to offer, and even in their cynicism, they still find the capacity to love.
We will need such love if we are to become a different America, and since this is the country they will inherit, our kids will have to remake it in their image.