“The Cry of Hip Hop:
A Meditation on Childish Gambino and the Peril of American Exceptionalism”
By george white, jr.
A kernel of recognition exploded in my ear at about the 3:30 mark of the official music video for the Childish Gambino song “This is America.” Difficult to trace, I watched the video a second, third, and fourth time before the memory crystallized. It was then that I realized I might be watching a concentrated, updated version of a documentary from the late 1950s.
I am not an art critic. Like most laypeople, I try to appreciate art from where I stand. And from where I stand, “This is America” calls to mind the controversial documentary
The Cry of Jazz
In 1959, composer Edward Bland and 3 friends produced the movie as a way of using the history of jazz to confront the reality of America. Bland’s film captures an intense gathering of an interracial group of jazz lovers and musicians. The heat of the conversation grew from the fact that the Black members of the group asserted that only Black people could have created jazz because of their unique, lived experiences in America. At the core of the argument was the notion that Black and White people were profoundly different from each other (based on social construction, NOT on genetics). It is from this molten core that the characters fire off phrases like “you talk as if Negroes were the only ones who could have created jazz” or “the jazz body is dead but the spirit of jazz is alive” or “the Negro is the only human American.” The lead character, Alex, voiced the ultimate lament, saying “you wiped out our past…with slavery, you wiped out our today, and the present-day savagery is intended to deprive us of our tomorrow. If America had her way, time would vanish…for the Negro.” Both the intellectual gravitas of the film and its implications shaped how I viewed “This Is America.”
There is something very African-sounding in the opening rhythmic chant (“yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, go, go away”) and the overlay of the melodic “we just want to party…” So, when I saw the shirtless Childish Gambino standing at attention with his back to the camera, it seemed meaningful that his first response is to the beat, no matter whether the beat of a kick drum or the beat(ing) of a whip. When he turns, his expression is languorous, then pained, and, finally, determined. It is from this position that he shoots the guitar player in the back of the head. I cannot disagree with those who say that Gambino’s character enacted a “Jim Crow” pose as he committed murder. Yet, White men created Jim Crow, literally and figuratively. Children drag away the dead body, making the background briefly “empty” until people and their vehicles over-run it. This destruction of volition calls to mind the cultural genocide and dispossession of Native Americans, the concept of “terra nullius,” and the encroachment of voracious settlers and enslaved Africans.
The lead character in the video raps, then begins to smile, as if nothing just happened. He eventually is surrounded by uniformed children who accompany him in dance. The viewer sees a Black church choir singing (“ooh, ooh, ooh, ohh, tell somebody…”) in a different room. The lead enters the room, smiles, and dances to the singing, then all emotion drains from his face and he slaughters them with a machine gun. It reminds me of the ways White America enjoyed the labor, sexual, cultural, and psychological services of Black people and used a sublime abomination of Christianity to condemn us.
As the lead moves into the second verse of the song, mobs of people run in various directions behind him and firelight appears in more than one spot. As he brags about how beautiful he is, someone leaps from a ledge; it is unclear whether this is suicide or in response to a threat. Above him, children record the action with their cell phones, their faces partially hidden behind towels or bandanas. All of the insanity and dancing continues until the lead raps “I got the plug on Oaxaca/they gonna find you like blakka” and forms a gun with his fingers. It is at this point that the children stop dancing, their faces become masks of fear, and they scatter. After the lead lights a joint, he walks into another part of the warehouse and dances atop an old car in a field of old cars. The video ends with him running from the mobs his dancing seemed to conjure. It was just before this chase scene that I thought about America’s effort to obliterate time.
Whether in the guise of erasing Native Americans from the land or exploding the African past, a crucial aspect of America’s nation-building project has been to obliterate time. Even the current War on Terror with its unstated goal of permanent American hegemony seeks to escape time, both through its erasure of American diplomatic history and through the quest for indefinite dominance. Such domination is aided and abetted by the shattering of truth.
Each time the lead in the video shot human beings, one of the uniformed children came to take away the weapon with a red cloth. In addition to symbolizing how much more we value weapons than people, it appeared as if the act also concealed the reality of carnage. By disappearing the gun, they disappeared the crime and perpetrator, too. In addition to the obliteration of time, America demands the shattering of truth into sand, sand that slips through the grasp and can be re-shaped into any form needed to support White Supremacist/Capitalist/Patriarchy.
Ultimately, “This is America” is a seminar on the nature of America as a whole, not simply rumination on the Black experience in it. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda with “Hamilton,” Glover is casting counter to racial expectations. However, instead of singing a celebration of a Founding Father, Glover is engaged in the macabre dance of American exceptionalism, a mythical conceit beyond time and truth that endangers all of existence.