In the vast wasteland of pop culture, amid the litter of Hadid sister Instagram posts and bizarre Kanye West tweets, occasionally a work of art comes along that is both thoughtful enough and catchy enough that it cuts through the noise. The musical “Hamilton,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda was one such artistic work. Beyoncé’s groundbreaking performance as the first black woman to headline Coachella last month was another. The latest example of this welcome phenomenon is Childish Gambino’s powerful new song and music video, “This is America.”
Attempting to make a political statement while also entertaining your core fans is a fraught exercise. Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Lawson, was convinced that the mostly young, white audience at Coachella would not understand the political and historical depth of Beyoncé’s references to Malcolm X, gospel, financial power and both the oppression and uplift embedded in American black history. (Hopefully she was wrong.)
While we don’t usually see the work of 16th century artists in hip-hop performances, there’s something about the work of Childish Gambino that feels particularly Shakespearean.
Besides the element of artistic risk, these works share a lot in common with each other — powerhouse musicality, an obsessive attention to specifics and an emphasis on sharp cultural commentary. But they also share similarities with an artist of a very different era: Shakespeare.
While we don’t usually see the work of 16th century artists in hip-hop performances, there’s something about the work of Childish Gambino (real name Donald Glover) and the video’s director, Hiro Murai that feels particularly Shakespearean. The song and video are designed with an immaculate attention to detail and meaning, to be watched once as entertainment and then again with footnotes. Without that second viewing, references from an apocalyptic vision of Death on a white horse to the Rodney King riots could easily be missed. A deeply layered work despite only being four minutes long, “This is America” has to be understood on multiple levels.
Also like Shakespeare, Childish Gambino and Murai quote from and rely heavily on mythology — not Greek and Roman mythology that Shakespeare used, but the American mythology of freedom and justice and liberty and oppression. It seems fair to suggest that if Shakespeare were writing in America today, he would be drawn to writing about race.
Because Shakespeare was so much more than that abridged version of “Romeo and Juliet” you half-read in middle school. Many of the Bard’s plays served a dual purpose in English society — not just as entertainment, but also as political and social commentary. He was particularly interested in pointing out hypocrisy.
Shakespeare wrote cheap, popular entertainment in which he managed to sneak in grand themes about political and police oppression (“Measure for Measure”), religious and racial prejudice (“Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice”) and the abuse of power (every single play) interspered with bawdy jokes, musical interludes and the occasional running bear.
Amid dancing schoolchildren, Childish Gambino tackles similarly heady themes, from gun violence to the history of Jim Crow and the treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters. One of the most inescapable points in the video is the destabilizing consequences of police brutality, reflected in the visual references to the Los Angeles riots following the police violence against Rodney King; it’s hard not to think of Isabella’s famous speech in “Measure for Measure,” chastising a Duke for behaving like “pelting, petty officer.”
A key aspect of Shakespeare’s works is the lack of easy answers; his “problem plays” with morally unsatisfying endings have confounded scholars and audiences for centuries, and he sometimes grotesquely breaks up intermittent murders and violence with comic relief.
Likewise, Childish Gambino and Murai refuse to provide cheap moralism or pie-in-the-sky comfort. “This is America,” perhaps like the real America, has a fluid morality and no heroes. Neither is Childish Gambino portraying a hero or a villain. As TV writer Brittani Nichols noted on Twitter, “Either you’re the thug or the comedic relief. But what happens when you’re not one and you’re tired of being the other?”
#1 How DG/CG has felt for sometime. Either you’re the thug or the comedic relief. But what happens when you’re not one and you’re tired of being the other? I think that’s the question he’s been trying to answer with his career.
— Brittani Nichols (@BisHilarious) May 7, 2018
It’s significant that Childish Gambino’s character in the video is both a perpetuator of violence — shooting a man and a gospel choir and bouncing supportively in front of rioters — as well as a subject of violence. We don’t know who he is, and arguably neither does he. His fast, disjointed choreography and facial expressions, rife with split-second references to viral dances, suggests he’s having a hard time figuring out who to be or even how to simply move in the world.
And because the camera’s focus never leaves him, we’re dragged through the same confusing transitions with him. New Yorker writer Doreen St. Felix notes that the video is “a fundamentally ambiguous document…Glover forces us to relive public traumas and barely gives us a second to breathe before he forces us to dance.”
Like Shakespeare’s villains, including Richard III, Childish Gambino explains himself directly to the audience. After his character shoots a guitar-strumming man in the head, he turns straight to the camera and declares: “This is America.” Indeed, throughout most of the video, Childish Gambino maintains eye contact with the viewer as he sows chaos and death. But in the final scene, we are left staring into the whites of his eyes as predator becomes prey.
It’s significant that Childish Gambino’s character in the video is both a perpetuator of violence — shooting a man and a gospel choir and bouncing supportively in front of rioters — as well as a subject of violence.
That technique — the discomfiting stare — makes the viewer reckon with violent voyeurism and recalls the way that shaky videos of police shootings have become indelible images in all of our minds. It also echoes the potential complicity of seeing violence happen again and again and doing nothing.
And this repetitive, shocking violence highlights perhaps the most Shakespearean aspect of “This is America:” the fact that it is both morally chaotic and self-aware of how absolutely bizarre the chaos is. As Slate writer Matthew Dessem wrote, “Everything is in perfect discord.”
At the end of the video, it’s not clear that anyone will be left to understand the total scope of the destruction or that anyone will get out alive. As in Shakespeare, and in the United States itself, the dead bodies pile up in “This is America” way before anyone realizes the problem.
Heidi N. Moore advises digital media startups. She was previously editor-in-chief and co-founder of career news site Ladders, business editor at Mashable, and launched the Guardian US business section. She has had bylines in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post.