For a title as open-ended as “This is America,” one would assume Childish Gambino’s latest single would poignantly capture the racial tensions of the nation, using the Black experience as a vessel for artistic expression. For a listener completely unaware of the clandestinely corny wunderkind that is Donald Glover, they would perceive him to be a yet another (admittedly more melodic) tough-guy rapper singing self praises while lyrically waving the barrel of an AK in their faces.
While the artist known as Childish Gambino, a masquerade slowly thinning to reveal a bristly Donald Glover wise beyond his years, is far from being a garden-variety trap rapper, with “This is America,” he purposefully assumes that costume for the sake of flashiness. “I got the plug in Oaxaca / they gonna find you like blocka” boasts Bino, a NYU grad raised middle-class whose stand-up routines often cycle back to his love for nerdy, traditionally white interests. Yet his boasting isn’t hollow flexing; his claims flow naturally because they’ve become the accepted social rhetoric. It’s the talk of the trap music scene, an environment ironically glorified by society where a violent background is seemingly essential, where every Black man is a gun-toting gangbanger.
Throughout the song, Donald recruits a veritable team of trap maestros to bolster this irony. BlocBoy JB, 21 Savage and Young Thug pop up erratically for the occasional woo, blaow and skrrt, with the latter lending a whimsically haunting outro as well. These varied ad libs are woven frequently into the lyrical content, as if Childish Gambino aims to elevate something which ends up being critically associated with lazy, repetitive rapping. “This is America” is deceptively simple, but through the dichotomy of the music (which quivers from spirited sing-alongs to booming, sparsely-instrumented snares), a bigoted dichotomy of Black art is revealed: If it’s not deemed by our predominantly white artistic world to be culturally important, it’s ignorant. Black artists are seldom described as within the intermediary space of the critical spectrum which white artists can freely populate, a place where one can be corny or innovative or plain without their race labeled as a defining characteristic of their art.
This titular “America” is one where to be Black is to be trending, be it for the latest dance craze or the latest kid to be shot. The music video for the song is a microcosm of the world Glover lives in. He cavorts around a warehouse followed by a legion of school-aged dancers, his movements combining elements of viral dances like the Shoot with the Gwara Gwara, Alkayida and other popular dances from Africa. While Gambino’s expressiveness has warranted a mountain of lighthearted GIFs and Twitter memes, every shot in the video is backdropped by playful pandemonium — hordes of sprinting bystanders, burning cars, even a possible manifestation of Death riding by on a pale white horse.
While not making sweeping statements about racism, the oppression in the “America” according to Donald Glover is built on choice. We choose to parse Black culture only for its shining success stories and remain ignorant of the chaotic backgrounds from which Black artists came, which systematically fight to keep them down. We choose to handle guns with care and disregard the bodies of the people they slayed (as represented by the gleefully jarring murder that kicks off the video). Race, however, is not a choice. The chorus, where Gambino implores the “black man” to “get your money,” echoes the implicitly acknowledged values of our society. The illusion of choice bestowed upon people of color is one-strike-and-you’re-out: To be caught “slippin’ up” is to be engulfed by America herself.