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The stark, chaotic power of Donald Glover’s ‘This Is America’

Infectious in beat, jarring in violence and imagery, Donald Glover's new music video "This Is America" touches on painful racial history and our contemporary culture of mass entertainment and murder. Jeffrey Brown talks with Rolling Stone contributor Tre Johnson about the video and the ways African-American artists are reflecting the nuanced tensions in how we depict black lives in America.

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  • William Brangham:

    In just a few days, a music video online called “This Is America” has been viewed almost 55 million times.

    As Jeffrey Brown explains, the video has also set off an intense debate about violence and race.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The video is beautifully shot and choreographed, infectious in its beat, jarring in its violence and imagery. And it’s clearly struck a nerve, touching on painful racial history and a contemporary culture of mass entertainment and mass murders.

    It’s the work of Donald Glover, known for writing and acting in the acclaimed TV series “Atlanta,” for his comedy, and for the music he performs, as here, under the pseudonym Childish Gambino.

    Here is an excerpt from “This Is America,” with a warning for some of the violent images it contains.

    (MUSIC)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The “This Is America” video has elicited all kinds of reaction, pro and con.

    We’re joined now by Tre Johnson, a contributor to “Rolling Stone” magazine who just wrote about the piece.

    Tre, thanks for joining us.

    Why — first of all, in general terms, why is it striking such a chord?

  • Tre Johnson:

    Yes. Thanks for having me on.

    I think it’s striking a chord for a couple of reasons. One, I think it represents a pretty strong departure for some of the work Donald Glover had been doing that people previously had known.

    A lot of his work, as you had noted, has been much more in the comedy realm. And this is a starker, darker reflection of his take on what is happening in American society that isn’t played up for laughs.

    I think some of it, too, has to do with the fact that you’re watching what feels like an almost endless loop of chaos and violence, all of it expended upon the black body in particular, which, given the climate that we’re in nowadays, is trending a lot for people.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The shooting that we saw evokes the Charleston shooting at a black church by Dylann Roof.

    What other specific themes or history are used in this video?

  • Tre Johnson:

    Yes, I would say there’s a couple of things.

    There is obviously the shooting that you just referenced. There is also the shooting that takes place in the beginning of the video, where you see a black guitarist who is peacefully trying to do some music, and he is kind of mercilessly executed right at the beginning of the film.

    In the background, too, I think what’s interesting to watch is there is an ever-evolving, increasing chaos and violence that’s happening in the background. Some of it is very reminiscent of some of the protests and riots that we have seen in light of a lot of the black victims that have fallen due to police brutality and other types of gun violence.

    I think, too, what you’re also witnessing is just the ways that some of this imagery and some of these scenes and tragedies have been captured.

    So, one of the starkest images I think that pop up the video for me is when you see the camera pan up to the rafters, and there is a group of small black children who are using cell phones to capture a lot of what’s happening around them.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There really is a mix here of entertainment, you know, the music and the dancing, even fun at times, with this — with guns and violence and all you were just referencing.

    But it is a kind of in-your-face juxtaposition.

  • Tre Johnson:

    Yes, I think that’s purposeful, and I think for a couple reasons. And I write about this in the article.

    One is the idea that, you know, I think, a lot of times, black artists understand the need to transform their community’s pain and trauma into art. And, sometimes, that art looks very joyful, because we’re looking for ways to uplift ourselves and to heal from a lot of the things that are visited upon us in the community every day.

    I also think you look at, like, kind of the — the kind of, like, the tension between exploitation of black culture and black pain for media and popular culture consumption. So, there is an aloofness around just what people are sharing.

    Sometimes, it’s consumed without the context or the care about the actual pain and the real-life circumstances that are involved in the lives of black artists and the communities that they often represent, when they’re kind of taken in by people who are several altitudes removed from those kind of day-to-day circumstances, too.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, I mentioned that there’s been a lot of negative reaction. There’s many, many layers and strains of that.

    Part of it, of course, is questioning the violence and how much that is necessary, how much of it is shown. Some people are also talk — questioning Glover’s motives and his own background and what he’s bringing to this.

    Explain what you’re hearing in terms of the critique out there.

  • Tre Johnson:

    Yes.

    You know, I hear some of those same critiques. I think, for some folks, the idea of seeing even fictionalized black violence on the screen is unfortunate, because I think a lot of people feel like we have already become very viral in seeing the image of black bodies, either through police footage, or, again, captured on cell phones, looped through our social media feeds and across text message chains all the time.

    I think, too, again, you know, I think what is jarring about the video itself is that you watch Glover’s own kind of facial contortions as he moves from scene to scene to scene. I think there’s a desire to see him kind of linger in the despair and acknowledge the deep pain that some of these images are causing for people, or how they are resonant of things that are happening that people identify with all the time, in terms of losing family members or friends or other relatives to gun violence itself.

    And then I think, lastly, but what I really challenge people on is, you know, art is going to make people uncomfortable at times. And I think what I really like to do is focus on crediting how much it is that black artists are kind of choosing to take on the hard labor of holding the tension between entertainment and a responsibility to uplifting just more nuanced conversations about American life that I think is often given a pass to some of their mainstream white peer artists.

    And so, for me, I’m more interested in the conversation of, what is this art telling us vs. what are the motivations behind it, because I think the conversation that we’re trying to have around what this art is producing in front of us is much more worthwhile than trying to scrutinize and parse what everyone’s individual motivations are.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, just briefly, in our last minute, I mean, I can see a lot of people wondering, just what’s going on here? How much of it is Glover making a serious statement, as opposed to making a provocative piece of entertainment himself?

  • Tre Johnson:

    Yes.

    I mean, the tough answer might be that it could be both. He might want to actually — you know, I think this is a subversion of pop culture typically being the thing that is an escapism, that makes us feel good and makes us feel happy.

    I have been saying, watching this season’s “Atlanta,” one of the greatest things that he’s been doing about this is changing the expectations on what we’re doing in terms of engaging with traditional pop culture mediums.

    And so both “Atlanta” and “This Is America” are choosing to take on a darker, harsher tone, which is, like, confounding the expectations a lot of people are expecting.

    And I think, lastly, this fits — “This Is America,” “Atlanta” fits into a wider conversation around pop culture or tapestry that black artists are doing.

    If you look at “Get Out,” you look at “Lemonade,” you look at even some of the things that Solange Knowles has done with “A Seat at the Table,” and Janelle Monae’s most recent album, they’re all looking to choose to pick up the baton of having America really look at a lot of the contradictions around what we say we value about black lives, and then how we actually address black entertainment when it chooses to stand up and represent the kind of like chaotic, nuanced experiences around black lives inside of the wider society.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Tre Johnson of “Rolling Stone,” thank you very much.

  • Tre Johnson:

    Thank you.

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