Check out the video if you haven't watched it and watch it again even if you have.
We're in a warehouse. There's singing and the camera pans to a guitar resting on a chair as a man (musician Calvin The Second) picks it up and starts playing. Then we spot a topless Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino (his musical alias) as these lyrics sound.
"We just want to party/ party just for you, We just want the money/ the money just for you"
Childish is shirtless and wearing gold chains. Is he referencing Fela Kuti?
And the singer writhes and grimaces and turns to the seated guitarist whose head is covered with a cloth tied at his neck. He takes out a gun and shoots him at the back of his head, looks at the camera and sings "This Is America".
When I shared the video in the early hours of Sunday, all I could say was whoa.
And watch it again and focus on the school children who felt very much like they were our kids from South Africa. Then rewind when Childish did the gwara gwara. And mastered it so beautifully.
Then I felt disorientated when the choir gets mowed down by Childish. Insert expletives here.
As he moves around the warehouse, there's a lot happening in the background (absolute chaos) but then Childish starts with the pulsing and beats and hypnotically charged moves and expressions. Trap music. A trap. You get distracted. And it's purposeful. As succinctly put in this post.
And then I remembered Toni Morrison who said this about race and distraction:
"It's important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn't shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing."
Distraction is so incredibly powerful as a tool when it comes to politics. Our favourite spin doctors use it well.
Childish Gambino understands this as a performer, actor, comedian, scriptwriter, producer, director and DJ. And in this video I feel he has become as important a performer as Kendrick Lamar when it comes to political and social commentary. Watch Donald Glover's TV series Atlanta in case you're not convinced.
Beyond using diversion, I've been waiting for someone to unpack all the compelling moments the big and small revelations add to the four minute music video.
His delivery. The pauses (he lights a joint and walks off and leaves you to think about cannabis' legalisation in the U.S. and how many black men are in jail for weed-related 'crimes' and the absolute racist legacy of marijuana). The white horse. The cars with doors open...
I'm out of breath. Whoa.
Towards the end, SZA makes an appearance and the last frames are of a terrified Childish running from the police.
I watch it again.
Initially people speculated that the guitar player was Trayvon Martin's father - not true. But there are enough symbolic moments to boldly highlight a traumatic and haunted past and present when it comes to race in the US.
Hayley Miller, who wrote Childish Gambino's This Is America Video, Explained details most of the references that include:
- gun obsession
- suicide (I only noticed the man falling from the upper level of the warehouse when I watched it for the third time)
- the Charleston massacre (a mass shooting the happened in 2015 in a church in Charleston)
- how police brutality has been documented in viral videos shot by powerless kids (check out the kids, legs hanging over the balustrades, snapping videos of the chaos below and around them)
- black men pulled over and killed at robots and stop signs
- death that flashes across the screen in the form of a 'pale horse' (biblical reference)
- SZA as Lady Liberty nonchalantly watching on
This video is particularly important at a time when our newsfeeds have been flooded by Kanye West's controversial thoughts on race relations. And as Donald Trump keeps reminding the world that he wants to "Make America Great Again".
Why should we care? As a South African, what makes this video so key even to us, is not just about an excitement about our culture being represented in his artistry either. It's not about an international artist dancing the gwara gwara.
It's a sobering reminder of what the U.S. really is, how race impacts who lives and who dies (around the world) and how we need to write our own history - even if it's frame by frame.