When Donald Glover, under the moniker of Childish Gambino, released This Is America, the public reaction was intense. Many of the video’s critics, however, seemed to miss the cultural context that is so essential to understanding the piece. A friend of mine wrote it off, disturbed by a graphic scene in which Gambino guns down a gospel choir. In the song’s commentary on gun violence, this seems to be an allusion to the 2015 Charleston church shooting, but my friend didn’t know this. In fact, much of the criticism seemed to write the song off as gratuitous, violent, and offensive. This view is an oversimplification and seems to miss the final message of the video. By studying This Is America through the narrative framework of Othello, we can see that This Is America uses a similar structure to comment on how the public perceives, condemns, and ultimately fails black artists.
It is worth noting that not all criticism falls into this same category. In this essay, I only mean to address the commentary that implies This Is America depicts violence for the sake of violence. An article from the Associated Press quoted the following criticism:
“Terron Moore, senior director of social media at MTV, said he considered it “traumatizing” to use images of fellow African Americans being killed as entertainment. Many of those who texted him to praise Glover’s video as “‘amazing’ and ‘groundbreaking,’” were white, he said.”Holland, Jessie J. ‘This Is America’ seals Glover’s rep as protest artist
This criticism holds that, while Glover may have an important message, the images he uses to deliver it are unnecessarily traumatizing to a black audience. It also puts forth the premise that, despite his intention, Glover is still creating art from black trauma for a white audience. In this essay, I do not mean to argue for or against the merit, effectiveness, or morality of Glover’s video. I only mean to reveal the narrative mechanisms through which he seeks to make his point.
But, to begin, Shakespeare! The attributes that initially endear Othello to his countrymen are the very same that lead them to cast him aside. He is characterized as a brave and accomplished general with a keen affinity for battle. His speech to the senate is eloquent, and this demonstrates that his capabilities extend beyond the battlefield. Immediately after Othello’s appeal to the senate, the Duke congratulates Brabantio on Othello’s grace, saying: “noble signior, / If virtue on delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (I.iii.329-33).” Immediately in the first act, Othello is coded as white, which makes him an acceptable member of Venetian society to those around him.
It’s important to remember, however, that Othello’s accomplishments as a soldier are what first drew the senators’ interest to him. In their eyes, he will always be a soldier first and gentleman second. His privilege may be revoked at any time, and this is exactly what the play promises. To find a contemporary parallel, we can examine the public’s complex relationship with hip-hop artists.
Kendrick Lamar, for example, rose to fame telling stories of the gang violence in Compton. Contemporary discourse on the subject ranges from harsh criticism to critical acclaim. Geraldo Rivera said of Lamar’s work that “hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years,” (sampled on Lamar’s 2017 hit DNA ). Meanwhile, Lamar received a Pulitzer prize for the same album derided by Rivera.
A simplistic view holds that these artists only gain attention because the stories they tell are sensational, but this ignores the artistry, brilliance, and dedication that goes into their craft. The public’s relationship with rappers is complex and asks for a nuanced understanding of the environments that many of these artists emerge from. Unfortunately, that work is rarely done, and artists are just as quickly condemned for their involvement in the activities we all rapped along to.
In This Is America, black artists are portrayed as both acceptable and offensive, just as Othello is at once “fair” and “black.” The first 50 seconds of the video are scored by a folky, afrobeat-inspired melody. A black man picks along on an acoustic guitar and Gambino sings “We just want to party / party just for you.” The scene is set in a white warehouse, completely devoid of decoration, and Gambino dances awkwardly along to the music. Altogether, it’s fun, upbeat, and a little bland. Glover may have intended this to represent the public’s “ideal” black artist. He’s nonthreatening, entertaining, and isolated from the world. This image is emphasized by Gambino’s body language right before he shoots the now-hooded guitarist, and the song takes a turn:
“We just want to party / party just for you.”This Is America
“Her father loved me, oft invited me, / Still questioned me the story of my life / From year to year-the battle, sieges, fortunes / that I have passed”Othello, (I.iii.149-151)
Glover’s parody of the “ideal” black artist is, essentially, a Jim Crow era minstrel show. It is an imagined construct of blackness, rather than an accurate representation of lived black experience. It is the same form of tokenism that characterizes the first act of Othello. While in Venice, Othello is almost a diversion, a show for the senators and gentlemen of Venice. Brabantio invites him over only to tell stories, to entertain: “Her father loved me, oft invited me, / still questioned me the story of my life / From year to year-the battle, sieges, fortunes / that I have passed” (I.iii.149-151). He is accepted as a part of their white culture while the undesirable aspects of his black identity are ignored. Later, Shakespeare will choose to exaggerate those same aspects, painting Othello as rash, impulsive, and violent. Similarly, Gambino will choose to curate a depraved world of violence in the once-bland warehouse.
After Gambino shoots a man in the head, the music shifts to a dark, stripped-down trap beat. Gambino raps “This is America. / Don’t catch you slippin’ now.” Directly positioned after the lyrics about dancing, this creates a contrast between Glover’s parody and the lived experience of Americans. It’s as if he’s saying this is what you want, but here’s what it really is: This is America.
This tone shift occurs once more, 1:40 into the video. Musically, it shifts back towards afrobeat and gospel. We see a choir singing and dancing, and the surroundings are once again bare. Here is Gambino’s parody again: it’s gospel, its dancing, it’s harmless fun for white America. But in a more violent display than the first switch, Gambino catches a gun from offstage and shoots the entire choir. As mentioned earlier, this has been interpreted in reference to a 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Gambino then repeats the lines “This is America. / Don’t catch you slippin’ now,” and the video descends once again into the madness of the warehouse. This tension is central to Glover’s message, between pacific parody and hyper-exaggerated violence.
In traditional readings of Othello, Cyprus serves a similar purpose as the chaotic warehouse from This is America. It establishes a geography of violence that allows Shakespeare to craft a new, damaging perspective on the protagonist, just as Glover does with the violence so prevalent in the video. Ambereen Dadabhoy acknowledges this reading on the A Bit Lit Podcast, explaining how:
“Venice is the location of law and order and rule, and Cyprus is the location of chaos and misrule. So the movement from Venice to Cyprus represents those things, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s a further eastward movement. And in geography then Othello is seen to embody the murderous and barbarous moor, once he moves from the nobility and civility of Venice to the chaotic place that is Cyprus”A Bit Lit, #42, 12:00
In the episode, Dadabhoy expresses that this is a problematic reading and condemns the concept that moving eastward in the Mediterranean is inherently a movement towards violence. Nonetheless, this racialized structure is one that forms the foundation of the play. Just prior to arriving on the island, Othello is described as the “warlike Moor” (II.i.30), lending a violent connotation to his identity in this new geography. He is immediately thereafter described as brave, but even this now seems to carry a different weight. By the end of act II, Othello himself describes how he is succumbing to his emotions: “My blood begins my safer guides to rule, / And passion, having my best judgement collied, / Assays to lead the way” (II.iii.219-221). Shortly after arriving in Cyprus, Othello is overcome by jealous rage and the tragedy unfolds.
One feels a similar discomfort when watching This is America, as Gambino parades through the warehouse. There are people dragging bodies away, diving off balconies, and filming the debacle on smartphones; there are burning cars, police cars, and dancing on cars; at one point, a hooded horseman rides through the background. Gambino dances through it all, accompanied by children in school uniforms. Even if the viewer may feel alienated by the prior shootings, the dancers seem unbothered. They revel in this atmosphere, and the viewer, drawn in by the pulsing drums, is inclined to bob their head as well. They are the audience watching Othello, unable to look away until they are staring at the wreckage left behind.
Glover presents two narratives of blackness: one as parody and one as exaggeration. The ultimate resolution of the video, however, is a moment between these two extremes. After the music cuts out, Gambino lights a joint and strolls off screen. We see the hooded guitar player from the beginning and Gambino standing on a car. The camera then pans to another, darker floor of the warehouse. The final shot of the video is of Gambino being chased down a hallway as rapper Young Thug mumbles “You just a black man in this world / you just a barcode […] you just a big dawg.” The mumbling is an allusion to contemporary trap music, which has been criticized for its low-key delivery and earned the moniker “mumble rap.” The lyrics are haunting, and they serve to underscore the message of this final scene.
Beneath the violence and political commentary, Glover presents one final, searing image: a black man, visibly terrified, running for his life. Guthrie Ramsey speaks to this, quoted in an article from TIME magazine:
“Gambino’s sprint goes back to a long tradition of black Americans having to run to save their lives.”Ramsey, G. Qtd. in An Expert’s Take on the Symbolism in Childish Gambino’s Viral ‘This Is America’ Video
This is the America that we are left with. This, it feels, is the black experience that was omitted from both extremes presented in the song. This is the context that critics of the song were missing: that the black artistry we idolize is underpinned by a great deal of fear and trauma, and that it’s impossible to understand hip-hop without understanding the communities that create it.
Works Cited & Source Material
Amoako, Aida. “Why the Dancing Makes ‘This Is America’ So Uncomfortable to Watch.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group. 8 May 2018. Accessed here.
Dadabhoy, Ambereen, guest. “Ambereen Dadabhoy on early modern race and the English playhouse.” A Bit Lit, no. 42. 15 Jun. 2020. Accessed here.
Gajanan, Mahita. “An Expert’s Take on the Symbolism in Childish Gambino’s Viral ‘This Is America’ Video.” TIME Magazine, TIME USA. 7 May 2018. Accessed here.
Glover, Donald. This Is America.
Holland, Jesse J. “‘This Is America’ seals Glover’s rep as protest artist.” AP News, The Associated Press. 9 May 2018. Accessed here.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Folger; Simon and Schuster, 2017.
Tsomondo, Thorell P. “Stage-Managing ‘Otherness’: The Function of Narrative in ‘Othello’.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Cultural Journal, vol. 32, no. 2, 1999, pp 1-25. Accessed here.