THERE’S A SORT OF BUGS BUNNY SWAG to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” that I like, and that feels intentional, as confirmed by Hiro Murai, the director of “This Is America” and FX’s Atlanta, in a New York Times interview on the music video: “[T]here’s a part of it that also feels cartoony. There’s ‘Looney Tunes’ logic in there somewhere.”
For a song titled “This Is America,” this makes complete sense: Looney Tunes logic is the prevailing logic of American pop culture. Consider: the American possibility of self-invention and -reinvention, promised by Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and the AMC TV show Mad Men, celebrated in the perceived disconnect between Bruce and Caitlyn Jenner, caricaturized by Bugs Bunny throwing on a dress to sexually distract his predators/victims. In American pop culture, as in cartoons, self-identity is negotiable, and, thus, so is self-responsibility. This is all partially thanks to America’s reverence for the trickster, an archetypal boundary-blurring figure whose American roots begin with the slave-era collision between Africans and Europeans. Since coming to America, this trickster archetype has taken many pop cultural forms — from African-American folklore, the origins of American pop culture, to Muhammad Ali, whose hypnotic butterfly-dance distracted his opponents from his bee-like stinger, to Childish Gambino in “This is America.”
With lines like “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” Muhammad Ali was as much a hip-hop pioneer as he was an athlete. And like Ali, much of hip-hop throughout the past three decades has similarly meshed the butterfly-beauty of song and dance with the raw, brutal honesty of a punch to the face — or, in the case of late-80’s gangsta rap, of a loaded 12-gauge, as featured in this passage from Eazy-E’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood”:
The boy JB was a friend of mine
Til I caught him in my car tryin’ to steal my Alpine
Chased him up the street to call a truce
The silly cluckhead pulls out a deuce-deuce
Little did he know I had a loaded 12-gauge
One sucker dead, LA Times front page
In only so many words, Eazy-E tells a story of betrayal, violence, and death, but in a lyrically fast, fun, celebratory way, denoting an almost farcical distance between actor and action — the disassociative state of the American trickster. What’s more, the song’s uplifting harmony tricks us into dancing along to a song that fictionally imagines a murder that truthfully reflects the non-imaginary, tragic, everday violence of Compton, L.A., the home of Eric Lynn Wright — Eazy-E’s real name. Through the performative ritual of music, Eric Wright dons the mask of Eazy-E in “Boyz-N-The-Hood” to sublimate violence into art, permitting us to appease our animal cravings for violence through, let’s call it, “art appreciation.” While bumping to “Boyz-N-The-Hood,” we are complicit in the past and future crimes of Compton and abroad. As a result, the relationship between cause and effect deteriorates, along with our cleanly demarcated categories of rightdoers and wrongdoers.
In the warehouse-trapped setting of “This Is America,” any sense of real-world cause-and-effect morality also ceases to exist. The Newtonian structures of reality dissolve to the frenetic fluidity of the amoral trickster, as something akin to dream logic supersedes. In this surrealist dreamscape, Donald Glover gives way to his musical alter-ego Childish Gambino, who, with all rhyme and no reason, goes on a killing spree, leaving his witnesses dancing in his wake — including us.
But why? This is what many want to know, but it’s the wrong question.
The trickster only ever asks, Why not?
To seek the answer to this question requires us to consider the looseness of the legal and moral codes we previously took for granted. By asking “Why not?” the trickster propels us to justify our reasoning with pre-established rules and interpretations, thereby forcing us to consciously reconsider the contextual framework of everything we think of as “right” and “wrong,” and, if he’s committed to the trick, the trickster provides no substitute answers.
In “This Is America,” it’s the Christian American values pertaining to individuality and personal liberty that are called into question. The gun, an American symbol of self-security, is used to senselessly mow down a church choir. The car, an American symbol of freedom and mobility, sits immobile, burning by its own gasoline. What’s good commits evil. What’s evil feels good. Moral certainty wavers and the lines between good and evil cease to exist, if ever they did. By both crossing and blurring those lines, “This Is America” seems to actually be saying, “This Is America, too.”
Again, the point isn’t ever Why? but always Why not? — it’s the laughing nihilist’s response to anything and everything, a question that challenges the structures of civilization, that seeks to reveal the inner animal that’s always lurking beneath the suit and tie. Why not? seeks the truth underlying the facts. Even in interviews, Donald Glover has refused to provide an official explanation of the music video’s “meaning,” sustaining the trick.
To seek the answer is the answer itself, as to reconsider order is to open the door to chaos, where we see a sicklier version of humanity smiling and dancing to senseless murder and destruction — and thoroughly enjoying it. Of course, we, too, are dancing to the song, despite the problems of our immediate environments. To realize this is to realize that, no, the door opens not to the other side but to a mirror. This side is the other side, where we’ve been all along. That’s the trick, and it’s a pretty funny one, really.
But how did we get here?
KARA WALKER IS AN AMERICAN PAINTER AND SILHOUETTIST, whose work often depicts the nightmarish, humiliating lives of plantation slaves in ironically refined artistic formats — e.g., the silhouette, which is typically used for family portraits. Kara Walker’s artistic, postmodern charm works by this bluesy irony: the depiction of tragedy via aesthetically pleasing formats. This juxtaposition of sorrow with smiles is the nature of the blues, which, by no coincidence, traces its origins to slave-era America and threads a historical path through various pop cultural (r)evolutions — from Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” to Kara Walker’s silhouettes to, yes, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”.
Part of Kara Walker’s style includes drawing attention to African-American folklore of pre-Civil War South, which perhaps explains Walker’s tonally tricky art-style. Embedded in slave folklore is the American trickster, a mixed product of the Western ideal of individualism and the African trickster character Esu-Elegbara (referred to by African-American scholars as the “Signifyin’ Monkey”). As American historian Peter Kolchin noted in his book American Slavery: 1619-1877:
Notably absent from Southern slave folklore are stories depicting heroic behavior — stories of dragon slayers, popular liberators, or people who sacrificed themselves for the good of the whole. Rather, the dominant themes are trickery, subterfuge, and securing as much as possible of a desired item (often food) for oneself. Justice, fair play, and compassion for one’s rivals rarely emerge as desirable characteristics. In short, surviving in a heartless world assumes overriding importance.
In other words, there’s more Joker than Batman in Southern slave folklore, considering that the chaotic (read: barrier-breaking) elements of the trickster were seen as more liberating than the organizing principles (read: barrier-building) of the martyr, who, if anything, made the slave passive to undue suffering. In more practical terms, the slave’s survival-dependent reverence for the trickster manifested in a duplicitously encoded language spoken among slave-owners that survives today in the duplicitous wordplay of hip hop.It’s for this reason that I view political correctness, or any form of language policing, within hip hop culture as nothing short of cultural suicide. Key to the trickster’s dialect is treating vileness and vulgarity as a coded expression of playful banter or even endearment, like (here’s a mild example) calling your close friends your “bitches.” To show offense at the vileness of the expression, which is to take the expression strictly at face value, is to reveal yourself as a moron and, even worse, a sucker. Consider: the “bad bitch” whose badness is actually good, and whose goodness is located by the Ying Yang Twins in having a “cute face, slim waist wit a big behind” in the song “Bad Bitch.”
In studies on American pop culture, this double-meaning goes by the name of “signifyin,” which follows that the meaning of a word may not always be confined to a dictionary definition. In other words, meaning can go beyond interpretation. And often times, this layered abundance of meaning can render a “signifier” seemingly meaningless, or pointless, in its presentation, as demonstrated by this intro story passage on the signifyin trickster himself, the Signifying Monkey:
Deep down in the jungle so they say
There’s a signifying motherfucker down the way.
There hadn’t been no disturbin’ in the jungle for quite a bit,
For up jumped the monkey in the tree one day and laughed,
“I guess I’ll start some shit.”
In his book The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, American literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. places the signifying tradition at the crossroads between two linguistically divided cultures, such as “the black vernacular and standard English.” This makes signifyin’ a language of synthesis in the context of division — an evolving, give-take, push-pull linguistic hybrid, as evidenced by early American jazz (European instruments over an African beat), Kara Walker’s art (African iconography to a Western art-style), and Eminem (white rapper). Signifyin is the trickster language of American pop culture, of Bugs Bunny and Childish Gambino, that says what it doesn’t say and doesn’t say what it says. Depending on which side of the linguistic crossroad you’re standing, the meaning of what’s said, or signified, may mean something else entirely. Or nothing at all.
EXCURSUS: “For Free? – Interlude” by Kendrick Lamar
In “For Free?” Kendrick Lamar isn’t quite the terpsichorean trickster played by Childish Gambino in “This Is America.” But he hits many of the same jarring Looney Tune notes — and then some — as he cartoonishly breaks physical and spatial continuity, swiftly role-shifting from tormented (by the gold-digging hoochie/America) to tormenter (almost horrifically, as in the style of a horror movie, by the music video’s basement scene) solely via rhythmic, musical energy. The song’s reiterated phrase “This dick ain’t free!” typifies the tense duality of hip hop language, playing on the double meaning of “free” — i.e., one interpretation sees Kendrick Lamar powerfully refusing to work without payment (“This dick ain’t free, so pay up MF.”), while another definition of “free” positions Kendrick Lamar’s “dick” as captive — enslaved. His dick ain’t free. Musically, “For Free?” is the most impressive, most authentic adherent to Afro-America’s hip, bluesy roots in recent years, on par with Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” and Eazy-E’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood”.
But while the meaningfully overloaded language of signifyin’ comes across ostensibly pointless, there is a spiritual reward to its use.
For the signifyin’ trickster, to revel in catastrophe is to transcend, and even transmogrify, his culture’s misfortune into something tolerable — and for others: into something sorrowfully beautiful. Enlightening even — but only to those who catch the double-meaning.
WE ARE THE TRUE BACKGROUND DANCERS IN “THIS IS AMERICA.” As The Atlantic‘s “Why the Dancing Makes ‘This Is America’ So Uncomfortable to Watch” points out, the music video’s background dancers aren’t the only ones swayed by Gambino’s moves; it has us dancing as well, confusingly subverting our body’s instinctual empathy with communal dance, despite the onscreen violence. Childish Gambino shoots a man in the head execution-style, and what do we do? Dance. And why? Because Gambino’s dancing. Never mind the intentionally blurred mayhem in the video’s background; the video’s focus, as well as ours, remains centered on Gambino throughout the song and dance. That’s the mesmerizing charm of song and dance, two of the trickster’s favorite tools — the implications of which reveal a complicated, seamy underside to human empathy.Or at least kinesthetic empathy, which is “the ability to experience empathy merely by observing the movements of another human being.” (Definition via Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices , edited by Dee Reynolds & Matthew Reason.)
The trickster’s double personality — Donald Glover and Childish Gambino — creates a measurable distance between actor and action, wherein the trick’s meaning flourishes. When Gambino says “This Is America,” he’s cynically mocking American values as hypocritical and human life as worthless and dispensable. But when you squint and see Donald Glover, the actor behind Childish Gambino, instead, the phrase “This Is America” transcends the music video. “This” not only includes the music video’s content but the entire music video construct as well, as visually noted in the music video’s rounded TV-style corners, a postmodern framework that turns the music video into a comment on music videos. When Donald Glover says “This Is America,” both the content and context of the music video are reconciled by “This,” goading the audience to be more aware and skeptical of what they’re viewing, at least more so than the dancing followers who seem unperturbed by their leader’s apparent murder-suicide agenda. When you observe the distance between the man and the mask, the music video’s dancing becomes not only nihilistically fun but meaningfully tragic. Childish Gambino laughs, Donald Glover cries.
As a result, the multivalent ironies to Donald Glover’s/Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” not only make for rewardingly complex art but something much more transcendentally self-aware than most successful postmodern pop productions of late. As American pop culture continues moving away from postmodernism, I’d say “This Is America” potentially marks an important crossover into the post-postmodern zeitgeist; however tiring and dumb these “post-” labels are becoming. By way of comparison, consider Beyoncé’s “Formation” and accompanying music video. In 2016, Rolling Stones praised “Formation” for its #BlackLivesMatter spirit and deemed it “a powerful statement of black Southern resilience.” Yet, when you move past this selling point, what the music video essentially grounds down to is a self-praising Beyoncé dance anthem, transforming a Hurricane Katrina-affected New Orleans into a model photo shoot and exploiting black/female empowerment as a proxy for Beyoncé empowerment — e.g., compare the morally complex slayings of “This Is America” to this Beyoncé line: “I’m a star, I’m a star / ‘Cause I slay, slay.” Similar to Kara Walker, Beyoncé repurposes traditionally white concepts of fashion and beauty to favor an Afro-American perspective, imbuing her aesthetic with a vandal punk disregard for the corrupted established order. That’s pretty fucking cool. Yet, the effort reeks of the same cynical, brand-focused detachment from genuinely expressive art that made cynically self-aware postmodernism so popular and necessary in the first place. Beyoncé’s flexing carries no meta-layered irony. No hip enlightenment. It’s a pleasant sugar rush for a community that’s tired of eating shit. Which is all fine: “Formation” is still a fun song. And the image of a powerful, self-respecting woman independently lifting herself up amid urban carnage is inspirational. But it’s capitalizing on this inspirational image in support of the “Queen Bey” brand, not the community she claims to represent. This self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing performance is exactly what “This Is America” calls into question — i.e., it isn’t hard to imagine the dancing youth in “This Is America” listening to “Formation” in their earphones, distracted by the illusion of Bey’s material grandiosity, as the world around them falls apart.
Yet, it’s not Bey and other hip-hop artists that are the subject of scrutiny in “This Is America” but rather us, the viewers. That D.G./C.G. inspired you to dance is only the bait. The trick is the illusion that we’re watching a performance only to realize we are, ultimately, watching ourselves. Now you see yourself and your complicity in this fast, frenetic, Looney Tunes world. This is what it means to be truly “woke,” or enlightened. Or, as our grandfathers called it, “hip.”
It’s worth noting here the etymology of the American word “hip,” which originates from hepicat, a word in west Africa’s Wolof language that means “the one who sees.” Rooted in slave-era American folklore, the American trickster, or hipster, is the one who sees the institutions of our culture both inside and out, over and under; and, as a liberator, as a breaker of borders and established order, he tricks us into seeing as well. Except, of course, not everyone wants to see, to be liberated, because to see is to see yourself — and to see yourself is to realize that, perhaps, you’re not the you you thought you were. The self you perceived is only your mask. By exposing the American possibility of self-reinvention as a mere changing of masks, the hip-trickster reveals that what we think of as the “self” is just that: a mask — an artifice that, though artificial and, thus, should not be taken so seriously, is also a necessary microphone for our true selves to be heard, just as Eazy-E needed the comedic mask of “Boyz-N-The-Hood” to speak the tragic truths of Compton, L.A to the world. Just as Donald Glover needs Childish Gambino to reveal the true America.
Just as you need your digital avatars.
The music, the violence, the dance — “This Is America” is pure signification. If you take the mask at face value, you lose. You miss out on the truths lurking within and without the music video’s artifice. And the significance of that gets pretty complicated, convoluted, and, yes, even contradictory.
But don’t dwell on all that too long. This is America, but, at the end of the day, it’s only just America.