On Saturday May 5, after hosting and performing on Saturday Night Live, Donald Glover (under his stage name Childish Gambino) released the video for his new single “This is America.” Social media immediately went crazy over the video’s symbolisms, proving how impactful Glover’s song is. The video has been examined by social media users on Twitter and other platforms who have turned the music video into an analysis project worthy of an A+. Here are a few of the hidden meanings in Glover’s “This is America.”
The video and the song start with a South African melody that transitions to the bridge sung by Glover and Young Thug with lyrics like “girl, you got me dancing / dance and shake the frame.” Many have argued that the lyrics represent how America (the girl) distracts from political, social and economic issues by using entertainment media (“dance and shake the frame”). Along with these lyrics, Glover’s dancing and facial expressions are exaggerated in a way that represent early images of Jim Crow, according to Justin Siemen, creator of the Netflix show “Dear White People” on Twitter. Glover’s expressions also parallel those in 19th century minstrel shows which were forms of entertainment that mocked black people.
One of the most shocking parts of the video comes soon after. A man, who many Twitter accounts assumed was Trayvon Martin’s dad but is actually singer and actor Calvin The Second, wears a white sack over his head and is shot by Glover as he poses similarly to a specific Jim Crow image. At this point, the song’s rap begins with the title lyric “This is America,” which starts precisely at this time to signal the issue of gun violence in the U.S. and to say it is America. A similar scene happens later in the song before the second verse, as a choir is shot by Glover who uses an assault rifle. This represents the Charleston church shooting. Like the previous scene, immediately after the the action, the title lyrics repeat.
In both these scenes, it is important to mention how right after the shootings are done, Glover gently places the guns on a red cloth held by who appears to be a schoolboy. Some media outlets, such as Insider, have argued that “this represents how red America values guns over human lives.”
After the first verse shooting, Glover starts dancing, distracting the audience from the chaos ensuing in the background. For instance, he dances away as people run behind him and take the corpse of the man he just shot. In another scene, before the second verse shooting, both traditional South African dances and modern viral dances crowd the already chaotic background where people run frantically and destroy cars. At one point, as Glover dances, a man in a hooded mask riding a horse can be seen in the background: he is a symbol for the apocalypse. Glover’s dances taking center stage while violence takes place in the background represents how violence in America is easily overshadowed by the entertainment culture. In this case, this is a juxtaposition between black entertainers and injustice on black people: the U.S. loves black culture, but it also ignores racial injustice.
In relation to this, at the beginning of the first verse, Glover emphasizes what it’s like to succeed as a black man: “look how I’m livin’ now / police be trippin’ now.” He calls attention to how it’s considered shocking to be a successful black person and also calls attention to police brutality and the common stereotype that police are systemically racist, and so it would be surprising to them that a black person becomes successful.
Following this theme, one of the lyrics sung at the beginning of the second verse says “grandma told me / get your money, black man.” This serves as a reminder that even if a black person can succeed at getting their money, they will still be discriminated against because they’re black (“get your money, black man”).
Another topic that Glover brings up in the video and the song is the power of social media and smartphones. Glover sings “this a celly / that’s a tool” as the video shows a group of kids holding their phones and apparently recording the violence that takes place. This, according to an Insider video, indicates how cellphones are used as tools to quickly document violence in America.
The video’s final scene shows Glover running in a dark room being chased by a mob. Some have argued that this is a nod to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” and it represents Glover trying to escape the “Sunken Place,” which Peele explains by saying that “the Sunken Place means we’re marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.”
Glover’s video is charged with symbolism, and the artist has not yet revealed anything, nor does it seem like he plans to. When asked what the video meant in a TMZ interview, Glover responded, “That’s not for me to say.” So, it’s up to the viewers to define what each piece means. Nevertheless, Glover’s video is an amazing video that focuses on black people’s struggle in America told by a black man. This comes as striking especially now with Kanye West, another African American artist, making degrading comments towards the black community and suggesting that the 400 years of slavery were a choice.
The music video comes at a time when black people are being heavily persecuted for their mere existence. In this case, Glover’s music doesn’t serve as entertainment to distract from this fact, but rather as a tool that forces the public to pay attention to this oppression.