Childish Gambino’s song and its accompanying video broke the internet and been hailed as a seminal culture moment by fellow artists and critics alike, and its infectious artfulness coupled with, including its bracing violence has garnered the video a shocked viewership of over 50 million people. Strikingly, the first moment of horror in this strange production is of the shooting of a black man, by another black man; it is the sort of violence we are frequently told black men inflict on one another without a second thought, and which the world treats in general with indifference. Indeed, it’s the sort of violence gangster rappers threaten against each other routinely, and which is culturally portrayed as routine. For an artist to make bracingly shocking the violence against black bodies that has become so quotidian is supremely skilful. It’s a Strange Fruit for the 21st century, making the violence against black male bodies viscerally real again.
It’s also a striking exploration of what black masculinity means at all, in a society and an age, where it can be a commodity, but can never be engaged with entirely intellectually. A masculinity that is a constricting strait-jacket for many who do not fit into it. This is America opens with the promise of guitar music, with all its associations with country music, the rustic and bucolic, and two black men, one making music, and one dancing in response to it. The Director of Dear White People, Justin Simeons analysing the video on twitter points out that all these bodies are dancing in a white space; little remarked upon so far is the shift in embodiment before and after the first moment of violence in the video.
Before it, Gambino’s movements are fluid, and femme, in some parts they echo the Cuban interpretation of the dances for the Yoruba godessess for Oshun and Yemaya. This languid elegant movement is distorted the moment Gambino comes into line with the body of a black man bound, and masked. The degradation of the black male body invites violence, he seems to be saying. After that moment of violence, Glover’s movements become infinitely more butch; a physicality typical of the hypermasculinity of hip-hop culture and dance. The dance becomes increasingly exaggerated, either hypermasculine or mockingly feminine, in the way, many black men are forced to distort aspects of their identity to cope with American society. The collateral damage becomes both popular culture, and black trauma, which Gambino seems to suggest black children cope with through the very consumption and production of culture. Nevertheless, the second striking moment of violence occurs when Gambino guns down the joyfully, singing choir; one cannot help but think of the Charleston terrorist shootings in 2015, when Dylan Roof gunned down twelve church members in Charleston, or deeper into history, the bombing of black churches in the Civil Rights era. Even the black church, the core of African-American society, Gambino seems to say is not safe from the distorting violence, and as the words of his song suggests, it is also not free of the rampant materialism that characterises American culture. It’s under the pressure of relentless materialism – that the black male body is both commodity and valueless object; could there be a more striking image than Calvin the Second’s lifeless body being dragged away and Gambino’s dancing body all butched up to face the crowd’s gaze?
Gambino’s struggle with the straitjacket of black male roles has been documented as he emerged on the hip-hop scene – his is a black male identity rooted in the angsty affluence of Suburbia where he was often the only black kid. Alas, is the straitjacket of a distorted black masculinity produced and performed for a predominantly white audience – something that can be escaped? The last scene of This is America does not give us a definitive answer – but if the song’s last words are anything to go by – not likely.