Childish Gambino

Earlier this month, SPACE held a panel discussion called “Hip Hop Heaven.” Comprised of five local artists and organized by SPACE intern Nyanen Deng, the event raised questions around the ways in which we love, appreciate, consume hip hop and music created by Black and brown folks.

Mosart Nunez, a member of the panel, asserted that we place far too much burden on Black and brown people to carry society out of confusion and into consciousness. PoC are often heralded as magical and wise (which we are), but because America (read: Whiteness) has a way of cutting out the sweetness of PoC cultures, leaving the rest to rot, PoC are often watered down to mystical status. Additionally, we are placed under a constant microscope, every error carefully catalogued and documented.

Mo’s words rang true, however this is not to say that we should not interrogate the culture we consume. Quite the opposite.

This weekend, the artist Childish Gambino released a music video for a song called “This is America.” Everyone saw it. The forces of irony, accountability and the importance of the moment demand acknowledgment of his problematic history, which is bountiful and seemingly endless.

Over his career as an actor, writer, and musician, Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, has amassed a laundry list of transgressions and seems to be unapologetic about them, ranging from transphobia, to misogyny, fetishization, to ableism. Some argue that Gamby is not and has not been for Black people, as evidenced by his low-key cruel depictions of Black women and his role on the HBO show Girls as Lena Dunham’s token. (Dunham, of course, is the Susan who whined that Black men didn’t want to screw her— see the Odell Beckham incident in 2016).

Back to Glover, policing people’s connection to Blackness is harmful and gross. However, it is important to consider the whole fruit before taking out the knife. 

Donald Glover’s work in general gives voice to the underbelly of the Black experience, which is rarely heard in the mainstream. Specifically on the show Atlanta, which he writes and occasionally directs, viewers are given a glimpse at the absurdity and harm of living while Black. The show highlights the ways in which Black people self-medicate to attempt survival through the trauma days bring. “We just wanna party / Party just for you / We just want the money / Money just for you.”

“This is America” works similarly. The video opens and we find ourselves in a warehouse. Gambino shucks and jives, striking his best Stepin Fetchit before shooting his guitarist, point blank, in the back of the head. Gunshots. Beat. “This is America.” Sickly sweet and overripe, Childish Gambino’s video takes us to where the country’s demons dwell. Death rides there, high on their horse, amid chaos and carcass.

Dancing through various personas, Gamby shows the audience different masks Black people wear to survive. He peeks into rooms and shows us dancing and singing to a God who watches us as we bleed out and die. We travel to a parking lot riddled with driverless cars, leaving us to wonder who they belong to. A Black femme sits on a car that resembles Philando Castile’s. Calmed by the healing effects of cannabis, Gamby Michael Jacksons on top of a car in an attempt to dance his cares away. The video ends as we see Gamby running for his life, terror freezing his face as he realizes he was never safe.

“This is America” is many things —  a statement, question, war cry, a work of art; it is also a reminder that the Black experience is complex and layered. Sometimes, we just wanna party, be it watching a video, smoking a joint or dancing on cars. “This is America” pulls the audience into a dystopia we know to be our reality. It asks us to evaluate our safety and take note of our masks — how Black people hide our true being from ourselves and each other. It nods to our collective power, as we record, riot, and dance our way closer to a day where we can taste the sweet fruit of liberation.  

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