By Aryanna Perez (’22)
In May 2018, Donald Glover, under the stage name Childish Gambino, released the controversial music video to his song, “This is America.” With over 800 million views to date, this music video became a significant cultural work as it utilized symbolism to address social justice issues, including gun violence, police brutality, Black mental health, and historical systems of oppression. Of the many social justice issues that plague American society, gun violence and police brutality continue to go unaddressed and have consequently worsened in degree since the music video’s 2018 release. In this paper, I will analyze some of the allusions to gun violence and police brutality in the “This is America” music video and relate relevant current events that have taken place after the video’s debut to these issues.
Glover illustrates his opinion on gun violence with the gentle handling of weapons throughout the music video and by referencing the Charleston Massacre and Parkland School Shooting. The music video begins with a middle-aged black man seated in a seemingly empty warehouse playing an upbeat tune on his guitar. Glover eccentrically dances into the frame, pulls out a gun, strikes a pose, and shoots the guitarist in the head. The pose that Glover makes just before shooting the guitarist impersonates the Jim Crow caricature commonly found in the racist minstrel shows of the early 19th century. The character of Jim Crow was created to degrade the dignity of African Americans by depicting them as lazy, ignorant, and duplicitous by nature (10). After the murder, a child dressed in a school uniform carefully whisks away the weapon in a red cloth as the dead body is dragged away on the opposite side of the screen by two other school children. The careful treatment of the gun versus the careless handling of the Black victim demonstrates how America prioritizes and protects guns over Black lives. The use of a red cloth alludes to the Republican party, notorious for opposing gun sense legislation. At 1:55, Glover uses an assault rifle to shoot a Black choir (2). This scene alludes to the Charleston Massacre in 2015 where Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, killed nine Black people during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina (6). At 2:44, the music stops, and the video turns silent for seventeen seconds (2). This moment of silence was enacted as a tribute to the seventeen victims of the Parkland School Shooting that occurred in February of 2018 (1). Glover acknowledges the victims of gun violence by incorporating a graphic reenactment of the Charleston Massacre and including a tribute to the victims of the Parkland School Shooting in his music video.
Additionally, Glover’s music video highlights law enforcement’s unequal crackdown on nonviolent misdemeanors versus violent felonies. At 2:58, Glover lights a joint and quietly walks out of frame. In the next clip, he climbs on top of a car with the joint in his hand and proceeds to dance. The music video then cuts to the final scene where Glover is being chased by an angry mob (2). Together these scenes highlight how law enforcement is more concerned about imprisoning non-violent minor drug offenders than imprisoning people who commit more serious crimes like murder. Black lives are disproportionally affected by law enforcement’s misplaced interest in minor drug offenses. This racial disparity is best illustrated in the circumstances surrounding the death of Breonna Taylor.
Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American woman, was shot and killed by three white Louisville police officers in her home on March 13th, 2020. The Louisville Metro Police Department was conducting an investigation on two men who were believed to be selling drugs out of a home in Louisville, KY. One of the police suspects was an ex-boyfriend of Breonna Taylor. Police suspected that their person of interest was having drug packages delivered to her residence. A Louisville judge signed off on a “no-knock” search warrant for Breonna Taylor’s home. Just after midnight, the police forced entry into Taylor’s home. Breonna and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were both sleeping in her apartment just before the raid, when they heard a loud bang on the door. Walker believed that the loud banging was Breonna’s ex-boyfriend trying to break into the apartment. When police broke through the door, Walker fired his gun once and struck a police officer in the thigh. Three white police officers responded by opening fire on Walker and Taylor. Taylor was shot five times during the chaos. No drugs were found in Taylor’s apartment (8).
Louisville Metro Police Department utilized deadly force against suspected Black drug offenders and yet the police officers who apprehended Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine innocent people, bought him Burger King following his arrest (9). The difference in law enforcement’s treatment of a Black drug offender versus a White mass shooter illustrates that this unequal crackdown on violent and non-violent crimes is racialized as well. Glover conveys this injustice in his music video when he openly kills the guitarist and the choir without any repercussions. However, the moment that he smokes marijuana, he is chased down by an aggressive mob.
The injustices that Glover addresses in his music video, including mass shootings, the prioritization of guns over Black lives, and the biased law enforcement system, all circle back to the lack of gun control legislation in America. Guns are made easily accessible to the public even though many people are not qualified to possess or handle them. Aside from this argument, Glover also demonstrates that when people recklessly misuse weaponry, law enforcement and the judicial system fail to provide justice for the victims. The recent Kyle Rittenhouse case is a testament to this. In August 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse, a seventeen-year-old from Antioch, Illinois, shot three men with an AR-15 style rifle, fatally wounding two of them, at a police brutality protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was charged as an adult with two counts of first-degree homicide, one count of attempted homicide, reckless endangerment, and illegal possession of a weapon (3).
In November 2021, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all five charges as his defense team argued that both shootings were acts of self-defense (4). In response to Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim, the prosecutor on the case, Thomas Binger, tried to identify Rittenhouse’s intentions. Binger questioned, “You’re telling us that you felt like you were about to die, right? But when you point the gun at someone else, that’s going to make them feel like they’re about to die, right? That’s what you wanted him to feel.” (3) The verdict sparked protests all over the country as many argued that Rittenhouse should not have been acquitted of the charges. One protestor told Fox News, “It’s not self-defense if you carry a rifle, a loaded weapon, to a protest that’s not even in your community.” (7) No matter your perspective on the case, it is somewhat unsettling to think that someone who illegally possessed an assault rifle and fatally shot two people, was able to evade all homicide/attempted homicide charges. Rittenhouse murdered two people and yet convicts on minor drug charges were sentenced to more jail time than him. The outcome of the trial aligns with Glover’s portrayal of America as full of moral ambiguity and injustice.
The warehouse in which the music video takes place represents our broken America. Some viewers have speculated that the all-white warehouse represents how America is built upon pillars of white supremacy (5). Throughout the video, Glover and a group of students dance around the warehouse as absolute chaos erupts. The dancing is intended to distract the viewer from the injustice, suicide, crime, and destruction occurring in the background of the video. There are many things in American culture that serve as a distraction from America’s dark reality. From politics to social media, Americans have been trained to ignore, and thereby accept, the daily injustices that their fellow citizens face. To make matters worse, American exceptionalism glorifies this negligence and rebrands it as individualism and opportunity.
With the rise of social media, a double-edged sword has developed. What started as another means of communication, transformed into “the world of social media,” a place where you can showcase your identity to other users around the globe. Moreover, social media has been used as a force for good, bringing awareness to important causes or serving as a record to hold people accountable for their actions. Simultaneously, though, social media can create polarization, set unrealistic beauty standards, and promote toxic comparisons. Glover’s “This is America” demonstrates the power of social media when used as a tool for good. At 2:25, Glover raps, “This a celly/ That’s a tool.” (2) The camera then pans to a group of teenagers on their phones wearing a white material over their mouths. This scene references the rise of viral videos that serve as evidence against police brutality. The teens are wearing white material over their mouths to show that even though they are silenced by the white supremacy that continues to pervert the very systems made to protect them, they can still share their stories and experiences by posting video evidence of police brutality to social media.
The penultimate scene of the music video features Glover dancing atop a 90s model red Toyota car. As the camera frame zooms out, we see that Glover is surrounded by old, abandoned cars with their hazard lights on and doors left open. These abandoned cars represent the many Black lives lost to traffic stop killings committed by racist policemen. Additionally, the use of antiquated cars represents the static socioeconomic mobility in communities of color. Sadly, examples of police brutality since 2018, are not hard to find. From George Floyd to Jacob Blake , the issue of police brutality is so pervasive in America that at any point in the last ten years, one victim’s name has been representative of the systemic violence.
The “This is America” music video is a cultural masterpiece that describes the dark realities of life in America. From gun violence to police brutality, the entire system of America appears to reap nothing but pandemonium. Glover incorporated so many subtle messages and symbols that re-watching the music video multiple times returns increasingly nuanced and detailed views. Despite the music video’s 2018 release, many of the issues addressed in the video persist in American society today. This music video brings to light instances of police brutality and gun violence in 2020 and 2021, such as the death of George Floyd, the Capitol insurrection, the Kyle Rittenhouse case, and so much more. As a nation, we have failed to protect communities of color because of America’s history of racism. Utilizing an archaic system that is built upon white supremacy, further perpetuates the political, social, and economic issues that Glover highlighted through this music video. Glover’s work calls to American society, asking it to understand the value of human life, regardless of race, so that government institutions may fulfill their duty of protecting all people.
Aryanna Perez is an Aerospace Engineering major at the University of Notre Dame. Her article was originally written for Professor Perin Gürel’s American Studies course ‘Introduction to American Studies.’
1. Bowdich, David. “Summary and Timeline Related to Parkland Shooting Investigation.” FBI. Federal Bureau of Investigation, March 20, 2018. https://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/summary-and-timeline-related-to-parkland-shooting-investigation.
2. Glover, Donald. “Childish Gambino – This Is America (Official Video).” YouTube. ChildishGambinoVEVO, May 6, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY.
3. Hymes, Clare. “Kyle Rittenhouse Takes the Stand at His Trial: ‘I Didn’t Do Anything Wrong, I Was Defending Myself.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, November 11, 2021. https://www.cbsnews.com/live-updates/kyle-rittenhouse-trial-defense-testimony/.
4. Kawash, Maher. “Kyle Rittenhouse Trial: Jury Reaches Not Guilty Verdict in Kenosha Shooting Case.” MSN. ABC 7 Chicago, November 19, 2021. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/crime/kyle-rittenhouse-trial-jury-reaches-not-guilty-verdict-in-kenosha-shooting-case/ar-AAQTJfY#:~:text=The%20jury%20in%20the%20Kyle%20Rittenhouse%20trial%20has,as%20Judge%20Bruce%20Schroeder%20read%20the%20jury%27s%20verdict.
5. Miller, Hayley. “Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ Video, Explained.” HuffPost. HuffPost, May 15, 2018. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/childish-gambino-this-is-america_n_5af05c12e4b041fd2d28d8e9.