How can the experience of African American people be represented? How does one approach that kind of task without trivializing the violence and suffering? Hartman’s answer is to abstain from representation altogether, as in her opinion, it has the risk of turning into a morbid spectacle for curious voyeurs. Moten, instead, believes that sound has the power to successfully convey such a message. In his book In the Break, he brings the example of the free jazz performance titled Protest, from Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, and Oscar Brown Jr., that through the use of screams and manic drumming, moves <<in a trajectory and toward a location that is remote from – if not in excess of or inaccessible to – words>>.
The song This Is America, by Childish Gambino – as the title may suggest – is a musical representation of the United States. In just four minutes it manages to delve into themes of discrimination, gun violence, social turmoil, consumerism, police brutality, and much more. However, maybe even more interesting than the themes themselves, is how Gambino manages to portray them so accurately.
Looking at how the song’s sections are divided, we start to notice that it doesn’t really follow an orthodox structure. Instead, two very different sections alternate between themselves. The first one is a sort of gospel inspired choir. The second one, instead, is a very grimy hip-hop/trap beat. Also, there isn’t really any transition between the two, creating a very jarring switch every time they alternate – almost sounding like someone abruptly stopped the song you were listening to, just to play something from a completely different genre. This bold composition choice would normally create an unpleasant listening experience (and might also be considered a result of poor songwriting), but here, instead, it manages to strengthen Gambino’s message. The sudden change from the upbeat-gospel section to the abrasive hip-hop one perfectly portrays the erratic nature of violence in the U.S., where tragedy can strike at any time.
An analysis of this song wouldn’t be complete, however, without mentioning its official video. The audio and video are so synergistic to each other that calling This Is America a song may not do it justice. It is equal parts a visual and musical performance. Gambino dances, acts, kills, mocks. The different sections are accompanied by complex choreographies and stunts, and each time the song switches between them the visual component matches the brutality implied in the music and lyrics, creating a captivating and yet eerie multimedial experience for the viewers.
Where Moten sees African American music as a vessel for the representation of blackness, Childish Gambino takes it a step further, using two very different types of music – both originated from black culture – to represent something that is maybe even more elusive: the zeitgeist of a nation. Whether this attempt was successful, is beyond the scope of this short essay. What cannot be denied, however, is the success and positive reception that the song received, which at the least demonstrates that its message resonated with people. That is not a bad result, for a song that was literally designed to be unpleasant to listen to.
Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hartman, Sadiya. 1997. Scenes of Subjection; Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.