In this op-ed, writer Michael Charles Collett examines the discussion surrounding Donald Glover’s “This Is America” and explores the track’s place in the pop culture landscape.
On Saturday, May 5, multihyphenate performer Donald Glover, alias Childish Gambino, dropped the video to his newest song, “This Is America”, to criticism and acclaim. Directed by Hiro Murai, who has worked with Glover in the past on projects including Atlanta, the music video for the track has racked up nearly 50 million views on YouTube since it was posted.
It’s safe to say that the jarring imagery — dancing children and singing choirs juxtaposed with murder and mayhem — has polarized your timeline. The takes are hot, and Twitter is moving at the speed that only it can, analyzing each frame and turning Glover’s dance moves and facial expressions into memes as I type.
In that sense, the life cycle of “This Is America” is similar to other depictions of Black life in the 21st century, whether an upbeat and joyful viral dance craze or a tragic police shooting caught on tape. It may be about or by or happening to “us” (however you define that), but now that it’s been uploaded, it is public and it will be viewed, dissected, interpreted, and consumed by the world.
“This Is America” appears aware of this freneticism, and Glover, like any number of smart entertainers before him, leans into the piece’s meme-readiness. The restrained visual palette and self-conscious focus on Donald’s facial expressions are reminiscent in a way of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video, from which visual jokes and memes are still echoing throughout global culture two years after its release. What’s remarkable, then, is Glover’s willingness to depict (or perhaps exploit) Black tragedy as well as Black joy “in front of company,” as my grandmother would say.
There is no country for Black culture, no private space of our own in which we can huddle and work things out by ourselves. Though nearly all the imagery and themes in the video are specifically about a Black American experience, Donald Glover in particular and Black art in general have never existed in a vacuum. Our lives and work are forever also watched and consumed by non-Black people.
Black life in the United States has always worked this way. Unlike immigrant or Native American communities, who to greater or lesser extents have languages, histories, and traditions that predate the United States, Black people and our art have always been simultaneously an integral part of, and forever apart from, the (white) culture at large. This intertwining separation was first described by W.E.B. Du Bois, who called it a “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Early responses to “This Is America” took Glover to task for reproducing Black death for public, and largely white, consumption. Others feel that Glover, who has been called out for misogynoir and bad opinions throughout his career, is not the ideal representative of, or messenger for, the concerns of Black people in 2018. A particularly strong take suggests that “This Is America” is a transgression equivalent to Kanye West’s recent denial of the violence of slavery, and that as a cishetero man, Glover is more likely to benefit from this aestheticized presentation of Black pain and suffering than he is to actually endure what is presented in the video.
These criticisms reflect the hypervisibility of Black art and life in our culture and highlight the necessity of a strictly Black cultural space. Our art is constantly being watched and judged and because the actions of any individual may be held against the group, it is impossible for “This Is America” to exist solely as a meditation on or mirror to the reality of the moment. It, like all other pieces of Black art, must do right by all of us or risk setting us all back.
In many ways, it appears that Glover is attempting to tread a fine line between various contemporary titans of Black performing art. On the one hand, Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Beychella performances affirm and create new visions of a heroic, powerful, and triumphant Black feminine experience. Hers is a spectacularly Black joy, grounded in her personal struggles and cultural history but strongly oriented toward a brighter future. Then there is West, whose recent behavior in the spotlight sees him (sometimes literally) embracing Black terror and pain for his own aggrandizement.
“This Is America” zigzags between these two poles; perpetrating massacres one minute and Milly Rocking the next, and daring the environment (or culture?) to react, winkingly aware that this is all getting chopped up, tagged, remixed, uploaded to GIPHY, and dissected on Twitter. But no one reacts in the video. Violence, exuberance, pain, or jubilation; nothing generates a response until Glover tries to run.
Some judge Glover’s work as a comedian, actor, and rapper as being geared toward a white audience and maintain that he treats Black life and death as a resource to be exploited for profit. This may be true, but it misses the larger point: There is no “right” way to depict Black tragedy — or joy, for that matter. Without a private cultural space of our own, any representation of our lives can be stripped of its context, to be used and reproduced and measured by standards not of our own making.
At the end of the day, there might not be a solution. But with Black culture unable to live in a vacuum, forcing evaluation and sparking conversations by those whom the art isn’t about, perhaps this is a remedy: To force those that have never been victims of Black tragedy to reckon with what it actually means to live it.
After all, this is America.