Why You Need to watch Childish Gambino's 'This is America' twice

The first time I watched Childish Gambino's "This is America", I honestly did not get what all the hype was about. The song seemed good (not great) and the video seemed average, shot on a low budget in some empty car park - warehouse place with some weird, almost choreatic dance steps and even some violence at times.

I did not get it. Then I read up about the song. And I watched the video again. And I got it.

I got why this video has 248 million views in just one month and why it is being hailed as a masterpiece and one of the most meticulously crafted music videos of this decade.

Childish Gambino's 'This is America' is the music video equivalent of a magic trick and one of the most political statements ever made by a musician.


I want you to watch this video first before we continue. I know you will shrug and say, I'll read the article and then watch the video but seriously, humour me this one time. Trust me. It matters.



Seen the video? (I hope you did)
Do you agree with the assessment I made in the first paragraph of this article? Seems to be an okay video depicting gun violence in America, right? And yet, here I am, writing an article about this video instead of all the superb music videos we have seen by our favourite stars over the years.
So what gives?

Sit back and watch closely. You are about to witness the power of art.

Let us begin dissecting this video, shall we?


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Invisible in a White Man's world 

As the video begins, we see an empty car park. There is actually a black man, Childish Gambino (the very same adorable Donald Glover we loved from the show 'Community') present but he is covered by the white beams, in a visual that is also principally white.

The song begins on a very pleasant note as a black man sits on the chair and plays the guitar.

Childish Gambino's 'This is America' is the music video equivalent of a magic trick and one of the most political statements ever made by a musician.

As the singer walks up to him, you can see his 'dance moves' are arrhythmic and out of sync to the song in the background. We will get back to this.

Childish Gambino's 'This is America' is the music video equivalent of a magic trick and one of the most political statements ever made by a musician.

The tone of the video changes dramatically as the singer stands behind the guitarist (now cuffed and with a bag over his head) and assumes a strange, awkward pose as he whips out a gun.
Two points jump out here.

  • The guitarist had an identity and a face as long as he was entertaining people with his music. As a black victim of gun violence, he is now nobody special. Just another black man killed.
  • That pose by the singer closely resembles 'Jim Crow'. Who, you ask? 

In the early 1800s, when African Americans were considered mere slaves, there was a classic illustration used to depict them. It was an image of a black man in an awkward pose who was portrayed as dumb, lazy and less than human. That character was called 'Jim Crow' and the term 'Jim Crow' would be used for generations to describe racial segregation laws in America.

In the early 1800s, when African Americans were considered mere slaves, there was a classic illustration used to depict them. It was an image of a black man in an awkward pose who was portrayed as dumb, lazy and less than human. That character was called 'Jim Crow' and the term 'Jim Crow' would be used for generations to describe racial segregation laws in America.

this is america -childish gambino - This is a finger pointed at America as it is today in 2018, where in spite of the insanely high incidents of gun violence, efforts to curb easy access or even ban firearms are staunchly opposed by people quoting a 220 year old amendment allowing them the right to own firearms.
Note what happens as soon as the black man is shot.


  • The first thing you see is a man come up to safely take away the gun used for the murder. 

This is a finger pointed at America as it is today in 2018, where in spite of the insanely high incidents of gun violence, efforts to curb easy access or even ban firearms are staunchly opposed by people quoting a 220 year old amendment allowing them the right to own firearms.

  • It is no coincidence that the cloth used to protect the murder weapon is red, depicting the Republican party that is forever opposed to stringent gun laws.
  • On the other hand, the victim gets dragged away like a sack of grain. There is more dignity given to the gun than the dead man.
Like with a wondrous painting, Childish Gambino's video requires multiple viewings to grasp the layers within layers depicted.


The murder takes place right in the middle of your screen. And yet, our singer/killer is not going to be interrupted/chased by the police here. Do you know why? Believe it or not, it has to do with his pants and shoes.

Childish Gambino's This is America - Easter egg - Those unique buttoned pants and yellow shoes are a direct take on the dress worn by Confederate soldiers, who had a numbing history of brutality against African Americans.  That is why the police don't come (yet) chasing after him... he's not (representing) a black man here. He is the modern day equivalent of a white confederate who can get away with murdering a black man in broad daylight.

No, really. Those unique buttoned pants and yellow shoes are a direct take on the dress worn by Confederate soldiers, who had a numbing history of brutality against African Americans.
That is why the police don't come (yet) chasing after him... he's not (representing) a black man here. He is the modern day equivalent of a white confederate who can get away with murdering a black man in broad daylight.


The CakeWalk

Those weird dance moves and facial expressions are not random either. Back in the time when African Americans were slaves, they used to mock the dignified mannerisms of the upper class white people by exaggerating their versions of dance.

Childish Gambino's This is America - Easter egg - The CakeWalk    Those weird dance moves and facial expressions are not random either. Back in the time when African Americans were slaves, they used to mock the dignified mannerisms of the upper class white people by exaggerating their versions of dance.

Unaware that the blacks were mocking them, white slave owners mistook it as a traditional form of dance and even held slave dance competitions for this.
The winning prize would be a cake.

This dance is called 'the cake walk'. That is what you are watching Childish Gambino and the children perform in this video.

This dance is called 'the cake walk'. That is what you are watching Childish Gambino and the children perform in this video.

Childish Gambino's This is America - Easter egg -

Tamir Rice

In the picture above, there is a child on top of a car in the background, shooting money out of a toy gun. In real life, in 2014, 12 year old Tamir Rice was shot dead by the police while he was playing with a toy gun in the park.
  • Video footage showed the police waited four minutes before offering first aid. 
  • Instead, they handcuffed and arrested his 14 year old sister who ran towards her dying brother.
  •  In 2015, a court decided not to indict the police officers who shot the child with the toy playing in the park.



Charleston church massacre

The black choir church group offers a peaceful twist to the song and our 'white man' seems to be enjoying it. Until he's not.

Childish Gambino's This is America - Easter egg - This shooting sequence is a direct callback to the 2015 Charleston church massacre where 21 year old white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof killed nine people in church, hoping to start a race war as he confessed later.

Then he just kills them all. This shooting sequence is a direct callback to the 2015 Charleston church massacre where 21 year old white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof killed nine people in church, hoping to start a race war as he confessed later.

The gun used is an AK-47 which along with AR-15, is a statistically proven weapon of choice in mass shootings. And is still available over the counter in America, as though it were lozenges.

Childish Gambino's 'This is America' is the music video equivalent of a magic trick and one of the most political statements ever made by a musician.

Don't worry. The gun is safely cared for and taken away in a plush red cloth while nobody comes to tend to the massacre victims.

Childish Gambino's 'This is America' is the music video equivalent of a magic trick and one of the most political statements ever made by a musician.

Instead, note the people running in the background now, armed with sticks. The riots because of these racial hate crimes have begun.

Childish Gambino's 'This is America' is the music video equivalent of a magic trick and one of the most political statements ever made by a musician.

NOW the police have come. And again, they are not targeting our singer/ killer. He walks calmly past the police car as the cops chase the black rioters.

Childish Gambino's 'This is America' is the music video equivalent of a magic trick and one of the most political statements ever made by a musician.

The lyrics as he moves away from the crime are telling. As the children come back to dance with him, he sings 'Look what I'm whipping now' and the children do exactly that, following his dance steps.

You can see rioters and policemen running behind and even in front of them but with his song and dance, he has successfully distracted the youth from what matters. They are too busy dancing to his tunes to care about what is happening around them.

Childish Gambino's This is America - Easter egg - Watch carefully before the camera pans away and you can even see a young kid jump off the top in an apparent suicide. But nobody cares. Just another death.

Watch carefully before the camera pans away and you can even see a young kid jump off the top in an apparent suicide. But nobody cares. Just another statistic.

Childish Gambino's This is America - Easter egg - Instead of engaging in what matters, the children are all lost with taking pictures on their cellphones and living in an alternate reality via social media.  The position - placing them enclosed up there - is their way of staying away from anything that matters in the real world.


The lyrics go - 'This is a celly, that's a tool.'
  • Instead of engaging in what matters, the children are all lost with taking pictures on their cellphones and living in an alternate reality via social media. 
  • The position - placing them enclosed up there - is their way of staying away from anything that matters in the real world.
  • The cellphone could have been a tool for capturing evidence of crimes but instead it is used to distract the youth. Watch me dance.

Childish Gambino's 'This is America' is the music video equivalent of a magic trick and one of the most political statements ever made by a musician.

We are well and truly in riot mode with cars on fire. But nobody cares. We are too distracted. Keep watching me dance.

"And I looked, and behold a pale horse:  and his name that sat on him was Death,  and Hell followed with him.  And power was given to them  over the fourth part of the earth,  to kill with sword, and with hunger,  and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."    Not my words. This is verse 6:8 in the Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament.

Death on a Horse

"And I looked, and behold a pale horse:
and his name that sat on him was Death,
and Hell followed with him.
And power was given to them
over the fourth part of the earth,
to kill with sword, and with hunger,
and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."

Not my words. This is verse 6:8 in the Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament.
That is Death, indeed.

I love the subtle yet significant transformation between these next two pictures. Watch closely.

Childish Gambino's 'This is America' is the music video equivalent of a magic trick and one of the most political statements ever made by a musician.
Childish Gambino's 'This is America' is the music video equivalent of a magic trick and one of the most political statements ever made by a musician.

Mere milliseconds apart, in the first one, the children are all happy and dancing around him just as they were earlier, after he killed people with a real gun.

Yet now, when he pretends to make an imaginary gun with his fingers, they are all scared and run away. Why? Look closely.

You no longer see his pants. And without those distinctive Confederate symbols, Childish Gambino is nothing more than a black man all of a sudden. He is now someone to be scared of even when he has nothing in his hands.

Childish Gambino's This is America - Easter egg - Stoneman Douglas High School shooting    What follows next is 17 seconds of silence as the singer whips out a joint to smoke.  In Feb 2018, 17 people, including 14 children were shot dead in Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida by a 19 year old with an AR-15 assault rifle.  There are no coincidences in this video. 17 victims, 17 seconds of silence.

Stoneman Douglas High School shooting

What follows next is 17 seconds of silence as the singer whips out a joint to smoke.
In Feb 2018, 17 people, including 14 children were shot dead in Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida by a 19 year old with an AR-15 assault rifle.
There are no coincidences in this video. 17 victims, 17 seconds of silence.

Childish Gambino's 'This is America' is the music video equivalent of a magic trick and one of the most political statements ever made by a musician.


Dancing on top of the car

The scene with Childish Gambino dancing on top of the car actually has multiple interpretations. A curious link goes back decades to when another popular music icon (and someone Childish Gambino adores) did the same at the end of one of his music videos. Deemed violent, that dance routine was removed from the song when it aired on television.
The singer? Michael Jackson.
The song - Black or White (There are no coincidences...)

The scene with Childish Gambino dancing on top of the car actually has multiple interpretations. A curious link goes back decades to when another popular music icon (and someone Childish Gambino adores) did the same at the end of one of his music videos. Deemed violent, that dance routine was removed from the song when it aired on television.  The singer? Michael Jackson.  The song - Black or White (There are no coincidences...)
Why are the car models all so old? Is it a sign of the poverty of the black man? Is the scene meant to depict the white man trampling the black man's dreams? I honestly don't know.

This ending also calls back to Childish Gambino being able to get away with doing anything now that he is 'white again' (note his Confederate identity is visible once more).

Childish Gambino's This is America - Easter egg - Most of the car doors are open. This is a taunt at the rampant racism in the American police force, where black drivers are forced to pull over while driving by the police at a far higher rate than white folk.

Most of the car doors are open. This is a taunt at the rampant racism in the American police force, where black drivers are forced to pull over while driving by the police at a far higher rate than white folk.

Childish Gambino's This is America - Easter egg - His pants and shoes are indistinctive as he runs in the darkness. Without it, Childish Gambino is a black man once more in the real world. A world that does not appear as bright now.


The screen turns to black and then lights up again, briefly. His pants and shoes are indistinctive as he runs in the darkness. Without it, Childish Gambino is a black man once more in the real world. A world that does not appear as bright now.

He is running for his life, chased by police in riot gear, a crazed look in his eyes as he struggles to survive, his surroundings dark instead of the pristine white world that he showcased throughout the video.

Childish Gambino's This is America - Easter egg - It is the same bright car parking spot we watched throughout the video and yet, now it almost appears as though he is being chased through dark woods as he seeks to escape, much like the African American slaves from two centuries ago, does it not?

It is the same bright car parking spot we watched throughout the video and yet, now it almost appears as though he is being chased through dark woods as he seeks to escape, much like the African American slaves from two centuries ago, does it not?

Think carefully. What crime did you see 'the black man' do? He smoked a joint.
He is being chased by the police for smoking a joint while 'the white man' sang and danced past the police after committing murder. The lyrics in the background as he runs?
"You just a Black man in this world , you just a barcode..."

***

'This is America' had the whole nation rewinding, pausing and jotting down points and then theorizing and debating at a level that would have made Inception nervous. Director Hiro Murai, a longtime collaborator of Childish Gambino, has a history of tackling civil rights issues head-on, aimed at forcing a dialogue about sensitive topics like racism and gun violence. Like with a wondrous painting, Childish Gambino's video requires multiple viewings to grasp the layers within layers depicted. You need to understand the nuances and symbols and then read up on history and current events.

To the eye which does not know, this is just an average music video. Armed with knowledge though, you see Childish Gambino's 'This is America' for what it is - the music video equivalent of one of the strongest political statements ever made by a musician in the 21st century.

There is only one thing left for me to do - ask you to watch the video again now.



And see it this time, knowing in your mind what each movement in the background and foreground truly stands for.

Authors note:

These are my #MondayMusings (technically, at least two Mondays have passed as I jotted down and refined this post, I guess!) You can read those of other bloggers here.


20 Comments

  1. Holy moly!you drew out every tiny bit of the detail. When I first watched it I thought I could connect to it. But who would thought about so much that was unnoticed..the shoes or the cake dance..great work

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  2. Oh wow.. what a detailed explanation. I havnhav watched it even once. But after reading your post. At least once I am watching for sure

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  3. Your post my friend is a masterpiece. I missed every one of those details. I love how you put it all together!

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  4. Oh my God Roshan, how did you know all this? This video was surely a pathetic one before I read your detailed post. You work so hard for drafting the reality in your post.

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  5. Like the Da vinci code, every frame has a secret :-)

    PhenoMenon
    http://phenomenalworld.in/woap2018/

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  6. As someone who grew up in New York City (the last few years, in a mainly black area, in a NYC housing project - I am white) enough of the symbolism still escaped me. It was fascinating reading about it. I didn't see the confederate uniform pants until you provided a closeup but I saw it immediately, only because I have studied the United States Civil War. How many other "average" Americans would have? Incidentally, here's another symbolism- the word "tool", in our country, is urban slang for a gun. My only criticism of this video would be that too much of the symbolism is not apparent to the average white person in the U.S. I suspect - and they are the audience who really needs to understand what is going on here. Otherwise one just says "meh" and moves on. But there is a fine line between art and "shoving facts" in people's faces. Enough people "got it" to account for all the buzz surrounding it.

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  7. lots of stories telling by this video , beautiful analyzation

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  8. Wow! This just showcases the power of art and powerful story telling! As a society we need dialogue and maybe music and art can help do it.

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  9. This video is so deep and profound and you have analysed and explained it in such details. I certainly missed these details the first time and had to watch it again after reading your post. Kudos to you for this fab analysis, Roshan!

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  10. What an insightful analysis. I did see the video and I am blown away....

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  11. I watched the video right after first para as suggested by you by couldn’t think even one analytic point you dig out dear. Brilliant post, a result of incredible hardwork.

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  12. This is just amazing! A true hard work, how could you manage to write every little things about it!!

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  13. I am speechless. You are a pro. I have never done this much research for anybsong. Brilliant. I watched the video before but watched it again after completing the post trying to relate every oaraparagyou wrote.

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  14. Now that's the work of an artistic blogger! This video initially but really couldn't relate much and after reading the small look outs in your post, my God! This video deserves these hits

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  15. Wow This is just too well researched. I’m kind of surprised at all taht you discovered! Now will watch the video again :)

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  16. The video I could not get much but reading your post helped me. You have truly nailed it.

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  17. My. My. My.. Roshan you're amazing. I absolutely loved reading your post. I have watched this video thrice now. I'm going to show it to my husband and family as well. Thank you, no. Really. Thanks.

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  18. Doc, this was just fabulous and one of your posts that deserves to be read by one and all. I hadn't heard about this song but I read your post like you said. I watched the video and then I read your post and it was so clear.
    While the truth of the fact the video is depicting is sad, I am stunned by your research and work here. Amazing job!

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  19. Oh MY God! I am kind of numb after reading this post. Someone went to this length to create this song symbolizing so much and you went to such lengths to analyse it and bring to public notice. Kudos to you!

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  20. My spouse and I are easily grateful, quite frankly the documents we needed. You an also visit nexter.org/ here for news and daily updates !!!

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So what do you think ?