Shock and awe: Is Childish Gambino's This is America video art or simply commercial provocation?

Extreme shock tactic or poetic licence? Childish Gambino debuted This is America over the weekend, but the provocative music video has already ignited fierce debate and divided audiences.

New music video has already ignited fierce debate and divided audiences

Childish Gambino, the musical alter ego of performer Donald Glover, is causing controversy with the music video for his new track This is America. (Childish Gambino/YouTube)

Extreme shock tactic or poetic licence? Childish Gambino debuted the video for his new single This is America over the weekend, but the provocative music video has already ignited fierce debate and divided audiences.

The video is challenging, to say the least.

The four-minute barrage is jam-packed with layers of aural and visual references and cues, from African music and dances to American minstrel shows. It coalesces into a thought-provoking and uncomfortable critique about the U.S. today, touching upon police brutality, mass shootings, the nation's veneration of guns, entertainment as distraction and apathy toward violence against black Americans.

The video juxtaposes an often grinning Childish Gambino dancing joyfully with flashes of shocking violence, including showing him shoot a hooded black man in the head and gunning down a gospel choir.

WARNING: Video contains graphic material

"What he's telling us is that we are soothed and placated by African-American entertainment, while at the same time turning a blind eye to African-American life," said Mark Campbell, an adjunct professor at Ryerson University's RTA School of Media.

Praise and criticism

Many instantly praisedThis is America as a brilliant example of the music video as activist art. Conversely, the Grammy-winning Childish Gambino — the musical persona of actor, writer and director Donald Glover, creator of TV's acclaimed comedy-drama Atlanta — is also being criticized for appropriating the horrific pain and suffering of others.

Campbell broke down the densely layered video with his students, many of whom were shocked by it, in class on Monday. Though he says he understands Glover's intention, Campbell has a problem with how the performer made this artistic statement — and isn't willing to let him off the hook for it.

"It looks beautiful and it's stimulating and it's causing a conversation, but I'm absolutely sure that we don't need to see the mass murder of black lives go viral," Campbell told CBC News.

Mark Campbell is an adjunct professor with Ryerson's RTA School of Media. (CBC)

Though not opposed to a music video serving as a political statement (Public Enemy did it with Fight the Power back in 1990, he noted), it is This is America's "disregard of black life … utilizing black life as a way to get more views and celebrating black death" that Campbell has a problem with.

"It really just reifies and reinforces some people's disregard of the life of black people."

The video is sort of like a surrealist exploration of his own fears as a black man.- Peter Huang, Canada music video director

That the 34-year-old Glover is no newcomer to show business — the New York University alum got his start at 23 writing for Tina Fey's 30 Rock — and is familiar with the media cycle wasn't lost on Campbell. He noted that This is America was released online Saturday evening, just as Glover was hosting and performing on Saturday Night Live, with the performer's upcoming turn in Solo: A Star Wars Story hitting theatres later this month.

"It's well-planned. There's clearly a marketing strategy there and part of that strategy is to employ black pain in order to get more views and get attention."

The art of the music video

There's no doubt that This is America has arrived at the right time, says Peter Huang, but the Canadian music video director feels it's for a different reason altogether.

Glover unveiled his video, directed by regular Atlanta collaborator Hiro Murai, at a moment when the world is aghast at gun violence in the U.S. and the nation's sheer number of shootings "and I think finally someone's been able to express it poetically — in a really, really shocking way."

The video has "hit a nerve," Canadian music director Peter Huang says. (Childish Gambino/YouTube)

In This is America, Glover "takes everything that we see in the news and all the images that we're aware of, and then puts it into a poetic form," Huang said.

"The video is sort of like a surrealist exploration of his own fears as a black man."

It's an exciting time for music videos, which are having a renaissance thanks to YouTube, according to Huang.

Videos are once again a cultural driver for a new generation — especially one obsessed with visuals and highly engaged with social and political issues, said the Toronto-based director and finalist for Canada's Prism Prize for the year's best music video. Huang is nominated for helming the video (as well as a short film) for Gatekeeper, the powerful track by rising star Jessie Reyez about being propositioned by a music mogul seeking to trade sex for a career boost.

Huang is seen directing the music video for the Jessie Reyez track Gatekeeper. (Submitted by Peter Huang)

"Because of Instagram, because of Facebook … every artist does need a video," he noted. "Everyone wants to know who the artist is."

A song that's very good can be elevated by an excellent video, Huang continued, adding that he's not sure This is America would have made as big an impact without its provocative visual accompaniment.

"The video really puts it to the next level," he said.

"[Glover has] kind of hit a nerve. It's a total cultural nerve."

With files from Eli Glasner and Nigel Hunt.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.