This is America: theories behind Childish Gambino's satirical masterpiece

The rapper, AKA Donald Glover, has released a cryptic new video that amassed 10m views in 24 hours and has been hailed as a work of genius. But what does it mean?

  • This video features violence and strong language

Following his calls to “stay woke!” on his biggest hit to date, Redbone, the musician, actor, writer, director and comedian Childish Gambino – AKA Donald Glover, has doubled his efforts on his new track This Is America. Its video amassed 10m views in only 24 hours and has been celebrated by Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, Trent Reznor and others as one of 2018’s best: a brilliantly choreographed bit of theatre in a vast warehouse, as Glover dances around an escalating riot, ending up with a complex dissection of gun violence and American racism. Theories about what it all means have started stacking up.

Watch the video for Childish Gambino: This Is America

He’s playing Jim Crow

Glover’s exaggerated poses have been compared to historical caricatures of black men.
Glover’s exaggerated poses have been compared to historical caricatures of black men. Photograph: RCA records

In the opening scenes, Glover uses grotesque smiles and exaggerated poses, with some on Twitter suggesting this is an invocation of the racial caricature Jim Crow. Another suggested Glover was accusing black performers – even himself – of “coonery”, or saying they are still made to feel like minstrels when they go out to perform their “black” music. One of the lyrics is “Grandma told me: get your money, black man”. Commenters on the lyric annotation site Genius have asked whether Glover feels that he has to take on stereotypically black performance roles (rapper, soul singer, comedian) to be able to earn money. His gunning down of the gospel choir singing the lyric suggests that he’s tired of the pressure to accumulate wealth, to be performatively black, and stay spiritually uplifted in an age of gun violence.

He’s duping us with dance

Glover’s attention-grabbing dance moves seem to be making a point about what society focuses on.
Don’t be distracted: the use of attention-grabbing dance moves seems to be making a point about what society focuses on. Photograph: RCA Records

A little like that video where you’re told to follow a basketball being passed around, and you miss the moonwalking bear in the background, Glover and co’s moves – doing YouTube dance crazes such as the hopping, kicking “shoot” – mask the riots happening behind them. The video’s choreographer, Sherrie Silver, retweeted a comment, perhaps in agreement, from someone who argued: “Childish Gambino’s dance moves distracted all of us from the craziness that was happening in the background of the video & that’s exactly the point he’s trying to make.”

He’s taking on the police

Masked spectators are shown documenting the riot that plays out in the background of ‘This is America’. Source: RCA Records

The line “this a celly / that’s a tool” has a powerful double meaning. Fans have pointed out that on the one hand it refers to the case of Stephon Clark, shot dead just weeks ago by Sacramento police, who assumed he was armed, but only had an iPhone on him. Glover distils the distorting way black men are seen by police with “tool”, meaning gun. In the video, the camera pans up to black men filming the chaos on their phones. As other commenters on Genius have pointed out, Glover could also be saying that phones can be actual tools for documentation.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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