‘I don’t want to give it any context’, is the statement Donald Glover has repeatedly given when questioned about Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’. Almost a year since it broke the internet, there has been a wave of cultural attention to Gambino’s 2018 hit. Now with over 467 million views, the music video has become one of the most talked-about cultural phenomena of the latter half of this decade. But why has it reached so many people? No doubt the consumption of the overtly political hit is due to its jibes at the American Establishment, its contemplation on the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, the Charlottesville protests, and even terrorism. Yet, the medium in which these prevalent issues are discussed is perhaps a massive contributing factor to its popularity, and indeed, its necessity.
The aesthetic experience of ‘This is America’ is deeply routed in the political landscape of the US, and the repeated use of symbolism has been able to reach millions worldwide. But how? Many would attribute this to Glover’s/Gambino’s popularity, others to YouTube advertisement and talk show appearances. Yet, it seems that the visual medium used is by far the epicentre of its popularity. By aestheticizing prominent political debates and the clear social injustices in American society, does this help or hinder the cause? This cutting interjection into the growing political problems and disputes on racial discrimination come from a persona embroiled within the visual in the video. With the creation of a hip-hop alter ego Glover, as Childish Gambino, becomes the mastermind behind a music video that enables an aesthetic representation of the political climate of America. Gambino: rugged, imperfect, a creative. Acutely aware, overwhelmingly intelligent. I actually really like him. But does this aestheticisation, the blending of the visual and aural aesthetic experience, make a stronger statement on the injustice against and oppression of minority communities in America? Is ‘This is America’ a mere representation of the present moment as Glover indicates in an interview, where he notes ‘it’s something that should just be out there … I don’t want to give it any context … You watch [it] and walk away with whatever you want to walk away with’? Or is ‘This is America’ more judicious in its critique of American politics and society due to its visual and aural aspects?
Childish Gambino, This is America. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY
It is. The video/song itself gives political debate more dimensions. Saying this, I am not suggesting that this is the only creative outlet that has ever placed civilisation at its core, nor is it the first of its kind to do this. ‘This is America’ is just an example of how integral the aesthetic experience is to the illumination of social injustices and the understanding of politics and how society functions (or does not function). We start with a rather jubilant guitar accompaniment and vocal riff remnant of African culture. Yet, this is ruptured with a gunshot. Intense bass. All tonal qualities abandoned. Music has the power to change in one second what words could take sentences to transform. Guns are collected in red cloth. The symbolism here speaking volumes to how America seems to brush its gun crime problem under the carpet. The killing of the guitarist, the shooting of the entire gospel choir – all weapons collected and handled the same. The visual nuances of the video communicate to audiences an overwhelming message about America in a state of socio-political collapse, just as effectively as the song itself does. The visual and the aural could stand alone and communicate this. Together, they become a force to be reckoned with, and champion the fight against oppression and social injustice.
I know I would much rather see, hear or experience something, and I think Childish Gambino capitalises on this digital, visual culture to make us hear, and hopefully do something about it. Hats off to you, Mr. Gambino.