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Slaying New Black Notions - Childish Gambino's 'This Is America'

Poet Ladan Osman considers how Childish Gambino obliterates rooted acts of black optimism and expression, leading us to understand the artist’s persona as a site upon which historical and aesthetic lineages are free to interact and contradict each other.

Ladan Osman

The direction of Hiro Murai is singular in composition, moodiness, and deft depictions of the zaniness, play, and agony that attend human desire. Since 2013 Murai has collaborated with Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) to create music videos and the hit show Atlanta. Before “This Is America,” Murai directed “Never Catch Me” for Flying Lotus, where two children rise out of their coffins and dance through their haunts. It’s unclear how the children died, but given our fresh grief, it was hard to disremember the shooting deaths of Michael Brown Jr. and Trayvon Martin.

Murai is a master of scene-setting. “This Is America” begins in a warehouse, empty save a red banquet chair sporting an acoustic guitar. At first the tone recalls Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” that goofy New Black anthem. A barefoot man plays while Childish Gambino moves, similar to modern dance performances by Robyn and Sia. He’s shirtless, wearing trousers and two slim chains, seemingly carefree. But we know something is off in his glitching facial expressions. We return to the guitarist, now hooded and empty-handed as the distinctly African melody he plays is overtaken by a synthetic beat. A rupture in the rhythm. Gambino takes a showman’s pose, draws a gun from his waistband, and shoots the guitarist in the back of his head. It’s a terrible moment, in part due to its deliberateness, and one I revisit over and over via reaction posts on YouTube. “This Is America,” Gambino says, handing the pistol to a boy in school uniform. The boy takes the gun in a cloth, as if it’s a relic, while two other boys, also in uniform, drag the guitarist away.

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July - August 2018