“It is a terrible thing, simply, to be trapped in one’s history, and attempt, in the same motion (and in this, our life!) to accept, deny, reject, and redeem it — and, also, on whatever level, to profit from it. And: with one’s head in the fetid jaws of this lion’s mouth, attempt to love and be loved, and raise one’s children, and pay the rent, and wrestle with one’s mortality.” —James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work
Just when you think you’ve got Donald Glover figured out, he changes the script again. A decade ago, he was a prodigious sitcom writer with questionable sketch comedy and rap ideas. In just a few years’ time he beefed up his résumé with two well-received stand-up comedy specials and a rap album, EP, and mixtape twee enough to please fans of his Dan Harmon sitcom Community and sharp enough to net him festival slots alongside members of the Wu-Tang Clan. By 2013, Glover was an actor in enough demand to land appearances on HBO’s Brooklyn millennial Zeitgeist drama Girls and Cartoon Network’s fabulist children’s show Adventure Time; and Glover’s Childish Gambino was a multimedia meta drama spilling out across albums, websites, screenplays, and short films. By 2016, Glover had given up rapping and returned to television, famously releasing the retro-funk odyssey “Awaken, My Love!” just weeks after closing out season one of the heady FX drama, Atlanta, where he juggled turns as producer, actor, writer, and director. Two weeks ago, Glover pulled off his most impressive multimedia feat to date, wrapping season two of Atlanta just days after a Saturday Night Live hosting gig where the musical guest was his own alter ego. The same night he dropped off the video for “This Is America,” a combination trap and afrobeat banger with a beguiling message about race and gun violence.
Fans are, since the month began, calling that balance of talents and interests “genius.” People are still not entirely used to creatives, least of all black ones, being well-versed in the inner workings of more than two fields of play, and many aren’t prone to cruising the credits to things to find that genius can be splintered, collaborative, and vocational just as often as it is all-encompassing. Everyone can’t be Stevie Wonder or Prince, performers who wrote, produced, and played several instruments. Whitney Houston’s gifts included singing and acting but not much writing; most Michael Jackson songs were written by committee until Bad. It doesn’t diminish their greatness to say so; since the start, most great music (and television) has always been the work of a room full of people. Gambino’s room includes the multi-instrumentalists Ludwig Goransson, Ray Suen, and Chris Hartz. Atlanta’s room includes director Hiro Murai; actors Brian Tyree Henry, Zazie Beetz, and Lakeith Stanfield; and writers Stephen Glover, Stefani Robinson, Fam Udeorji, and Ibra Ake. As Ike Newton said, great advances come from visionaries standing on the shoulders of giants.
Donald Glover’s work is best examined not just as collaborative art but also as art that is openly conversant with other art. Early Childish Gambino records were keenly aware of their place in the hip-hop pecking order. There’s no Gambino without Drake, no Drake without Lil Wayne and Kanye West, no Kanye without André 3000, no André without A Tribe Called Quest, no Tribe without Public Enemy and Juice Crew … and so on. Atlanta toyed enough with nonlinear storytelling and surrealist visual and music cues to live up to Glover’s “Twin Peaks with rappers” initiative. The show’s deep commitment to quietly unsettling viewers felt beamed in from cringe comedies like Nathan for You or Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories, and season two’s string of quixotic mini-quests that didn’t appear to intersect until the finale invokes great anime like Trigun and Cowboy Bebop, whose roaming protagonists’ overarching purpose didn’t crystallize until late in the game. Glover loves loose ends, Easter eggs, and red herrings. “This Is America” is a kind of sociopolitical Rube Goldberg machine that uses big crowds and long, busy tracking shots to illustrate (but also to obscure) its thesis, which seems to be that America is a place where people try to make a living in spite of powers and processes that work to prevent that from happening.
This is a massive undertaking, but the artist has been scratching at it for years. The listless internet troll who serves as the antihero of Because the Internet spends much of the project unraveling in spite of being born into a famous rapper’s money. “Awaken My Love!”’s funky clavinet jam “Baby Boy” is a yarn about the artist’s newborn son that nods to Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and American slave auctions’ ruthless destruction of black families. The most garish scene of Atlanta’s “Robbin Season” involved a wall-sized Confederate flag and a room full of naked white fraternity pledges dancing the Stanky Leg on command. No discussion of Glover’s track record of art about race should dodge his old stand-up bit “The N-Word,” which jokes about being turned on by a white sexual partner’s use of a slur and suggests depowering racial epithets by encouraging more widespread use of them. It’s a joke, sure, but a lowbrow one that, if there is to be a silver lining to it, serves the dual purpose of showing just how far the artist has grown in a handful of years (and therefore, casting him not as some perfect talent but rather, a long-simmering work-in-progress) and highlighting his natural taste for transgression.
“This Is America” is, among other things, an act of pointed transgression, a commentary on violence whose sharpest tool is a shock of gunfire. Throughout the clip, gleeful black dance routines in an abandoned factory are interspersed with scenes where Glover unexpectedly produces a weapon and shoots someone. In a whirlwind of furtive twists and jerks, the dance sequences — plotted by the 24-year-old choreographer Sherrie Silver — illustrate the dueling spires of fear and fascination black bodies inspire. Think of T.E. Lawrence encountering black men and women during Seven Pillars of Wisdom and crudely remarking that their “faces, being clearly different from our own, were tolerable; but it hurt that they should possess exact counterparts of all our bodies.”
If you can take your eyes off the action at stage front, you notice the factory floor pulsing with smoke, deserted cars, and masked radicals on the run. The song’s titular refrain suggests that the truth of America lies in the totality of these experiences, in triumph but also in blood and death and murder. It’s sort of like a ghoulish younger brother to Janet Jackson’s 1986 “When I Think of You” video, where, in just a few long tracking shots, the singer frolics through city streets, back alleys, and jazz clubs while angry white men fight and threaten to call the police from the margins. Glover’s video doesn’t simply imply a threat; it shoves your face in the overwhelming fullness of America’s dreams and nightmares, like A Clockwork Orange’s Ludovico technique, which sought to scare wayward youth away from violence by subjecting them to maddening doses of gruesome atrocity footage.
Also like Clockwork’s Ludovico treatment, “This Is America” hasn’t entirely achieved what looks to be the intended effect. In a week, it turned from a valuable talking point to fodder for internet shitposts and parodies. Glover’s work has been diced up into “Beyoncé Always on Beat” style mashups that snap on the peppiness of his dance moves and the shock of the gun blasts without reckoning with the fact they’re trivializing violence. A popular blend played Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” under the video’s violent cold open and drew such a virulent response that the creator issued a mea culpa saying it was an innocent endeavor that had “spiraled out of control.” By Sunday, the crude Canadian vlogger and performer Nicole Arbour had cut a tacky “woman’s edit.” As of Tuesday, there’s a version for just about any group of humans you can imagine, including awkward rock and djent covers and remixes.
What was very recently a jarring conversation piece about the toxic treatment of a specific community by its own nation at large is, for many now, just a witless tapestry, garish visuals augmented and passed around wily internet spaces free of their original meaning. We used to give Drake credit for making music videos that felt designed specifically to be devoured piecemeal as tinier memes, but increasingly, it seems as though this response is just the natural flow of information now. I’ve recently had great talks with friends about context collapse — the social media theory which suggests that posting to a global internet audience flattens your content’s specific cultural or ideological underpinnings — and done some grumbling about “irony poisoning,” the ouroboros effect that states that devouring crass, edgy memes lead to ironic detachment, which ultimately spawns crasser and edgier memes.
Both concepts help unpack the disconcerting speed and tastelessness of some of the response to “This Is America,” but neither these ideas nor the immediate crowning of the song and video as genius saddles its creators with much responsibility. Now, it is usually unwise to weaponize an audience’s response against the art it is reacting to, because the most common outcome from the behavior is resentment for artists who have done nothing but create something compelling enough for fans to fight about. It is not J. Cole’s fault that some fans say “you need to have a certain level of intelligence” to understand his raps. The Beyhive and the Navy strike in defense of Beyoncé and Rihanna because black women’s artistry is perennially under attack, not because they are doing their favorite artist’s bidding. “This Is America” has flaws, though, and to see them surface, you need only watch white viewers watch it happening.
YouTube’s cottage industry of reaction videos offers us the unusual opportunity to spectate as volatile black art gets digested by white eyes in real time; you can see clear artistic and historical cues being grazed over right as they happen. The mom in the CUFBOYS’ “Mom Reacts to Childish Gambino” clip sees the shooting of the gospel choir and immediately references the Charleston church massacre but doesn’t get very far beyond generalized shock and curiosity about rap ad libs until her son plays a Washington Post explainer afterward. The genteel midwestern gay couple in WYO Russ’s “White Guys React to Childish Gambino” clip decides it is a word on black-on-black crime. The mother in the Trophy Munchers’ “Mum Reacts: Childish Gambino ‘This Is America’ Music Video” took umbrage at extras loafing on cars and smartphones, because she got a message about laziness and materialism.
The wealth of ideas and Easter eggs Glover and Murai stashed throughout the set invites repeat views and diverse interpretations; compositional depth that requires multiple passes to unpack is both the mark of great art and a ticket to the upper reaches of the charts. But in placing all of the firearms in the hands of a black gunman, “This Is America,” wittingly or unwittingly, arms its viewers with the most dangerous weapon of all: denial. The killing of the hooded guitarist at the start of the video can be pawned off as illustrative of black-on-black crime, a real phenomenon political hucksters like to overemphasize to demonize black communities, delegitimize black protest, and tighten up policing practices that often harm communities they are deployed to help. The assault rifle that sprays across the church choir can be pinned on spree killers like Dylann Roof and other white “lone-wolf” murderers whose depravity is considered errant and unreflective of the socialization of young white men. “This Is America” is scabrous political criticism that all too often lets the actual America off the hook.
One wonders how this song and video might have been received if Glover was stationed on the business end of the barrel of a gun, with a white assailant pulling the trigger. Would “This Is America” be discussed as high art and treated like cross-cultural appointment viewing? Or would the implication of white America in its own culture of violence make it too harsh a truth, like Kendrick Lamar’s confrontational To Pimp a Butterfly–era TV performances, whose racial prickliness was received as filth by conservative cable news analysts? Those people aren’t ruffled by black violence; it is their oldest, most effective bogeyman. For a clinic in what a work of startling black violence does in the wrong hands, check the Houston political debate show Fox Faceoff’s chat about the Gambino record. In it, local reporter Wayne Dolcefino casts the Charleston murders and others like them as the province of “crazy people” who don’t reflect America, while insisting that similar acts of violence in black communities hold a mirror to the people who live there.
Glover is smarter than this. Atlanta is smarter than this. Most arch black art flourishing now under the ever-present white American gaze is more careful than this. I chuckled in the theater watching Jordan Peele’s Get Out last year, when “Awaken!”’s “Redbone” played over the opening credits, right after Lakeith Stanfield gets choked out and kidnapped by a car tailing him in an unfamiliar rural neighborhood. Piping Glover’s advisory “Stay woke!” line into theaters during the film’s woodland credit sequence indicated it was playing a different game. Get Out was a film so aware of who would be watching it and what they might make of it that it staked its shock opening and two trick endings — and for that matter, just about everything in between — on black viewers’ spider sense about going to strange folks’ houses in the woods and white viewers’ palpable embarrassment when their peers say things like, “I would’ve voted for Obama for a third term.”
Works like Get Out, Moonlight, Beyoncé’s ace Coachella set — really anything that has been called “unapologetically black” in the last three years — have all devised clever ways to skirt, subvert, or else ignore the white gaze. Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Moonlight spoke poignantly to attitudes on masculinity in urban black communities, eschewing any characters and attitudes didn’t fit into the frame. “Beychella” served Nawlins swag and HBCU pride to those in the know and let everyone else bop to the beat in confusion. “This Is America” has that same spirit, but in feeding white audiences a slice of black joy and pain while evoking the Jim Crow and Reconstruction-era prejudices and crimes that complicated black American survival only through coded imaging, “This Is America” allows some of its viewers to huff and snap back that this isn’t their America at all. Maybe if it illustrated the pain but not the perp, in the same manner that the overwhelming array of harsh steel grave markers and jarring statues of slave suffering at Alabama’s new National Memorial for Peace and Justice forces attendees to simply sit in the presence of the doom of hanged black citizens, knowing without necessarily spelling out the fact that racism caused all of it, the video would be playing a different game.
As is, “This Is America” is a great song and a brilliant display of dance and cinematography that gives intrepid viewers much to think about. It works harder at all of this than the next nearest modern rap video would dare. It absolutely deserves its perch at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 right now. That said, some of its images award hardheaded, careless people the easy out of blaming all of its disorder on the weary folk who are, in fact, suffering under it, instead of weaving their struggles into a more deliberate rebuke of the whole of the tainted American experiment. The gift of genius is the space to create (dis)quieting moments like these and the leeway to push listeners outside of their comfort zones. The burden of genius, though, is the necessity to be nigh-indestructible on the first try.