Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, has divided opinion with his new video ‘This is America’. Is it groundbreaking cultural and political commentary or needlessly violent?
On Saturday 5 May, at the same time as he was hosting that day’s episode of Saturday Night Live, Childish Gambino (musical stage name of artist/actor/musician Donald Glover) dropped his new single ‘This is America’, with an accompanying video.
The track immediately became a number one trend on Youtube receiving over 10 million views in 24 hours, and at the time of writing has over 61 million views. The video follows one man (Gambino) through a medley of viral dance trends amongst a backdrop of violent disarray, drawing attention to issues ranging from the topical (gun violence) to the historical (slavery), and has attracted a wealth of online support in the days since it’s release, particularly from the African American community.
But contrary to the overwhelmingly positive response from those across the pond, many black British critiques of Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ have focused on how its violent content is sensationalistic, gratuitous and largely anti-progressive.
British-Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall is the author of a sociological theory of ‘encoding meaning through visual repetition’. This theory appears to be at the root of many of the objections to the video which have been raised en masse by Twitter commentators. They argue that to recreate moments of black trauma is not a particularly radical notion; that reproduction of dominant hegemonic positions merely desensitises us to future moments of black trauma, preparing us for more and more violence until mutilated black bodies are barely worth batting an eyelid at.
The Encoding/Decoding model of communication claims that in cases such as these, the non-verbal message (here the ritualistic murder of African Americans) is presented as such a given reality that it is further encoded into the psyche of the population, thereby normalising it.
Critics of Gambino’s approach argue that in order to achieve change in the long-term we need to change discourses as opposed to simply repeating them. We can do this, they reason, by elevating art forms that manifest a different notion of what it is to be black. They are proponents of the view that what is helpful to long-term discourse change — and eventually resounding systemic change — is the presentation of new narratives, which are quite separate from the apparent inevitabilities that the established media outlets have presented us with.
To use a blockbuster example, films like ‘Black Panther’ show us what it might look like to have a black universe minus a backlog of colonialism to contend with. These types of positive representations, Hallists argue, have most subconscious and significant impact on what black people believe they can achieve, as opposed to films such as ‘12 Years of Slave’, which, granted, bring light to historical realities, but reproduce narratives that we are familiar with, and often largely tired of reliving.
Breaking the mould
However, academic theories can prove inaccessible. And despite the positive impacts of embracing radically representative art such as ‘Black Panther’ or ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, works like ’This is America’ can also be beneficial in the short term, with the two approaches working, if not in harmony, at least in unison.
While the Encoding/Decoding theory is perfectly lucid, we should recognise the value of Gambino’s mode of bringing attention to atrocities in America. It is highly accessible in an immediate sense, purely from the truly guttural reaction it evokes, through the brutal juxtaposition of happiness, smiling, dancing and straight-up murder.
By using a music video, Donald Glover has also chosen a highly accessible vehicle in which to carry his message. Music videos are seen by many millions of people. We have become used to a limited mandate for certain kinds of art, and his use of this medium challenges that remit. Music videos, rarely categorised on an even keel with more traditional gallery formats, in part no doubt due to their popular appeal, tend to be affirming, positive representation art.
It may be the case that in popular culture, positive imagery (eventually) creates positive results. But is it the case that disruptive tough-pill-to-swallow art only ought to be viewed by those who have access to certain institutions? Namely, those who are white, middle-class and already in possession of a hefty knapsack of privileges?
If music videos are one of the easiest and most popular means of consuming art, should we be embracing, rather than shying away from, provocative content and shock-inducing wake-up calls? Is it, in fact, more important that we tackle these troubling realities in pop culture rather than anywhere else?
Whichever side you fall on here, it is guaranteed that Childish Gambino has changed the way we view music videos.
Much like TV’s first interracial kiss in 1968, which provoked controversy and split American audiences, or the first viewing of the UK’s Skins in 2007, which was decried for normalising drug-taking amongst British teenagers, Gambino has challenged the idea that millennials are desensitized to depictions of violence. Instead, he poses that creators (and consumers) switch up the platform we’ve got comfortable in and unsettle familiar ground, making space for uncomfortable but important questions we forgot we could, or rather should, ask.