On May 5, 2018, immediately after pulling double duty as the host and musical guest of Saturday Night Live, Donald Glover dropped a Childish Gambino music video for his single “This Is America,” a disorienting trap assault that encapsulates modern life in the home of the free. Directed by long-time collaborator and Atlanta director Hiro Murai, the video is surreal, beautiful, and crammed with hidden messages.
The video transforms an empty warehouse into a metaphor for 2018's state of the union – a country unwilling to reckon with its unhealthy relationship with guns and racism. The hidden messages in "This Is America" make the video a dreamlike Easter egg hunt and a fascinating trip through Glover’s vision of America. Inside, there’s violence, a desire to escape the fear of death through art, and a public that seems content to move from one tragedy to another as soon as things become stale.
One of the clearest uses of symbolism in "This Is America" is the way guns are treated on screen. There’s a reverence for firearms in the video that is not shared with the human lives taken by those same guns. In both the execution that opens the video and the choir shooting in the second verse, an attendant is waiting to wrap the gun in cloth, treating the weapon like a holy relic.
The bodies are either dragged away or just left where they fall. This symbolizes how America leaps to defend their right to bear arms after shootings while forgetting about victims in the process.
The dancing in "This Is America" is stunning, but it serves a clear purpose. The director, Hiro Murai, frames most of the video with a clear foreground where Glover and a group of dancers perform a variety of popular dances. Meanwhile, the camera leaves the background obscured and blurry, distracting the viewer from the chaos and violence taking place there.
This could represent several things. Primarily, this visual metaphor shows how Americans try to focus on escapism and entertainment instead of the very real violence taking place in their country. The dancers behind Glover are dressed in high school uniforms, which can be a statement on how teens focus on sharing and creating viral content via social media instead of engaging with the real world around them.
Since Glover puts himself at the center of the dancing that's drawing attention from the violence behind him, he may also be reckoning with Black entertainers' complicity in distracting their fans from significant subjects. It could also just be a simple juxtaposition of how modern America is both a place of violence and a place where people can still express joy through art.
NPR Music hip-hop journalist Rodney Carmichael was one of the first to point out one of the dances in the video, the Gwara Gwara. The dance was created by South African DJ Bongz in 2017 and quickly became a viral sensation – even Rihanna did it at the 2018 Grammys. Some suggest the inclusion of the dance is a tangential reference to South Africa's own racial tensions and the Apartheid and how America is still grappling with these issues.
Almost halfway through the video, Glover makes a clear reference to the Charleston shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. On June 17, 2015, nine people were killed in the middle of a prayer meeting by white supremacist Dylann Roof. While Roof used a Glock handgun to murder his victims, Glover uses an assault rifle – a weapon that's gotten a fair share of media attention.