The rise of Donald Glover: how he captured America

The award-winning writer, actor, singer and rapper has dominated the internet with his provocative, politically charged hit This is America, the latest step in an illustrious, unconventional career

Try, if you can, to watch This Is America, the new music video from Childish Gambino, while keeping your eyes off the man in the camera’s gaze. It’s not easy. You may have to watch it twice, maybe three times, probably more. In the clip, Childish Gambino is a dancing, running, alternately homicidal and joyous streak of shirtless charisma. Your eyes want to follow him, soak him in. But if you do, you’ll miss the point he seems to be making in the video, an enigmatic and provocative effort that has accumulated over 74m YouTube views and hundreds of thinkpieces in the six days since its release.

So instead, try directing your attention on all that’s happening in the background as Childish Gambino – the musical moniker of multi-hyphenate artist Donald Glover – moves through a spare industrial space in a succession of meditative tracking shots that serve as steady foundation for the frenetic action they capture.

There are children in school uniforms doing dances of African and American origin. There is a white horse with a hooded rider. There are police. There are people running across the upper level of the space that looks increasingly like a prison as the video progresses. There are chickens, girls on bicycles, money in the air, mobs running in riot-like pandemonium. There are kids lost in their cellphones, car fires, SZA sitting on the hood of what appears to be a 1986 Camry.

While Childish Gambino is surely the star – playing the role some have suggested is America itself – viewed in context of the background action, the video is dizzying, hypnotic treatise on racism, gun violence, joy, spirituality, hip-hop and entertainment in the United States. Its symbolism has been linked to Jim Crow, Michael Jackson and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. YouTube videos investigating these Easter eggs have more views than many actual music videos.

Since debuting This Is America during last week’s episode of Saturday Night Live – for which he served as host and musical guest – Glover has refused to reveal the video’s message, telling TMZ “that’s not for me to say.” What’s certain is that This Is America is a brilliant, career-defining moment.

“This is one of the great performers in modern America,” says TV host Touré, whose books include 2012’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? “He’s showing a really interesting ability to do soul music, television, movies, comedy and drama and to make art that has political substance, but not so much that it becomes propagandist or preachy.”

This Is America has dared us to decide what to make of it. The video’s background action commences immediately after the video hits it pivot point: Childish Gambino pulling a gun from his pants and shooting a hooded man in the back of the head, execution style. This is when he declares the song’s guiding principle: “This is America.”

The implication is that the brutal violence and general mayhem is no different than daily life in the US, where guns, entrenched racism and police brutality against black Americans dominate the headlines. Gambino goes on to kill a gospel choir in a moment evoking the 2015 Charleston massacre, in which nine people died during a prayer service at one the country’s oldest black churches. The guns are handled with great care, being wrapped in red cloth some believe symbolizes red-state second-amendment reverence. Meanwhile, limp bodies are casually pulled out of the frame.

Such reiteration of tragically common violence has for some been unsettling. “Over the past few years we’ve seen so many young African Americans killed, and it’s been recorded and retransmitted over and over for our consumption,” says Blair Kelley, a history professor at North Carolina State University. “Usually the argument made is that transparency will bring us closer to justice, but we’ve found that it hasn’t. So when I saw Glover re-enacting [such killing], I don’t know what the purpose is. I don’t know who was supposed to see that and feel reminded or called to enact justice, because I don’t know that the real killings we’ve seen have brought us closer to justice.”

Childish Gambino - This is America video

“I don’t hate or dislike the [video] at all,” Kelley continues, “and I am happy that it continues the conversation about contemporary politics and urgent questions. But I also want us to be thoughtful about how we think of black death.”

Others view This is America as a clear critique of the way such violence is digested by a culture in which mass shootings and the killing of unarmed black men are so common that we have become numb to them, distracted by entertainment in the same way the video’s joyous dance sequences distract us from chaos in the background.

“This is the thoughtful discussion of the place of violence in the American landscape and how guns are a perpetual and tragically necessary part of living in America,” says Touré. “I think it’s critical when [Gambino] says ‘I got strap, I have to carry it.’ He’s not bragging about having a gun, he’s like ‘I have to, this is America, this is the way things go here.’ The fact that he has to is really important to the message.”

The video was directed by Hiro Murai, who also directs Atlanta, the half-hour series Glover, 34, writes, produces and stars in. (His brother Stephen serves as co-writer and head story editor.) The show follows rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), his cousin/manager Earn (Glover) their friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and Earn’s girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) as they maneuver through the Atlanta rap scene. In its two seasons Atlanta has been widely celebrated, and awarded, for its honest, melancholic, darkly funny and often surreal take on black America.

“I’m always excited to see black performances that complicate this notion that black people are this or that way,” says Kelley. “That they like this, that or the other and all share these common traits. Black people are much more complex than that, and [Glover] has done a fine job of honoring that without demeaning these different ways of being.”

Lakeith Stanfield and Donald Glover in Atlanta
Lakeith Stanfield and Donald Glover in Atlanta. Photograph: Guy D'Alema/FX

“Atlanta is the best show on TV, period,” Chris Rock said in a March New Yorker profile of Glover. Jordan Peele noted: “For black people, Atlanta provides the catharsis of ‘Finally, some elevated black shit.’”

In fact, Peele used Childish Gambino’s biggest hit Redbone during the opening credits of Get Out, his Oscar winning 2017 horror film about the daily terrors of being black in America. The biggest hit from Childish Gambino’s 2016 LP Awaken, My Love! Redbone is a slinky gospel slow ride showcasing Gambino’s soulful (and surprisingly high-pitched) vocals. “Stay woke,” the song’s chorus implores, a message that for Get Out’s protagonist Chris was a foreboding warning of the threats to come.

“Stay woke, that’s what this movie is about,” Peele said of the song during a 2017 interview with HipHopDX. “I wanted to make sure this movie satisfied the black core movie audience need for characters to be smart and do things that intelligent, observant people would do.”

Redbone won the 2018 Grammy for best traditional R&B performance, an award Glover presumably put on his shelf alongside the two Emmys and pair of Golden Globes he’s picked up for Atlanta. The album from which Redbone came itself earned three Grammy nominations and demonstrated a marked evolution from Childish Gambino’s first two albums, which were defined by a jokey internet humor, more straightforward beats and rhyming and lyrics the Pitchfork review of 2013’s Because The Internet equated to a Christmas ham.

Awaken, My Love! found Childish Gambino dropping the structure of his previous output in favor of lushly layered psychedelic fun in the tradition of George Clinton and vocals reminiscent of Prince at his most soulful. Lyrics evoked the same surreal sense of dread that permeates some of Atlanta’s best scenes – “All I see is zombies / Feeding all around us / All they eat are people / and you won’t survive,” Gambino sings on Zombies – and forecasted the complicated racial politics of This Is America. Childish Gambino debuted the album with three shows in California’s new age desert nexus of Joshua Tree, performing in glow-in-the-dark body paint. Cameras were expressly forbidden.

“He always had technique and talent and was always clearly a good rapper,” says Touré. “But it was this funny kind of jokey hip-hop. To see him develop into a very soulful, Parliament-style sort of R&B artist, it’s extraordinary.”

“It sounds like I’m sucking my own dick – ‘Oh, he thinks he’s great at everything,” Glover said in the New Yorker, describing his lifelong ability to identify the algorithms that would make him successful at anything he attempted, “But what if you had that power?”

What Glover was saying is that he knows he does, and there is little reason to doubt him. He can rap while perfectly executing the South African Gwara Gwara, start a massive cultural conversation and earn unbridled praise in the process. (“Donald Glover is a Genius,” Erykah Badu tweeted after the video’s release, while Janelle Monáe’s tweet of just Glover’s name received over 5,000 retweets.) He makes one of the decade’s landmark television shows and has won many prestigious awards. At the end of the month, he joins one of the most successful movie franchises of all time as Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star War Story. Next year, he’ll play Simba in the live-action reboot of The Lion King. He left his gig as a staff writer for 30 Rock after three years because he wanted to focus on acting, and left his role in the beloved series Community because he wanted to focus on music. He’s suggested that the next Childish Gambino album will be his last, as he’s bored with the project.

Given the scope of his career thus far, Glover’s statement indeed seems less self-fellating and more a sober assessment of the extraordinary gifts he’s fully aware he possesses. Gifts that, much like in the extraordinary joy and terrible violence of the video, are hard to look away from.

  • Solo: A Star Wars Story is released on 25 May and Atlanta shows in the US and FX and will start in the UK on BBC Two on 13 May


Katie Bain

The GuardianTramp

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