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The purpose of this paper is to critically analyze Childish Gambino’s music video, ‘This is America’. The music video is complex, layered and a satirical masterpiece that presents the issues in America through the form of popular culture. Popular culture is the consumption of current trending art forms (i.e. music, dance, acting) that appeals to a mass audience (Mehta, 2018a). The backdrop of the music video takes place in a warehouse that almost looks like a prison. The location of the music video and the use of space relates to the social construction of society; where individuals are contained in certain geographic spaces. The individuals in the background of the music video have limited freedom of movement relative to space the individuals are in. Moreover, the music video sheds limelight on the bitter reality of society as being chaotic and destructive. The main video is centered around the lead performer, Childish Gambino, who represents America. Gambino wears the old American Confederate uniform attire, the pants, and shoes (INSIDER, 2018). Additionally, Gambino’s persona captivates the audience attention like America who centers the world around her. Gambino is much like America, she seems harmless yet dangerous. For instance, the music video shows where Gambino causally dances at the beginning of the video and then suddenly strikes a pose with a gun in his hand and shoots a man (Glover, 2018). The bass drops and the introduction for the song begin with “This is America”. The music video recreates the tragic events of the African-Americans lives lost due to police brutality and killing and racialized hate crime. This paper highlights current issues with regards to racism, gun violence, and consumption of media and entertainment in America.
The tension of race in America is an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed. The term race is difficult to understand and define. The race is biologically defined by the individual’s innate characteristics determined by the skin colour and other physical attributes (Omni & Winant, 2014). Looking from a political standpoint in the United States, historically race has been dichotomized as white or black (i.e. non-white) (Omni & Winant, 2014). The white race was deemed superior to non-white or racialized individuals. Throughout the years, the term ‘race’ has evolved socially. The formation of ‘race’ is “the sophisticated process by which racial identities are created, lived out, transformed, and destroyed” (Omni & Winant, 2014). Films create the stereotypical racial identity and portray them in a negative manner, or, as an outcast of society. For instance, in the music video, Donald Grover’s exaggerated facial expression and movements imitate Jim Crow (INSIDER, 2018). Jim Crow is an African-American caricature objectified in American films that lead to the Jim Crow law of racial segregation in America (The Origins of Jim Crow, n.d.). The role of Jim Crow was played by White American actors, who painted their faces black to impersonate an African-American (The Origins of Jim Crow, n.d.). These actors would like buffoons with exaggerated facial expression and movements to mock African-Americans (The Origins of Jim Crow, n.d.). Much like Jim Crow films, the era of film noir in Hollywood continued to underrepresent and stigmatize African-Americans in films. The portrayal of racialized individuals in film noir was either invisible, where individuals were seen in the background, but had no roles or say in the film, or individuals were negatively portrayed as the illness of society (Mehta, 2018a). Racial inequality is embedded in films. Again, and again the audience sees in films the same racial identity being created, lived, and destroyed by stereotypes.
Moreover, racialization is not just present in films. African-Americans in urban societies face racial inequality and discrimination as well. In America, the Federal Bureau of Investigation claimed that on average between the years 2005 and 2012, White police officers assaulted African-American two times per week; and around 20% African-Americans killed by police officers were under the age of 21, as compared to, 8.7% of White Americans killed by police officers (Johnson, Hoyer & Heath, 2014). The police brutality and violence against African-Americans stems from fear, racial stereotyping and discrimination. In the music video, a man that looks like Trayvon Martin’s father appears at the beginning of the video. Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American student was shot and killed near his home by a police officer, who feared Martin of being a criminal suspect with a weapon; the police officer acting out in fear and took justice in his own hands by assaulting and then shooting Martin several times until he died (Follman, 2017). According to Eschholz (2002), fear is an expression of racism that is a powerful mechanism of social control. In television and media, the stereotypical scenario of the young African-American man being an offender heightens the fear of crime and results in producing behaviours that is indistinguishable from racism (Eschholz, 2002).
These acts of violence and brutality outrage many African-Americans whose lives are countless lost to police violence and brutality. Hence, the Black Lives Matter movement counters the mainstream ideas and perception of racial profiling, stereotyping, and discrimination by law enforcers in America (Mehta, 2018a).
On the other hand, Gambino suggests African-Americans in the entertainment industry are often shielded from the violence and chaos in society (INSIDER, 2018). Such that, in the music video, the African-American group dancing with Gambino are unaffected by the chaos and violence in the background (Glover, 2018). Whereas the individuals in the background are in havoc, they are running away from crime and violence (Glover, 2018). It appears in Gambino’s music video that African-Americans, who are active participants in the entertainment industry are less likely to be targeted and affected by the violence and hatred surrounding them.
Furthermore, racial tension and violent acts against African-Americans escalate to homicide due to lack of gun control in America (Arp, Gonzales, Herstand & Wilson, 2018; Spitzer, 2015). Gun control is a persistent issue in America that is heavily debated and needs to be addressed. In America, individuals have the right to purchase and carry a licensed firearm with regards to hunting or defending themselves; however, that is not always the case, with illegal firearms easy to purchase it is harder to manage and apply gun control laws (Arp et al., 2018; Spitzer, 2015). Additionally, it is evident that guns do more harm than good (Spitzer, 2015). Looking at a report by Arp et al., 2018, African-Americans are six times more likely to die from homicide, as well as, have the highest rate of gun deaths per 1000, 000 people compared to White Americans. Gambino’s music video highlights the racialized killing resulted from police brutality and hate crime. For example, in the music video, Gambino recreates the Charleston Church mass shooting.
After Gambino kills someone by a gun, there is a young man that comes with a red silk cloth, which Gambino places his gun and it carefully placed and taken away (Glover, 2018). This aligns with the American value of the pro-gun policy (INSIDER, 2018). Whereas, the victim’s dead body lies lifelessly on the floor and is dragged off the screen like as the human life has no value (INSIDER, 2018). Gambino illustrates the importance of the American value of guns over human beings (INSIDER, 2018). Regardless, how lethal and dangerous guns are and the horrible consequences of using guns. According to Arp et al., 2018, reports suggest that every year nearly 33, 880 cases of death and 81, 114 cases of injury related to gun violence per year (Arp et al., 2018). Gun control in America is a serious issue and needs to be addressed because of human lives matter.
Lastly, entertainment is used as an outlet for mass media manipulation and distortion of reality. Looking at the music video, the audience is easily distracted by Gambino’s performance, that it becomes to see the reality and chaos happening in the background. Individuals need to re-watch this music video several times to understand the subtle meanings and messages. The last is a crucial part, where Gambino snaps out of the daze America and entertainment industry had on him. Gambino realizes the true reality and issues firsthand when Gambino lights a blunt and police come after him (Glover, 2018). Gambino is scared and runs for his life (Glover, 2018). This shows how the police are worried about drugs rather than issues of gun violence and other crimes.
Moreover, reality entertainment and media desensitize crime and violence that when reality, we become immune and less reactive to it (Mehta, 2018b). The use of entertainment saturates crime and reality and television focuses on the negativity, false sense of crime, and fear of victimization in society (Dowler, Fleming & Muzzatti, 2006). This creates unnecessary fear and anxiety among people. The media and entertainment provide false information and distorted facts about crimes and portrayal of crime to gain the audience attention and instill negative perception of race and crimes committed (Dowler, Fleming & Muzzatti, 2006; Mehta, 2018b; Soulliere, 2004). However, the reality entertainment and media fail to justify their actions and the focus of the issue is solely on the crime rather than an emphasis on justice (Soulliere, 2004).
In conclusion, Childish Gambino’s music video ‘This is America’ educates the audience on current issues American society is facing with regards to racism, gun violence, and the use of popular culture as a mass manipulation. The music video criticizes America for the inequality and mistreatment of African-American. More importantly, the music video explicitly criticizes America for not valuing African-American lives. Gambino highlights real-life injustices such as the Trayvon Martin killing and Charleston Church mass shooting. This shines a light on the pro-gun lobby and how guns are used as a weapon to kill people, which makes violence unpredictable. Gambino points out that America applauds the African-American culture in entertainment but ignores the issues in society they are facing (INSIDER, 2018). Thus, in society, individuals are easily manipulated and distracted by entertainment that they overlook the reality and issues.
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- Eschholz, S. (2002). Racial composition of television offenders and viewers’ fear of crime. Critical Criminology, 11(1), 41-60.
- Follman, M. (2017, June 25). The Trayvon Martin Killing, Explained. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/03/what-happened-trayvon-martin-explained/
- Glover, D. (2018). Childish Gambino – This Is America (Official Video). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=VYOjWnS4cMY [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].
- INSIDER. (2018). Hidden Meaning Behind Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ Video Explained. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_LIP7qguYw [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].
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- The Origins of Jim Crow. (n.d.). Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/origins.htm
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