The key theories behind Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’

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The key theories behind Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’


The floor was set for creative wunderkind Donald Glover as he took over as host and musical emcee of New York’s Saturday Night Live earlier this week. He did no disservice to the envied duty, cloaking himself with his Childish Gambino moniker to unveil two new tracks, ‘Saturday’ and ‘This Is America’.

The latter of the two has sent the pop culture world into a spin paired with a mesmerising film clip — as Gambino dances through an empty warehouse, the setting soon turns into a war zone of shootings and violence. He remains unperturbed gallivanting around bare-chested, scornful in all his movements.

Perusing the global response to Gambino’s gripping statement, here are some of the biggest reactions to ‘This Is America’ — the thematic behemoth.

TIME Magazine breaks down the video’s four key moments

Enlisting an expert to scour Gambino’s four-minute clip, TIME found some key moments that shouldn’t be overlooked.

“The first gunshot”

Guthrie Ramsey, a professor of music history at the University of Pennsylvania, couldn’t ignore the first gunshot. As the video takes its first stride, a man begins strumming a guitar alone. Within the first minute, Gambino shoots the man who has since been tied up with a head cover. The gunshot occurs and the melody changes — from choral tones to trap music. “He’s (Gambino) talking about the contradictions of trying to get money, the idea of being a black man in America,” Ramsey assesses.

“Gambino dancing with schoolchildren amid violence”

According to TIME, this moment is open to a number of interpretations. Ramsey says “the dancers could be there to distract viewers in the same way black art is used to distract people from real problems plaguing America.”

“The gunned down choir”

A choir is singing enthusiastically before Gambino guns them down. This moment recalls the 2015 Charleston shooting where white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black people in a basement. It shows how it can be difficult to accurately digest instances of mass murders in today’s digitised and sensationalised society.

“Gambino running away in the closing moments”

“A black person running away for his life or her life has just been a part of American culture dating back to slavery,” Ramsey says.

London’s The Independent uncover the hidden references

“The man strumming the guitar”

The Independent believe this is a nod to 17-year-old American Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in 2012. The man in the chair, portrayed by artist Calvin The Second, appears to look like Martin’s father. However, it’s since been proved that this isn’t him. 

“The red cloth”

The fabric, brought in by a well-dressed man to cover the gun Gambino uses to shoot the guitar-playing man, suggests that guns are often held in higher regard than people to many Americans. The gentleman is careful with his collection of the weapon, and Gambino walks off like nothing happened.

“Hooded figure on a horse”

As Gambino dances with the schoolchildren, a haunting black-clothed figure rides a white horse across the screen. The Independent infer that this is a reference to the Horseman of the Apocalypse in the Bible which insinuates the end of the world. 

Reddit goes bonkers

The omnipresent themes decorating the clip sent Reddit into a frenzy. Arguments ignited over the significance of the dancing — was it a celebration or a condemnation? One Redditor posted the thought: “While many interpretations viewed it as a condemnation of people turning to dance, it seems like the intent (of the dancing) was a celebration of optimism.”

Another disagreed, suggesting that the freeze frame with Gambino in a shooter’s pose was too dramatic to be a celebration and that the artist was instead making a point.

Deep discussions unfurled as keen Redditers feasted on the video’s sophistication — one trying to outsmart another. Was it ridiculing or serious? What is the significance of the barren setting against the warfare? Why is he so satirical in his dance moves and facial expressions?

Other assessments

Away from the observations of TIME, The Independent and Reddit, entertainment website, Vulture, drew parallels between the ‘This Is America’ and Glover’s successful television series, Atlanta — the video’s rapid shifts in tempo mirroring the impulsiveness of the series. Ad-libs from the likes of Southern rappers Young Thug, Slim Jxmmi, BlocBoy JB and more, also draw comparisons to the Georgia capital.

Triple J ask the questions: “Is this a good song without the video?”, “What does this say about Childish Gambino as an artist?” and “Why is this song especially important right now?” while acclaimed filmmaker Justin Simien analysed the clip’s imagery via a Twitter feed.