The song at #41 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “This is America” by Childish Gambino, the artistic name for the music project of the multi-faceted and incredibly talented actor, writer, director, producer, singer-songwriter and rapper Donald Glover. One of the best songs of 2018, “This is America” features an alternating mix of African-folk inspired melodies and pulsating hip hop-driven trap beats, paired with highly provocative lyrics addressing issues of racism, police brutality and gun violence in America. It features background vocals by rappers Young Thug (who also co-wrote the song with Glover and Swedish songwriter-producer Ludwig Göransson), Slim Jxmmi, BlocBoy, JB, Quavo (of the group Migos), and 21 Savage. The song debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on May 5, 2018, and also topped the charts in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In February 2019, the song won Grammy Awards for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Performance, and Best Music Video.
The companion video for the song, directed by Hiro Murai, drives home the lyrics’ message with shocking and often disturbing visual imagery. Released on YouTube simultaneously with Gambino’s performance of the song on Saturday Night Live on May 5, 2018, the video quickly went viral, garnering 12.9 million views in the first 24 hours. As I write this, it’s been viewed over 736 million times.
Things start off pleasantly enough, with Glover/Gambino dancing about shirtless, but using grotesque smiles and exaggerated poses that some believe invoke the racist caricature Jim Crow. He sings “We just wanna party. Party just for you. We just want the money“, possibly referencing Black peoples’ historic role as entertainers for White people. Events take a violent turn when he walks up to a man who’s sitting on a chair playing guitar with his head covered by a hood, and shoots him in the head. A little later, he nonchalantly mows down a choir of singers with an automatic weapon. In both cases, he hands the guns over to someone holding a red cloth, giving the impression that the guns are being handled with greater care than the people he’s killed. The shooting of the choir is thought to represent the 2015 massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Glover/Gambino and a group of kids clad in school uniforms dance throughout much of the video, smiling as violence erupts around them. At the end of the video, he’s shown running for his life from an angry white mob.