Sociology in Song

ON CHILDISH GAMBINO’S THIS IS AMERICA

One of my favorite topics in history and sociology is the role of music in social movements, activism, and change. Most of this comes from my interest in the 1960’s social and political movements and their corresponding soundtracks. The sixties, however, was not the beginning and the end of socially conscious music. Music has always been a means of giving voice to the human condition, the joys, and the ills. Marginalized and oppressed groups all over the world use music as a source of unity, learning, and resistance.  The quest for social justice can be heard in folk traditions in any culture facing oppression. In the United States, this call to justice often overlaps with race

So I would be remiss if I didn’t offer at least some comment on Childish Gambino’s (Donald Glover) This is America. Of course, I also don’t want to be a lost voice in the crowd. There is already a great deal of fine analysis and commentary on this song and its corresponding video. I don’t want to get caught up in the buzz.

That being said, I feel obligated to say something. One of my great disappointments about contemporary society is in the dearth of protest songs or socially conscious music. It seems there are a great many songs out there, especially from the ladies, about self-empowerment, but few examinations of the social context within which one must negotiate that empowerment.  This is baffling to me as there is so much to sing about.

Of course, this could be a matter of standpoint. As much as I don’t believe it, the truth is, I’m an old guy. I have no problem with that, but sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m no longer privy to the hidden world of young folks. I don’t really listen to popular music on the radio, and, frankly, young people aren’t really listening to the radio so much as they are downloading music and plugging it directly into their heads. Hey, I have my playlist in the cloud because I’m that hip (which is probably no longer a thing), but it’s old guy music.

Also, there may be a great deal out there in genres that I really don’t listen to. Frankly, if This is America wasn’t “trending” to such an unavoidable extent, I probably would never have clicked on this video.

Regardless, I found myself watching and rewatching the video. Videos in which the story is being told in the background is clever marketing as well as symbolic. I was overwhelmed by the brilliance, brutality, and breadth of the commentary. In the foreground, Bino (Yeah, I know) performs some combination of traditional African folk dancing morphing into and out of minstrelsy. He’s showing the interplay between African cultural expression and oppression. This is an interplay of Dubois observation that the representations of oppressed groups are controlled, in this case twisted, by the oppressor. Furthermore, this interplay in the video was fairly seamless. I’m not a dance expert. I knew the minstrelsy was there but found it difficult to pinpoint where the genuine traditional expressions ended and the oppressive representations began.

But as anyone can see from the video, there’s more to controlling the representations of the oppressed. The representations are embraced by the oppressed as they dance and smile and sometimes kill with no affect and no discontinuity of the foreground routine. Meanwhile, all hell is breaking loose in the background, from obvious symbols of Death riding his pale horse to police brutality, to rioting to suicide to cell phone distraction.

Now I’m not going to rehash the acute details of what’s going on in the background. That has already been adequately covered by better-informed analysts than I. I’m interested in the interplay of representations in the video. On one hand, the dance may be a distraction from the violence and horror in the background. On the other hand, it may be a rejection, a means of finding solace within a violent, chaotic environment. Finally, the dancing may be an integral part of the violence as the central character guns down a hostage while striking a Jim Crow/Thomas Rice pose and then machine guns a choir reminiscent of the Charleston Church Shooting. He then passes the guns on and continues dancing. Just as with representations of the oppressed, there are multiple layers.

Furthermore, something that I see lacking in the multiple analyses of the video, is a good look at the lyrics.

[Intro: Choir]
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah, go, go away
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah, go, go away
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah, go, go away
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah, go, go away

[Bridge: Childish Gambino & Young Thug]
We just wanna party
Party just for you
We just want the money
Money just for you
I know you wanna party
Party just for me
Girl, you got me dancin’ (yeah, girl, you got me dancin’)
Dance and shake the frame
We just wanna party (yeah)
Party just for you (yeah)
We just want the money (yeah)
Money just for you (you)
I know you wanna party (yeah)
Party just for me (yeah)
Girl, you got me dancin’ (yeah, girl, you got me dancin’)
Dance and shake the frame (you)

[Chorus: Childish Gambino]
This is America
Don’t catch you slippin’ up
Don’t catch you slippin’ up
Look what I’m whippin’ up
This is America (woo)
Don’t catch you slippin’ up
Don’t catch you slippin’ up
Look what I’m whippin’ up

[Verse 1: Childish Gambino, Blocboy JB, Slim Jxmmi, Young Thug, & 21 Savage]
This is America (skrrt, skrrt, woo)
Don’t catch you slippin’ up (ayy)
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
Yeah, yeah, I’ma go into this (ugh)
Yeah, yeah, this is guerilla (woo)
Yeah, yeah, I’ma go get the bag
Yeah, yeah, or I’ma get the pad
Yeah, yeah, I’m so cold like yeah (yeah)
I’m so dope like yeah (woo)
We gon’ blow like yeah (straight up, uh)

[Refrain: Choir & Childish Gambino]
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, tell somebody
You go 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

[Chorus: Childish Gambino, Slim Jxmmi, & Young Thug]
This is America (woo, ayy)
Don’t catch you slippin’ up (woo, woo, don’t catch you slippin’, now)
Don’t catch you slippin’ up (ayy, woah)
Look what I’m whippin’ up (Slime!)
This is America (yeah, yeah)
Don’t catch you slippin’ up (woah, ayy)
Don’t catch you slippin’ up (ayy, woo)
Look what I’m whippin’ up (ayy)

[Verse 2: Childish Gambino, Quavo, Young Thug, & 21 Savage]
Look how I’m geekin’ out (hey)
I’m so fitted (I’m so fitted, woo)
I’m on Gucci (I’m on Gucci)
I’m so pretty (yeah, yeah)
I’m gon’ get it (ayy, I’m gon’ get it)
Watch me move (blaow)
This a celly (ha)
That’s a tool (yeah)
On my Kodak (woo, Black)
Ooh, know that (yeah, know that, hold on)
Get it (get it, get it)
Ooh, work it (21)
Hunnid bands, hunnid bands, hunnid bands (hunnid bands)
Contraband, contraband, contraband (contraband)
I got the plug on Oaxaca (woah)
They gonna find you that blocka (blaow)

[Refrain: Choir, Childish Gambino, & Young Thug]
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, tell somebody
America, I just checked my following list and
You go tell somebody
You mothafuckas owe me
Grandma told me
Get your money, Black man (Black man)
Get your money, Black man (Black man)
Get your money, Black man (get your, Black man)
Get your money, Black man (get your, Black man)
Black man
One, two, get down
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, tell somebody
You go tell somebody
Grandma told me, “Get your money”
Get your money, Black man (Black man)
Get your money, Black man (Black man)
Get your money, Black man (Black man)
Get your money, Black man (Black man)
Black man

[Outro: Young Thug]
You just a Black man in this world
You just a barcode, ayy
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

Like the video, the lyrics start off like any other popular hip-hop song with traditionalist pretensions, talking about partying and girls and money. Bino then switches tack while the background activities start by saying, “this is America. Don’t catch you slippin’ up.” The next stanza relates to violence in black communities. He mentions having strap and having to “carry ’em.” Then, just as one is inclined to take him seriously, he shifts again into what seems to me to be a take on standard rap braggadocio, talking about how “dope” he is. So what’s going on in the community isn’t all that important because–look at me. I’m cold and dope, equating these two qualities. He continues in this way throughout the song, counterposing social commentary with self-absorption.

The artist makes further commentary about capitalism. “Grandma told me, get your money, black man.” Grandma told you? Grandma is supposed to be a wellspring of love and support and aged wisdom. She told you to get your money?

So we have an interesting sociological critique incorporating oppressive and resistant representations being commodified and atomized within a culture that emphasizes individualism and self-absorption bound by consumerism. Art, culture, tradition, spirituality, community, all of these things are expendable and victimized. Furthermore, this destruction of fundamental human values is perpetuated nonchalantly, as if it doesn’t even matter. We just wanna party.

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