I’m going to go a little off the writing topic here. Last week a really interesting piece of art entered my consciousness, and I feel compelled to comment.
Last weekend, I watched Donald Glover host Saturday Night Live. As usual, I fell asleep long before the second song performance by Childish Gambino. The next day, everybody was talking about the video of This is America – the song from that second performance.
In case you haven’t seen it… (warning – some graphic violence)
If you feel a bit overwhelmed, you will probably want to watch it again at some point. There’s a lot to see.
I’ve read several interpretations, and you will likely have your own, which is only right when it comes to art. Some say that Childish Gambino is portraying America. He is showing how entertainment can distract from the chaos going on behind him. His jerky dancing is a reference to the contorted images from Jim Crow and black face.
I have a slightly different interpretation. i acknowledge that the above interpretation may come straight from the artist, but everyone has a right to see it through their own lens. I see Childish Gambino as representing the black experience in America, not as America itself. His contorted movements and facial expressions show the contortions black American go through in trying to live safely in America. Smile. Fight back. Look tough. Look weak. Comply. Resist. Subvert. Submit. Most of all, don’t get caught slippin’ now. And his struggle, the drama it creates, entertainment in general, becomes a huge distraction from the chaos all around – chaos created by a culture focused on greed, where profits matter more than people. The culture of celebrity that tells us money, power, and fame are what matter. All around is chaos. Crime. Guns. Drugs. Violence. Hopelessness. But, don’t look at that. No! Look over here!
Black man, black man, get your money!
Because in today’s America, money is what matters. You want respect? Get your money. You want privilege? Get your money. You want access to government? Get your money. You want equality? (at least on the surface) Get your money.
You take it by any means necessary…
When I first aspired to work in Hollywood, I dreamed of telling stories. I longed to make people feel the emotions I felt when I watched a movie. It was so idealistic. While pursuing that goal, I was as happy as I’ve ever been. But once I moved into chasing the security of a steady job and paycheck, the idealism fell apart.
No longer was I engaged in the idea of bringing people together with shared stories and experiences. Instead, I was simply paying the bills and attempting to save up for retirement. Our show wasn’t making a difference. Or saving lives. Or doing anything remotely noble. Some people tried to make me feel better by telling me that giving someone a laugh after a long day, or some entertainment to lift their spirits was a noble profession. But we were telling tired jokes in recycled sketches, and trotting out a never ending cycle of the latest ‘it’ actor. We were telling America, “This is what is cool. This is what matters. This is what you should aspire too. If you aren’t this, you’re nothing.” I could see it was working when I looked at the ecstatic fans lining up to see the show, or the questions I got peppered with if I admitted what I did for a living. Nothing was funnier than being ignored during a flight by my seat mate because I was a fat, middle-aged white woman, only to suddenly become the most fascinating person on the earth when they made chit chat before deplaning and discovered what I did for a living.
My disillusionment became complete when I realized that more than anything, what I was doing with my job, was making rich people richer. Rich people, who didn’t necessarily deserve to be richer. Then telling America, those rich people are the only ones who really matter… the ones they should emulate. Talk about a soul in crisis.
Don’t get me wrong, I think entertainment is important. I still think stories can bring us together. I think art can bring us together. I just think today’s entertainment industry has been subverted by corporate Hollywood into a money-making machine that doesn’t care about the damage it is causing to the fabric of society. After all…
Get your money. Get your money.
(I truly hope that because a 53-year-old white woman admits to being a fan of this video, it doesn’t mean that all the cool kids will now flee Childish Gambino. It doesn’t mean he’s over. This is art so powerful that it breaks age and racial lines. This is an artist to pay attention to.)