Populist or profound?
Donald Glover’s “This is America” has taken the internet by storm since its release last week Friday. Trending at number one on Youtube with 60 million views to date, it has garnered widespread media attention from all corners of the ether. The video, directed by Hiro Murai, is being revered as a work of art with Glover himself being heralded a creative genius.
His Hip-Hop alias, Childish Gambino, stars as the protagonist in this radical and provocative piece of social commentary – easily the most potent in the entertainment arena this year. The video, as intended, has social media platforms on fire with varying interpretations and dissections of the hidden metaphors and representations of black existence in America today.
Glover brings attention to the violence black Americans are faced with and then cleverly juxtaposes it with the sometimes ostentatious and detached black entertainment industry. Music hip-hop journalist, Rodney Carmichael, commends Glover on his satirical commentary saying, “I think in a lot of ways what Glover is trying to do is really bring our focus and our attention to black violence, black entertainment [and] the way they’re juxtaposed in society. They seem to cancel each other out in the greater public consciousness.”
— Nichia (@nicky_furiosa) May 6, 2018
Among references to derogatory figure, Jim Crow, systematic racial oppression, gun violence and police brutality, Glover also highlights the role the media plays in extrapolating this tension between black icons and the imminent and everyday struggles of the greater black American community – in the video young black school-age children can be seen filming the action on their mobile phones. Glover’s character, who switches candidly between his role as an entertainer to a gun wielding madman, serves as a distraction from all the chaos that ensues behind him – an apt reference to how mainstream media and populist tendencies detract from deeper more complex social issues.
Glover’s creative director, Ibra Ake, has recently come forward saying the video wasn’t meant to be as “cerebral or calculated” as some critics think. Rather their intent was to “normalize” the black experience in a way that was void of any ‘white’ influence. “So even with this video, we kind of reduced it to a feeling – a very black feeling, a very violent feeling, but also a very fun feeling,” he said. Ake also made reference to the juxtaposition of singing and dancing with violence as a way to illustrate the paradox black people are forced to bounce between in current day America.
That being said, not everyone is convinced. American film and music critic, Armond White, accused the video of being populist political propaganda and criticises Glover for exploiting black youth culture and what he terms a “politically naïve audience”. He continues, “No matter how popular “This is America” is for the moment, it is the work of an ideologically crippled popstar – and proof that contemporary black popular culture has a crippled sense of history.”
Doreen St Felix, staff writer for The New Yorker had this to say: “The truth is that this video, and what it suggests about its artist, is very difficult. A lot of black people hate it. Glover forces us to relive public traumas and barely gives us a second to breathe before he forces us to dance. There is an inescapable disdain sewn into the fabric of “This Is America.””
Before Atlanta, Glover’s comedy-drama TV series, he was viewed with scepticism for being too white for his black audiences and too black for his white audiences. However, since its release he has proved to many his uncanny insight into what it means to be young and black in America today.
Glover is already renowned for his multi-skilled repertoire as an actor, writer, singer and has won several awards including a Primetime Emmy for Atlanta and a Grammy for his RnB single Redbone. Glover has yet to make any public comment on his video and its reception.
Amy Gibbings is a writer on ART AFRICA‘s editorial team.