Childish Gambino’s “This is America” Depicts Unsettling Truth

Childish Gambino's

Anna Lewis, Staff Writer

America. Home of the free, land of the brave. But what happens when not everyone has the right to be “free”? Why is it that not everyone can be treated equally in a country so well known for its greatness and freedom? Childish Gambino created a music video or his song, “This is America,” that depicts the unsettling truth behind America’s borders, and unleashes the true feeling of what the United States is like on a daily basis.

As soon as the video begins,the audience is aware of the warehouse setting that was put in place purposely to portray America as being like a prison, where violent and dangerous people and events are isolated and kept apart from everywhere else.  Conversely, the music creates an atmosphere of joy and happiness, as Gambino appears, wearing pants that look to be a replica of a Confederate soldier’s’ uniform, standing with his back to the camera.

After a few seconds of dancing, he pulls out a gun from behind his belt, strikes a well known pose, and unleashes a bullet into the head of a man playing the guitar, saying the first words of the song-This is America. The pose is meant to represent an illustration of “Jim Crow,” notably acknowledged by the creator of the Netflix Original, “Dear White People” (a show where blacks at a predominantly white Ivy League college go through various forms of racism and discrimination), as “the fictional racist character that characterized African Americans as lazy, stupid, and inherently less human” (Insider).

With a happy tap-your-foot-to-the-beat moment coming to a startling end with the sound of a bullet traveling through the air, the music shifts into a more serious beat, getting rid of the guitar melody and adding the beating of drums. A man runs up behind the singer, carrying a red cloth to make it clear he’s there for the gun, and quickly takes it and runs. This moment depicts how fast people are to protect a gun that killed someone instead of helping to make sure that that person is safe. It also shows how gun rights are valued over the rights of the people on the other side of the trigger. 

Approximately one minute into the video, Gambino is seen dancing with school children, performing famous dances that have been popularized on social media. With violent acts going on in the background, the dances symbolize the fact that people use such outlets as dancing, to block out everything that is actually going on around them. The dancing also represents teens and their growing obsession with social media. Although social media is a newer form of communication in the world, both children and adults have developed what some are calling an unhealthy relationship with electronics, checking their social platforms and learning “hip” dances.

With a scene change at 1:40, ten African Americans are shown, singing and dancing, representing a black church choir. Peeking in through a hidden doorway, Gambino strolls in and dances along to the singing of the group. After five seconds of joyous dancing, the singer is tossed a gun, which he then uses to shoot the choir.  This moment depicts the June 17, 2015 shooting at the Charleston Church, perpetrated by Dylann Roof, which left nine dead and one in critical condition. This scene symbolizes how easy it is for random people to access an assault weapon and use it for negative purposes. The moment mirrors the one from earlier in the video, as it ends with the gun being carried out carefully and checked on, with no attention paid to the victims.

The singer then walks through the warehouse where people can be seen running in groups with axes and bats. These depictions represent what the many violent protests that have happened in the last few years have turned into. Many gatherings have been pushed to the point of violence because of the anger and rage within the participants. While the rejoining of the school kids dancing is going on, the background is flooded with people fighting and sprinting from place to place. In the far left corner, there is a vacant police car with its lights flashing but no one there to help, which symbolizes how law enforcement has often been a part of America’s problems, instead of being there to stop them.  

At 2:28 of the four minute video, four children can be seen sitting on the second story of the building, away from all the mania going on around them, but recording it all on their phones. Again, America’s children are shown being consumed by social media. Instead of finding a way to stop the violence going on around them, they are busy exploiting their lives in the virtual world.

Revisited by the schoolchildren, the singer performs another popular dance movement, ironically called, “The Shoot.”  He then strikes a pose, using his hands as a gun, aiming towards the right side of the screen. Listening closely, the sounds of screaming children can be heard, as well as a gymnasium door. This moment symbolizes the horrifying reality of school shootings.

According to CNN, the United States has experienced more than 288 school shootings since January 1, 2009, and 57 times as many shootings as any other industrialized country to date. After seventeen seconds of complete silence, which can be seen as a tribute to the seventeen lives lost at the February 14, 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida, the music resumes as the singer walks toward the next scene.

Here, there are as many as ten cars with their hazard lights flashing, randomly placed as the picture zooms out. These cars have been said to represent the multiple African American lives lost, for no reason other than hate or suspicion, at traffic stops around the U.S. At 3:37, the scene closes with Gambino dancing atop one of the old-modeled cars.

In the closing piece of the music video, the singer is shown sprinting for his life, representing people trying to escape the violence of America. An article in Time magazine goes into detail that Gambino running through the hallway dates as far back as the 19th century, when African Americans were forced to run as fast as they could in order to save their lives. Going down a dark and shaded pathway, behind him, a huge crowd follows, trying to stop him in his tracks.

Although there are many interpretations and opinions about Gambino’s newest release, I view the overall idea of the music video as a cry for change. With everything bad going on in the background-people being thrown over the rail and being chased, and the absence and betrayal of the police- the only way to reach success and happiness in America is for people to come together to change everything for the greater good.  Hopefully, Gambino’s video can inspire that change.