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Childish Gamb

It’s not a place

This country is to be a sound of drum and bass

You close your eyes to look around

—XXX, Kendrick Lamar & Bono


America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.

America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.   

I can’t stand my own mind.

America when will we end the human war?

-America, Allen Ginsberg


He guns down the choir with a machine gun and says “This is America.”  It’s a moment that hits me in my gut because it’s stylized violence before I remember that it’s actually happened.

I really do in fact, despite my claims, have several friends.  I know that as a writer and an introvert I’m supposed to say that I have no friends, but I do in fact have people in my life that I care a lot about.  True many of them are coworkers, but they’re also people I have a lot in common with.  Some are queer like me, almost all of them are readers, and almost all of them enjoy music of some sort.  And outside of work I have a gathering of people who, while they no longer live in my home town of Tyler, I’m still close to.  One of these friends is my brother Josh Grijalva.18033223_1945210082376663_8569107665547197131_n

He’s not a biological brother, but this motherfucker and I am joined at the hip.  When you wrap your arms around somebody for dear life at a Slipknot concert that’s fucking family.  I met Josh several years ago as I was just starting college, and I didn’t know his actual first name for close to a year, when I found out he was also called Josh I felt like a dumbass.  It didn’t matter though because over the next few years the pair of us bonded over Heavy Metal, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Creative Writing (he was the mad-poet genius and I was the cold soulless prose-ist).  Josh taught me a lot about life, and after his mother died I tried to be there for him as much as I could, and it’s one of the great fucking tragedies of my life that the guy lives up in Dallas, but we still talk off and on and this relationship has, in it’s way, still been one of the best relationships in my life partly because Josh Introduced me to Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino.

Rap wasn’t a genre of music that was played in my house growing up.  My parents were teenagers of the late seventies and early seventies so I grew up on Aerosmith, Blondie, AC/DC, Boston, Madonna, and the Eurythmics.  Along with this there was plenty of Rat Pack: Louie Prima, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzegerald, and of course Frank Sinatra.  It wasn’t that my parents kept me from Rap growing up, it just wasn’t part of their world, and because parents tend to raise their children according to their own values and interests and aesthetics, I grew up being bottle fed by the Rock-Gods rather than the Rap pioneers.  I don’t hold my parents at fault foro0800060812932993417this, but this absence of rap also seemed to follow the pattern of “whiteness” that was my upbringing.  

There weren’t many black people around growing up.  I attended a private christian school where there was only one African American student in my class, and by the time I graduated there was only two.  The only black people I ever interacted with were the janitors and custodians of the school or our church that dad worked with (he’s an exterminator so he tended to work with the staff).  My social life was pretty much nonexistent and I was an introvert who preferred staying home playing video games and reading comics.  This is just a long way of saying that I lived in what some would refer to as a “lily-white” world or privilege and so approaching an essay about two rap songs is a difficult proposition because before I’ve even begun I have to address my whiteness and my privilege.

Josh Grijalva has steadily introduced me, over time, to great rappers like N.W.A., Wu-Tang Clan, Kendrick Lamarr, and Childish Gambino.  Each of these people or groups has opened me to a new world of music and now I know the important truth that Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nuthin’ to fuck with.  And that I need to “fight the powers that be.”  Josh was a great teacher because he offered me suggestions for music, and in my effort to understand my white privilidge and consider the experience of the African American community I’ve discovered a lot of incredible artists I never would have encountered in my childhood.02-Childish-Gambinos-This-Is-America-screenshot-billboard-1548

I never grew up around the threat of gun violence, and so watching Childish Gambino shoot a man through the back of the head and declare that this is America is at first shocking and jarring, but the last few years are a quick counter to this.  

This is America is a song that has become a new discourse largely because of the video, and as I discussed the short film with one of my fellow co-workers, who for the record taught me the word “woke,” we both agreed that the song is great but the video is work of art that manages to convey far more than the lyrics.  If the reader looks at the first start of the song they might not observe too much significance.  Childish Gambino has just shot a man, who at the start of the video was simply playing the guitar, through the back of the head and the song starts:

This is America (skrrt, skrrt, woo)
Don’t catch you slippin’ now (ayy)This is America Gif

Look at how I’m livin’ now
Police be trippin’ now (woo)

Yeah, this is America (woo, ayy)

Guns in my area (word, my area)
I got the strap (ayy, ayy)
I gotta carry ’em

A rapper singing about the need to carry guns for the sake of his own protection in the neighborhood he loves in isn’t anything new.  In fact groups like N.W.A. pretty much made it an industry standard.  What makes the words so powerful is the way in which Childish Gambino presents it.  Throughout the entire video the man is shirtless, wearing just a pair of pants, and while he is not out of shape by any means, as he dances about the man is never presented as a kind of sexual ideal.  In fact throughout the video onethis-is-america gets a sense of the man’s vulnerability.

This is America follows Childish Gambino as he sings and dances through a large warehouse that is populated by him, a group of dancing African American school children, and then humans that are always moving about in the background usually fighting, looting, burning the many parked cars, or else attacking the few clearly African American characters in the background.  Gambino becomes this surreal figure as cars are burning, people are looting and burning, and the man is smiling and dancing about.

And this very act has led some to observe that one of the most striking aspect of the videoBlackface THISare the implications of blackface performance tropes.  Gambino is constantly dancing through the film, making jerking motions and contortion his face randomly.  The bent elbows, the erratic facial twists, and the near cakewalk on top of the car near the end of the video all call back to minstrel shows where white performers would done black face paint and behave in cartoonish representations of African Americans.  I’m not the first person to observe this similarity, in fact many of the people who watched this film have observed how Childish Gambino uses a pseudo-minstrel-show persona throughout the video to distract the viewer from the violence and mayhem taking place in the background behind him.  This reference to a morbid form of entertainment continues the body narrative because ultimately the black man’s body is observedBlackface TIAin objectified ways to the point of being a commodity.  While the world behind him burns Gambino is a mock-minstrel reminding the viewer that black men like himself have been used and destroyed, while a shallow cartoon has distracted people from
seeing the real travesties that plague American society.  Why see the violent conflict that afflicts real people in our society when there is, in Gambino’s own words, a “fitted” and “pretty” person “on Gucci.”  Why bother to see the violence in the haze when there’s a funny cartoon dancing right in front of you?  Isn’t that far more entertaining? 

It’s when the man shoots the quoir with the AK-47 that the video seems to take the turn that it does.  Gambino appears through a door and dances to the quoit singing the lines:

Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, tell somebody

EverlastingKindheartedGiraffe-max-1mbYou gon’ tell somebody

Grandma told me
Get your money, Black man (get your money)
Get your money, Black man (get your money)
Get your money, Black man (get your—Black man)
Get your money, Black man (get your—Black man)
Black man

And at once Gambino produces the rifle and guns the choir down.  It’s a quick act, not drawn and not dramatized.  In fact if you blink you’ll almost miss it.  The gun fires and the bodies drop and once again Gambino declares This is America.  The dramatic quickness of the act, and the way it changes the tone of the music instantly the reader is left wondering what the fuck just happened.xoFCtzg

I’m not the only blogger who has commented on the dramatic violence of This is America, in fact the internet seems to have become, since the video dropped, just one long discourse about what the violence means, what the popularity of the film suggests, and whether or not Gambino was right to even create it.  In the face of all this discourse I run the risk of becoming just another voice in the white haze, and in fact I probably will.  What more can be said when so much has been said?  As per usual I turn my focus back to myself and see what the video means for me, or what I focus on and that in fact is not the violence but the very end of the film.

Gambino is seen running through the warehouse in the dark and Young Thug, one of the collaborators for the song begins singing gently:

You just a black man in this world
You just a barcode, ayyThis is America
You just a black man in this world
Drivin’ expensive foreigns, ayy

You just a big dawg, yeah
I kenneled him in the backyard
No probably ain’t life to a dog
For a big dog

As throughout the film Gambino reveals a real vulnerability, specifically his body.  He’s a black man being chased through the dark by white shadows as the world declares that he’s just a barcode.

It’s not violent like the early scenes.  There’s no cop cars burning.  There’s no acts of random violence.  Instead there is just the vulnerability of the man’s body, and the look of terror in his eyes as he has to flee.  It’s clear if they catch him they’ll destroy his body, and on some level it’s implied that the destruction will take more than that.  Over the course of the video Gambino has tried to make his body into something more.  A black man’s body is something painfully relevant and important because it’s something that’s vulnerable; it’s something than can be destroyed or stolen or appropriated.

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks about this in his usual magnificent way in his book Between the World and Me when he address his young son:download1

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.  Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest.  And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random mangling, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape.  It must be rape so regular as to be industrial.  There is no uplifting way to say this.  I have no pride anthems, nor old Negro Spirituals.  The spirit and soul are the body and the brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious.  And the soul did not escape.  The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings.  The soul and body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden.  And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stove wood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.

It had to be blood.  (103-4).

Many people online have pointed out the symbolism of almost every aspect of the video.  Whether it’s the references to Minstrel shows, the implication of viral violence, the ignoring of violence that is all too apparent, the references to actual gin violence in america, of the references to the “sunken-place” from Get Out,  This is America this-is-america-2promises so much opportunity to explore violence and the problems facing the black body in American Society.

I’ve watched This is America at least ten times, and each time I see more and more of this symbolism, but more and more all I can really observe is the vulnerability on display.  The body is something that is exposed to all of this violence, and while Gambino manages to escape this destruction around him, the implication at the end is that no one is truly free from it.

Which of course brings me to XXX and DAMN.

There was an ambition that really was a dream in the early years of my training as a writer.  I wanted to win a Pulitzer.  The writers I admired had won that award:damn-kendrick-lamarHemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner.  And so my young brain interpreted the winning of that award not as something that meant one had really said something with their art but just a real recognition that your art was legitimate and culturally recognized.  I’ve since abandoned the ambition that I will ever win a Pulitzer because I’m a realist and some dude with a blog, but I still follow the award and it’s winners because the books that win it do tend to say something significant about the culture and the zeitgeist.  It was too my great joy when I heard that Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN had won the award because I love the song XXX.

DAMN is an album I downloaded as soon as the library bought a copy and I’ve inhaled it ever since.  It’s not just that it’s unlike any rap album I’ve bought to date, it’s just a truly exceptional album for the way that it feels of it’s time and place while also making something that will last as a true cultural document.  DAMN is the first rap album ever to win the P{ulitzer and listening to XXX it’s not too difficult to understand why.  The song digs into the problems of gun violence in the United States, while also digging into Lamar’s self.

He sets up the story as a friend informs of the death of his son:

Yesterday I got a call like from my dog like 101

Said they killed his only son because of insufficient funds

He was sobbin’, he was mobbin’, way belligerent and drunk

Talkin’ out his head, philosphin’ on what the Lord had done

He said: “K-Dot, can you pray for me?KLamar Live

It’s been a fucked up day for me

I know that you anointed, show me how to overcome.”

He was lookin’ for some closure

Hopin’ I could bring him closer

To the spiritual, my spirit do no better, but I told him

“I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:

If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”

Tell me what you do for love, loyalty, and passion of

All the memories collected, moments you could never touch

And after Bono sings his haunting chorus that feels like something out of a Jazz-roomCelly This is Americabar, Kendrick continues reflecting his pain outward and trying to understand it in the larger cultural context:

Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph

The great American flag

Is wrapped and dragged with explosives

Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters

Barricaded blocks and borders

Look what you taught us!

It’s murder on my street, your street, back streets

Wall Street, corporate offices

Banks, employees, and bosses with

Homicidal thoughts; Donald Trump’s in office

We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again

K Lamarr Live 2But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?

Pass the gin, I mix it with American blood

Then bash him in, you Crippin’ or you married to blood?

I’ll ask again-oops-accident

It’s nasty when you set us up

Then roll the dice, then bet us up

You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us

Gang members or terrorists, et cetera, et cetera

America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does
I can never understand fully the realities of being a black man, and the trials and pain and cultural weight that comes with it.  I’ve observed this repeatedly here on this siteCG Danceand in these essays, and while it feels repetitive to keep acknowledging my whiteness I do not believe that the sentiment loses any of its significance.  I am not a black a man, I am a white man who lives in a state of real privilege.  It’s not just that I’ve had economic advantages that have helped me live a comfortable life, I’ve also had educational advantages, and the privilege of living in a world that wasn’t plagued by violence.  I had the privilege to grow up not having to worry about what people thought about my body, or at least in a way where I didn’t have to worry about whether my body was perceived as a threat.  

Privilege as a word has fallen into a precarious position because there is so much debate about what the word actually is.  Privilege is not about absence of pain, misfortune, or absolvence.  Privilege is only and ever the reality in which an individual has some advantage that others do not.  The time and space to write these essays is a privilege, one that many people in this world would love to have.  The ability to not have to worrythe-undefeated-gif-sourceabout how one is going to get to work is a privilege.  The freedom to not have to worry about finding money for a child’s school payments is a privilege.  And now having to worry about whether your body is going to be objectified in positive or negative ways is a privilege.

That reality, living that reality, is a privilege.  This is America and DAMN shook me because they both reveal how much of a privilege that reality is.

Looking at myself in relation to these cultural events is the best way I have to write something that feels relevant about them.  Rather than just observing the symbolism contained therein, these are works of art and therefore it’s vital to understand theirThis-is-America-Donald-Glover-4relevance to the self.  What kind of man am I if I observe that there’s gun violence in my country and leave the observation at that?  What kind of citizen am I if I ignore the very real threat of violence against a portion of the population simply for the sake of my own comfort?  Art, when it is created with a concern for aesthetic and message can impact human beings in incredible ways.  Every time I watch This is America I have to wonder how much I agree?

The death of the choir is so dramatic and spontaneous.  The people didn’t even see it coming because the person who performed the act was someone right by them, dancing along to the music.  And in a moment their lives were gone.  It’s a disturbing, almost absurd reality that’s easy to dismiss as just a video.  But all too quickly the reader can check their phone or laptop and be reminded that such events have unfortunately become rather common.

The man dances on, the world burns behind him, and we all miss the violence for death riding by with a police escort.




*Writer’s Note*

All quotes cited from This is America came from genius.com.  All quotes cited from XXX were sourced from azlyricks.com.


**Writer’s Note**

This video is too important to miss.  If the reader hasn’t seen it yet take the time to watch it.



***Writer’s Notes***

I’ve also included some links to articles about This is America and Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer win.