Donald Glover’s SNL performance was memorable, but come Sunday, people will be talking about the Childish Gambino video for This Is America.
Glover was host and musical guest of Saturday Night Live with surprise appearances by Alec Baldwin, Ben Stiller, Martin Short, Jimmy Fallon, Scarlett Johansson, Stormy Daniels, Zoe Kravitz, and Daniel Kaluuya. Daniels had a punchline for Baldwin’s Donald Trump that went something like, “I know you don’t believe in climate change, but a storm’s a-comin’!” Glover acted in a skit about Kanye West tweets and another where the trio Migos goes to a Sopranos-like therapy session for the rappers to get in touch with their feelings.
Glover performed two songs under his Childish Gambino persona. The second song, This Is America, is a vital social commentary which reduces the American way of life to the level of gun culture.
The song’s message wasn’t evident in the live performance but came through loud and clear after watching the video. The This Is America video was released almost immediately after the show. Within a few hours it received half-a-billion views on YouTube. By around 7 a.m. on Sunday, the video was trending at number two, from 32, with 1.6 million views.
Glover’s rendition of the song on the show was vocally and visually stunning. He stood shirtless and still for most of the piece, surrounded by young performers in school uniforms doing African-influenced, popular American dances. At one point Glover appeared trapped in a digital prison made of bars of light.
He’s shirtless in the video too, in an underground parking lot. Without warning, he takes a gun and shoots a hostage in the head. He dances on through a group of students, moves up to a group of singers in robes, is handed a shotgun and shoots randomly into the bodies in the choir while uttering the words to the title of the song This Is America.
Acoustic guitars, chanting, drums, spoken word, and choral harmony sets the backdrop for the message. Directed by Hiro Murai, the video is extremely well-executed and Glover’s background as an actor comes through flawlessly. The audience will be shocked but it’s nothing that they haven’t seen before.
It has a piercing quality about it. Composed of stark imagery, the kind usually found in Kendrick Lamar videos, the controlled energy of a Kanye West vocal performance, the uniqueness found in contemporary theatrical dance pieces, and the creativity of short film storytelling. All the violence is done against contrasting images of smiling faces, quirky reactionary movements by an emotionless Glover, fear and indifference from people in the crowds.
The ugliness of the theme, how a nation turns the other way in the face of gun violence, or other social ills, is in contrast with the beauty and lineage of American culture; one that produces dance, film, and music, and expresses the passion that is simultaneously unfolding in the video.
“Beautiful! (says mpeek76 on YouTube) Making us uncomfortable by mirroring the sordid reality we have already accepted. That is what hip hop was always supposed to be.”
The message is clear. America is a nation of the gun. While people smile pretty in pictures on social media, a nation scatters and bleeds in the background. While America allows itself to be distracted – by money, cars, drugs, vanity, and self-obsession – the culture goes to waste.
On Sunday the discussion will focus on the extreme violence in the video, overlooking the fact that it’s no more violent that the news on dinner-time TV, on social media pages on devices at the breakfast table, in the streets in residential neighbourhoods, in community churches where people gather to worship, or the schools where parents send their children to learn about American values every day of the week. The video shows us nothing that hasn’t been witnessed by the youth of America, streamed live.
It left me wondering why it seems easier for someone to pick up a gun rather than a guitar.
Childish Gambino – This Is America (Official Video) – Vevo
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