The first minute of Childish Gambino’s video for “This is America” will give you whiplash. It opens to the sound of a gospel choir harmonising, and the camera follows a barefoot man in white linens picking at a classical guitar, before it turns on Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) dancing topless. Suddenly, as Glover writhes, a gun appears in his hand, as though an extension of his body. The barefoot man appears back in shot, now hooded, ready for execution. Glover shoots him in the head. As the body falls limply to the floor, the melodies disappear, replaced by a fuzzy, growling bass. “This is America,” Glover raps to camera, blithely.
The rest of the video, filmed in a warehouse, explores the twin spectacles of entertainment and ultraviolence as the bedrock of Trump’s America, as it jumps between registers. In one moment, Glover performs exaggerated expressions of delight in front of that effusive gospel choir; in the next the music hardens, and he’s stony-faced, shooting them down with a machine gun. “I’m on Gucci/I’m so pretty,” Glover raps with a camp flourish as he dances with schoolchildren; in the background, riots run wild. It’s grimly jarring, forcing us to recognise the two roles historically forced on black people in the US: entertainer and victim.
The video was watched more than ten million times in 24 hours, with viewers picking out references to America’s gun culture, police brutality and Jim Crow caricatures. Glover, a musician, actor, and the writer and director of his own TV show (the acclaimed Atlanta) knows all too well pop culture’s potential to both address and distract from violence and turmoil. Now, he asks us to pay attention, too.
This article appears in the 10 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran