Music

‘This Is America’ Is the New Minstrel Show

Donald Glover in “This Is America” (screengrab via YouTube)
Donald Glover peddles political paranoia.

Donald Glover’s music video “This Is America” attracted 7.2 million views in one day, when it went viral after its release Friday. That record-setting number suggests a sort of online plebiscite, and yet it’s still hard to take Glover seriously. His four-minute piece combines rapping, dancing, and violence into deliberately theatrical agitprop, but is a highly specious political statement. In keeping with some of the 35-year-old actor’s recent imprudent social comments, this inflammatory video conforms to the entertainment industry’s current “resistance.”

Viewers were easily fascinated by Glover’s provocation. He first appears shirtless and wild-haired, moving toward the camera in anguished-erotic convulsions and with a frightening grimace. It could be a lynching victim’s finale, except that it conjures a reverse image out of America’s racial nightmare: the blackface acts of 19th-century minstrelsy.

What’s politically significant about the throwback image of “This Is America” is that it hit cyberspace just as pop and political culture is struggling with the question of black political independence. Glover sweeps his audience, hip-hop fans as well as other pop-culture followers, back into a “safe space.” It’s not Kanye West’s eccentric freedom of thought but Millennial groupthink and its attendant anxiety. The video’s dance celebration is disrupted by shocking events that vaguely reference recent social tragedies — beginning with a cameo appearance by a man who resembles Trayvon Martin’s father, and then on to a black gospel choir massacred by a machine-gun-wielding Glover.

These confused symbols intrigue a politically naïve audience, including celebrities such as Megan Mullalley and Trent Reznor, sudden political adepts tweeting “woke” affirmation to their own Twitter followers. Their knee-jerk sentimental endorsement is more clearly motivated than Glover’s own, supposedly political consciousness.

Affluent performers claim the ghetto imprisonment that, presumably, they argue African Americans should escape.

Performer-writer-producer of the TV series Atlanta, Glover also makes hip-hop records as a side gig. “This Is America” features his hip-hop alias Childish Gambino. Through both business enterprises, Glover exploits black youth culture, to questionable success. He appeals to consumers’ social restlessness — the source of a generation’s political identification. His new minstrelsy demonstrates the unique situation of affluent performers who feign the status of disadvantaged social types. (Cameo appearances by the mothers of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin exploited their working-class grief in Beyoncés Lemonade extravaganza.) In performance and appearance, they claim the ghetto imprisonment that, presumably, they argue African Americans should escape.

So far, few Internet fans have seen through Glover’s pageant of destruction and paranoia. Nor have many realized that it represents the worst kind of manipulation — a strangely self-conscious version of a blackface Jim Crow coon-show that embarrasses black culture’s politically enlightened history.

Should we expect a rapper approaching middle age, who goes by the name Childish Gambino (a bit too cleverly merging hip-hop juvenilia with black drug dealers’ admiration of Italian mobster swagger), to fully understand the politicized enlightenment exhibited by their R&B forebears of the Sixties and Seventies? When the Isley Brothers recorded “Fight the Power” (1969), The Funkadelics made America Eats Its Young (1972), and Curtis Mayfield released There’s No Place Like America Today (1975), those artists had actually lived through segregation, discrimination, and urban riots; and those records (all bitter yet also inspirational) reflected sober realization about American life, as well as a spirit of self-determination that was newly earned.

For those who remember that rich period of soul-music renaissance, the exhibition of black folks raving and ranting in This Is America is little more than a pale distortion of Mayfield’s truly provocative album cover for There’s No Place Like America Today. Mayfield repurposed Margaret Bourke-White’s 1937 photo of blacks standing in a Depression-era food line, beneath a billboard depicting a prosperous white family. Mayfield flipped cultural nostalgia to show his exclusion from it. But Gambino-Glover’s nostalgia for the civil-rights-era version is uninformed by reality. (He catalogues Black Lives Matter bullet points rather than personal grief, like Ice Cube’s classic 1990 video “Dead Homiez.”) His pop-culture disillusionment is warped by the disoriented expectations black Americans felt during the Obama era, which, now, has led to the bewilderment of some during the Trump era (despite Trump’s having served as a heroic capitalist icon for hip-hop artists before his presidential election).

Gambino-Glover’s video takes place on a soundstage that resembles the parking-garage setting of Eminem’s 2017 freestyle anti-Trump tirade that was commissioned by Black Entertainment Television. It’s an insular and patronizing location for a blackface performance that, ironically, evokes the antique graphics of the first white minstrels, such as Theodore Dartmouth (T. D.) Rice, who originated the Jim Crow figure. Scholars Eric Lott and William T. Lhamon (in their respective studies Love and Theft and Jump Jim Crow) described the history behind the Jim Crow stereotype that eventually named the period of “separate but equal” segregation, which did not end until the 1965 Civil Rights Act. Gambino-Glover’s weird choreography modernizes the legend that Rice, supposedly, based his early racist caricature on a crippled Negro man he saw busking on a Midwestern street in the 19th century.

‘This Is America’ leeches from the civil-rights past to validate today’s marketable discontent.

No matter how popular “This Is America” is for the moment, it is the work of an ideologically crippled pop star — and proof that contemporary black popular culture has a crippled sense of history.

Like the TV series Atlanta, this video is as much art project as it is social alarm. Director Hiro Murai suppresses his own Japanese-immigrant knowledge within the artifices of music videos that appropriate urban black experience for the pretense of emotional authenticity. “This Is America” leeches from the civil-rights past to validate today’s marketable discontent. It hasn’t shaken the culture the way Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” music video did when it debuted simultaneously on several TV networks in 1991, with a premiere audience estimated at 500 million. Jackson’s controversial coda, in which he morphed into a black panther to portray his personal and political rage, was a high point in black pop, as daring as anything in then-ascendant hip-hop.

Decades later, Beyoncé’s Lemonade music videos set an egregious standard of excessive cultural exploitation. Beyoncé’s pseudo-Afrocentric posturing defined how this new form of music-video minstrelsy could revive Jim Crow segregation through a pop star’s distanced emphasis on black grievance and high-art artifice. Gambino-Glover continues this artsy phase of black pop segregation. Only black faces appear in the video until its final scene, when Glover, adopting the wide-eyed fright of Get Out, is seen running for his life, chased by a mob of whites.

What does that all mean? Simply that the mixed messages in “This Is America” are also superficial. They allude to race-based catastrophes without explanation, therefore without justification, just a pop artist’s sanctimony. This spectacle of American chaos is vague and safely “radical.” Its style of eternal paranoia keeps viewers from thinking. They can, instead, fantasize that clicking on Glover’s squandering of black cultural and political history equates to a militant political act.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally incorrectly stated that Trayvon Martin’s father made an appearance at the beginning of the video. In fact, the man in question is an actor. 

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