Anupa Mistry is an arts and culture journalist from Toronto currently living in Brooklyn, N.Y.
In the new music video for This Is America, Childish Gambino, the Grammy-winning musical persona of actor and screenwriter Donald Glover, shoots 11 black people at point-blank range. The video’s macabre tension mirrors an aesthetic that is increasingly dominating Mr. Glover’s critically acclaimed FX series Atlanta, a dark comedy centred on four friends living in the Southern metropolis. As of late, violence – and specifically the relationship African-Americans have with it – has become a central creative preoccupation of Mr. Glover’s, who began his career as an affable sidekick on the NBC comedy series Community and as a mopey, middling rapper. The reception for This Is America – 50 million views in less than four days – suggests he’s not alone in this fixation.
The video begins innocuously enough, with a shirtless Mr. Glover dancing around a middle-aged man strumming a guitar – before shooting him and delicately placing the smoking gun in the hands of a young attendant. The brutality heightens the surreal nature of the four-minute piece, which alternates between tableaus and careening like a live-action Caravaggio painting. Everything is as it is supposed to be: Young people dance and fiddle with their phones, police cars chase, choirs sing, the actor acts. And within this cynical framing Mr. Glover positions guileless murder as part of the daily churn of life. But pull back from the sound stage and it appears he’s rejecting outright nihilism in favour of a moral statement: We are all culpable.
The video specifically references the needless deaths of black Americans, including the victims of 2015’s Charleston church massacre at the hands of a domestic terrorist, and trigger-happy police officers. Over the past few years it’s become impossible to ignore the body count amassed by explicit and structural racism toward black people in the U.S. and beyond.
The news cycle churns on these stories. That activism has gone mainstream in the past few years, prompted by the cultural success of Black Lives Matter, is a vehement statement – not against isolated incidents of injustice, but the overt acceptance of black death as a product to be consumed. This is an incredible paradox when you consider just how valuable black vitality is, in the form of art as well as labour.
Racial anxiety and activism are not new, although as Mr. Glover examines in his video for This Is America, both have become increasingly, depressingly salable. Artists have created vital work from the trauma inflicted on African-Americans for decades, from the painter Faith Ringgold to contemporary director Kahlil Joseph.
While watching This Is America, I thought about a recent retrospective in New York of the late Julius Eastman, a classical pianist and minimalist composer. Like Mr. Glover, Eastman was a multihyphenate artist and obsessive satirist. His work complicated his black, queer identity and challenged the cultural supremacy of his white contemporaries such as John Cage and Steve Reich. In a 1981 artist’s statement, Mr. Eastman clarified his artistic purpose: “Music is only one of my attributes. I could be a Dancer, Choreographer, Painter, or any other kind of artist if I so wished; but right thought, speech and action are now my main concerns. No other thing is as important or useful.” In 1990, he died poor and alone on the cusp of 50, his moral art largely unknown. I see the same dogged energy – a “by any means necessary” artistic approach to moral art – in Donald Glover. The video for This Is America premiered online at the same time that Mr. Glover was celebrating a Saturday Night Live coup: hosting as himself and performing as Childish Gambino. What has changed in the 28 years since Mr. Eastman died is the extent to which capitalism has bought into protest art.
A recent New Yorker profile documented how much Mr. Glover struggles with the tension inherent to being a well-received actor and musician with a moral purpose and his realization “that being a saviour was impossible to reconcile with being an artist.” There are many reasons This Is America feels impactful, but perhaps the most significant underlying tension is that its message is inherently implicated by its own existence. Mr. Glover made a viral video about black death to talk about black death. He is implicating himself, while also making the larger point that capitalism, the highest American dogma, has evolved beyond recognition. It is an ouroboros of calamity that is eating us, subsisting on systems that perpetuate racial violence while regurgitating our protestations and selling them back to us.