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Is This America? Social Justice Pop Art

Last week “This Is America” took control of our screens. After Donald Glover’s initial SNL performance of his new single “This Is America,” he dropped the visual and the internet went wild. The video has reached over 130M views since it’s release on May 5th. Not too shabby for a week and half’s work. The views have been boosted by video embeds in almost every major news outlet one can conceivably think of as everyone and their grandmother rushes to breakdown the details of the symbolism and “hidden meaning” behind the visuals.

The real reason this video is setting the world on fire is most certainly not the nuanced details laid out across all major media outlets in the typical ‘listicle’ articles or explainer videos.  Everyone is watching because the message is both clear and socially relevant: America mistreats its black citizens. Donald Glover is making waves for creating an overtly black artistic masterpiece as a conversation starter with his size-able crossover white audience. He has access to powerful visual channels like SNL from his work on 30 Rock and Atlanta where he also tackles the modern American black experience. Yet, this time he chose to push the message through his Childish Gambino outlet because music can be a more resonant platform for speaking to the people.

Music has long been one of the vehicles through which our society has addressed and demanded solutions for our pain points. It has traditionally been more accessible as TV’s were cost prohibitive in their early years. Sam Cooke was instrumental in the 60’s as “A Change Is Gonna Come” became an anthem of the civil rights movement, Marvin Gaye spoke for the people of the 70s with  “What’s Going On?” and acts like NWA and Public Enemy carried this torch into the 90s. At a certain point these artists transcended their musical output and became a social force. With this release, Donald Glover has also crossed that line, very intentionally leveraging the power of his voice for social justice.

He’s made such a fuss that even his director and choreographer are getting famous.  Sherrie Silver, the video’s West African choreographer, has been covered in Vice, Fader, Glamour, Hypebeast and more. She also recently released a dance tutorial so you can dance just like the music video. The director Hiro Murai, one of Glover’s frequent collaborators, has been seen in the The New York Times, HighSnobiety and Vanity Fair amongst others. Perhaps some of the attention falling on the supporting cast this time around stems from Glover’s refusal to explain his art. Left with no answer or single clickbait headline from the man himself, the media has been grasping at straws in its attempt to make sense of the video.  

Well, if this is what the media wants they should be celebrating as 2018 is not poised to disappoint. From Black Panther in February to This Is America now, it’s looking like a year for activist art. Spike Lee’s latest piece, BlacKkKlansman is already making ripples at Cannes and is sure to make waves when it hits theatres. There are an ever increasing number of social injustices and art that tackles these issues thoughtfully will always have a welcome place. Art that tries and fails will be laughed off the stage. That’s why no one is toasting Donald Glover’s success with a Pepsi.

Comments: 3

  • Nick Freilich May 18, 2018 5:37 am

    I appreciate this coverage of Glover’s terrific work, but I believe you’ve miscredited him for having been on 30 Rock – I imagine you meant Community?

      • Nick May 20, 2018 12:52 am

        Right you are! Thanks for clarifying.

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