The music video for This is America is shot in an empty warehouse, allowing for an extensive and chaotic background, though the movement of the camera focuses solely on Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) confidently maneuvering and dancing around the warehouse. These movements symbolize contemporary issues that require immediate attention, gun violence, media misdirection, and the pop-branding of African-Americans, all the while dancing as a Jim Crow-taylored caricature. Though we as viewers pay close attention to Gambino’s varied movements and dances, we are distracted from the horrors of what occurs in the background. Beatings, riots, police brutality, and retrogression quickly normalize, helping prove Gambino’s point about modern society: there are terrible acts violence that take place in our country, but citizens of America would rather be entertained by viral dance moves than give any attention to what is actually happening.
These analyses are all things that we discussed in our “This is America Lecture.” However, one very important aspect of the video and song that we neglected to approach is the constant ad-libs placed within the song. These ad-libs serve a larger purpose than one might think, as they bring the song together but also makes comment on the changing music climate in hip-hop, and what that means for rap as a social movement.
Gambino includes several “mumble rappers” to perform ad-libs throughout This is America. These were Young Thug, 21 Savage, Quavo, Slim Jxmmi, and, unsurprisingly, BlocBoy JB, who’s viral “Shoot” dance was performed in the music video. Mumble rap is a loosely defined microgenre of hip hop that largely spread on SoundCloud in the 2010s. Although the name implies mumbling, many rappers who have been labeled “mumble” rappers have criticized the term as they claim they do not actually mumble in their raps, and that it is used to degrade younger rappers. The term is often used as a disparaging attack towards rappers that put little emphasis on lyricism.
I think it would have been beneficial to discuss the meaning behind Glover’s choice to place these “mumble rappers” in his politically active song. Knowing Glover’s artistic credibility, one has to assume that this was intentional commentary on something. Humanities students, if we discussed this topic, could hold two different general perspectives. Firstly, one might see the inclusion of “mumble rappers” as a warning for hip-hop as a whole. Rap has a history for being political, critical of systems, and racially aware. With mumble rap in the forefront, a genre that tends to avoid politicism and social awareness, Glover might be suggesting that mumble rap is a distraction from our politicised world. Since Glover uses BlocBoy JB’s “Shoot” dance in the video, one could argue that its placement highlights the distraction from reality that mumble rappers provide, that mumble rap needs to go.
Humanities students could also take a different take on the inclusion of mumble rappers in this song. One might consider the idea that Gambino is trying to bridge “conscious rap” and “mumble rap” to make a powerful statement about the future of hip-hop: no hip-hop artists, including mumble rappers, will shy away from confronting the racial inequalities in America. The beat used for the song also resembles a typical mumble rap beat, yet another possible attempt to revolutionize the ethos of an entire musical community.
It would be up to the student to develop their own opinion on this overlooked part of Gambino’s political anthem. Since we focused an awful lot on the dance moves in the video, we forgot to acknowledge a subtle, but important aspect of the song and video.