A powerfully graphic video by Childish Gambino, the alter-ego of Donald Glover, has amassed more than 100 million YouTube views. But who is Glover and why is the whole world watching his provocative depiction of American gun violence and racism?
Glover’s “This is America” has quickly become one of the most successful music videos launched on YouTube. It presents an uncomfortable view of an America fuelled by gun violence, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Actor, musician, comedian, director, producer, rapper, DJ and writer Glover did not struggle for years in the shadows. When he was just 23, Tina Fey hired him as a writer on the television show “30 Rock”.
His major breakthrough, though, came with the TV series “Atlanta”. Glover himself created this programme about two cousins breaking into the Atlanta rap scene. He also starred in it and often directs it too. The programme taps into the American psyche and has won many awards since its debut in 2016, including two Golden Globes.
Glover’s acting career is simultaneously prospering, he appeared last week at the world premiere of “Solo: A Stars War Story”. In it, he plays the part of the young Lando Calrissian, longtime friend of a certain Han Solo.
Alongside all of this, he has maintained a strong musical presence. He released his first album “Camp” using his musical alias Childish Gambino in 2011 and his single “Redbone” from 2016 garnered a Grammy Award. In 2017, he was included in the annual Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world.
He created his pseudonym from a name generator created by the hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan during his second year at college. Glover had announced he was going to retire Gambino last summer, saying that his musical career was no longer “necessary”.
But “This is America” – his explosive new video – is a very compelling reason to return to the musical frontline. Famous fans, including Adele, are queuing up to applaud its strong political message.
The video, shot by Glover’s main “Atlanta” director Hiro Murai, requires more than one viewing. Much of the key action transpires behind Glover and his group of dancers. Focus on the impossibly charismatic singer and you risk missing persuasive symbolism about the importance placed on guns over the lives of innocent people in America.
Its symbolism is relentless. In the opening scene, a smiling Glover dances to happy, gentle rhythms in a vast empty warehouse, his only companion a guitarist sitting on a chair. In one swift move, Glover adopts the controversial pose of derogatory blackface minstrel character Jim Crow and pulls a gun out of his pocket. Without pausing, Glover shoots the now hooded guitarist in the head, in an act reminiscent of torture. He hands the pistol to a young boy and everything changes, the real song begins.
There is a second shooting scene, though it appears to have a more direct reference. A gospel choir is happily singing when Glover shoots them all down with an assault rifle, without pausing before continuing his upbeat dance. This appears to allude to the Charleston church shooting in 2015, in which white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African-Americans.
The lyrics too appear to be deceptively simple. The lines “This is a celly/ that’s a tool” are thought to refer to the case of Stephon Clark. Clark was shot dead by the police who thought he was armed, but he only had an iPhone.
Glover himself has refused to reveal the video’s message, saying simply “that’s not for me to say”. What is clear, though, is that this video is saying a lot and to a global audience of millions. This landmark portrait of America today is raw, brutal, devastating and unexpectedly uplifting – all at the same time.