This piece is a companion to the Dean-O-Files podcast #39, to be published 5/16. It can be found on Alternative Internet Radio.
First thing’s first: I really like Donald Glover (Childish Gambino). He’s legitimately funny, he’s a solid-as-hell actor, and his music, while it may not be the very best, is creative, unique, and honest. I respect the hell out of him as an artist, and I’d call myself a fan.
On 5/5, Gambino released the video and single “This is America.” His work immediately became the subject of hundreds of hours and thousands of words analyzing the meaning of the song and video across the internet, most of which focused on the commentary intrinsic to the art. I don't want to add too much to the slush pile, so I’ll keep my personal analysis incredibly short later in the piece. Gun violence, systematic racism, and consumerism are the points everyone seems to focus on, and they do so in a manner that assumes nothing is accidental. The clothing, the action in the background, and each individual lyric are pulled apart, and they all seem to be equally important and equally purposeful.
Unless they aren't. And that's the point.
To be fair, Glover has remained publicly tight-lipped about what “This is America” actually means. This could be part of the art, allowing the public to draw their own conclusions, or it could be that Disney told their employee not to say anything controversial right before Solo, the film Glover stars in and is doing press for, comes out. Either way, this leaves us to our own devices in analyzing the work.
Familiarize yourself, if you like. The song is freakin' awesome.
I’m going to keep this stupid short. In my view, there’s as much Thomas Sowell in “This is America” as there is Tariq Nasheed. The lyrics in the song refer to black culture from the perspective of the artist, Gambino. All of them. There are points in the song where this becomes, we’ll say, inconvenient to the obvious biases in the majority of the analysis. While the song and video certainly reference police mistreatment of black people, the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, and the prevalence of gun violence in the United States, this is not the totality of what “This is America” talks about. If we are meant to analyze every little thing and assume nothing is accidental, then we should take nothing for granted. But professional think-piece writers across the internet have done just that.
Some of the stuff that is ignored include imagery in the video and lyrical context. A quick rundown:
- The implication of the lines “Guns in my area/I’ve got the strap/I got to carry ‘em.” is ignored.
- The implication of the lines “We just want to party/Party just for you./We just want the money/Money just for you.” is ignored.
- The implication of the lines “Grandma told me/Get your money/Black man.” is ignored.
- The implication of the section about consumerism is ignored.
- The implication of the lines “Hunnid bands, Hunnid bands, Hunnid bands/Contraband, Contraband, Contraband” is ignored.
- The video features escalating violence and rioting in the background throughout, while Gambino and the kids he is dancing with ignore it.
- The implication of the lyrics at the end of the song “You just a Black man in this world/You just a barcode, ayy/You just a Black man in this world/Drivin' expensive foreigns, ayy/You just a big dog, yeah/I kenneled him in the backyard/No proper life to a dog.” are ignored.
If the song and video are about the problems black Americans face from the perspective of a black man, as the lyrics imply, then the conveniently overlooked consequences of all of these ignored factors leads to a more balanced view of what the work is critiquing. In short, not all the problems black people in America face are external. Many certainly are, but not all.
I know that this is controversial as fuck, especially coming from me. But I am not alone in this socio-cultural analysis. Public figures, black public figures, like Thomas Sowell and Eric July have made similar statements and critiques of black American culture. Furthermore, Glover would not be alone in making cultural critiques like this in his music. The (incredible) rapper Hopsin, in “Ill Mind of Hopsin 5” made very similar points about black culture as he sees it, especially in the Hip-Hop subculture.
Relevance at 3:05.
However, from Vice to Buzzfeed, analysis of this possibility is conspicuously absent. When Gambino discusses status chasing behavior, think-piece writers apply this critique to culture as a whole and, while this may be appropriate, the context of every other lyric refers to black culture specifically. Further, the implied cause/effect relationship between the “Guns in [his] area” and the fact that “[He] got to carry ’em” is ignored. “Got,” in this context, implies necessity, meaning that the lyric can be read as “Because of the guns in my area, I am forced to carry one.” Let’s just say this isn’t a reference to living in suburbia, and you won’t find this implication fully explored in the vast majority of analysis.
What you will find fully explored is the social justice angle. Everywhere. References to out-of-control police, race-based violence like the Charleston shooting, and poverty in black communities comprises the majority of the space between dissecting the pants Gambino wears and the poses he does in the video.
These are all legitimate points, but they serve to prop up a clear bias. If every single thing in “This is America” is worth analyzing, then why are the implications of some of the aspects therein totally ignored?
You all know the answer. Those things do not fit the narrative.
Let’s assume my reading of “This is America” is correct. This means that a black man is critiquing certain aspects of black culture, much like Hopsin in “Ill Mind 5.” This would cause the brains of the social justice preachers writing think pieces on the internet for a living to literally explode. It undermines the victimization narrative. No one who actually studies this stuff denies that there are racially motivated prejudices in America but, for the social justice crowd, this has to be the totality of the issue. If it isn’t, that means that the individual has some responsibility for their circumstances. Such an idea is blasphemous.
I’ll end by being very, very clear. I recognize that institutional racism exists, especially with the police. I recognize that violence against black people based on nothing more than their race happens more than we’d all like to admit. As much as we’d all like to claim that the problems of racist America are gone, they simply aren’t yet. Things are undeniably better, but they’re nowhere near perfect. They may never be. However, ignoring the critiques of black culture from black people just because it runs antithetical to your white-guilt fueled messiah complex?
Well, that’s pretty racist.