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'This Is America' — How Musicians Add Perspective To Social Issues

Childish Gambino's music video for "This Is America" offers perspectives, not solutions, for gun violence.
Posted at 1:27 PM, May 14, 2018

Childish Gambino's new music video for "This Is America" got a lot of attention this week — and largely because of its portrayal of gun violence and racism in the U.S.

Fans interpreted one moment in the music video as a reference to the 2015 Charleston church shooting. Another fan interpreted another scene as referencing the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

We could go on about the other references and layers in the music video, especially since the artist is no stranger to nuance. Many people have praised Childish Gambino for shining a harsh light on violence in America, but in the aftermath of more gun-related tragedies, he isn't alone.

Kendrick Lamar's "XXX," featured on the rapper's Pulitzer Prize-winning album "DAMN," mourns the death of a child killed as a result of systemic racism. Lamar's verses touch on the hypocrisy of being singled out as a "gang member" or "terrorist," even though some say violence is ingrained in American culture.

Outside of the hip-hop community, the topic of gun violence was also notably addressed by indie-pop band Foster the People. Their 2011 song "Pumped Up Kicks" touched on mental illness, gun violence and school safety. Those topics hit close to home for one of the band members, whose cousin was present during the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School.

Like "Pumped Up Kicks," moments of Childish Gambino's "This Is America" sound upbeat and uplifting. Those morsels are interspersed with the rougher motifs of trap music and almost distract from the violence of the music video.

This sense of duality inspired Wired magazine to call "This Is America" a new form of protest music. It doesn't galvanize listeners or offer any solutions to gun violence or racism — but it does portray ignorance or acceptance of the issues as futile.

Going forward, it's not clear how Childish Gambino wants his fans to respond to the issues portrayed on screen. But one writer might have a suggestion.

In response to Kendrick Lamar's 2012 album "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City," which also touched on gun violence and racism, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that lawmakers needed to listen to it — not for solutions, but for perspective.