This is America: The Beauty of Being Late

A crack at this “overnight cultural phenomenon.”

Alec Zaffiro
6 min readMay 16, 2018
Source: YouTube

Okay people, this new Childish Gambino song is not that big of a deal.

Music commentators were quick to decipher the vid — media up and ran with the whole thing, pretending to have never experienced visual symbolism or politically charged hip-hop records.

Yes, it’s a powerful song, but it’s not some nonpareil, miracle form of art.

Here, let me move the conversation forward and fill some gaps “outlets” may have missed. Then, I’ll get into why this specific piece of art blew up. Lastly, I’ll toss up my take on what “This is America” really means.


Song Sucks, Video is Everything

The song is nothing without the video. I mean it. I’ve caught whiff of a few music reviews attempting to dig at the song, i.e. the lyrics and production of the track.

It’s irrelevant.

Donald Glover is interested in film before anything else. Look him up. You’ll read the words actor, comedian, writer, director, and producer before any “rapper” or “songwriter” label.

He’s film-minded.

Ninety-percent of “This is America” is tied to the visual. It’s not a music video, rather a short film that happens to have music.

That said, would you ever rate a movie based off the soundtrack?

So, I don’t care about the song — if it’s good or bad — I’m never going to listen to it without watching the video, ever.


The video is a treasure trove for symbolic / hidden meaning in relation to modern culture, mostly in regard to racial stigma and rampant social conduct.

Here’s a list of deeper meaning within Glover’s “This is America:”

1) Racism. Without question, this is the most touched-on concept within the video. Early on, we spot the first nod towards black oppression.

The photo on the right represents “Jump Jim Crow,” which is a song and dance from 1828; actors performed this blackface.

In plain terms, blackface is a representation created by non-blacks to demonstrate a caricature or stereotype. In olden days, this was done using theatrics and minstrel shows…

“Today, we just use other, more advanced forms.”

In my opinion, that’s the ultimate response of “This is America.” We’re still not entirely past this form of bigotry. Perhaps the track title enforces longevity — it’s not “This was America.”

No, it’s this is America.

Additionally, you can find one black chicken and one white chicken facing away from each another at 1:30 in the video. Pretty clear representation there.

2) Violence. The minds behind the video intentionally masked all the crime and self-destruction. At first glance, it’s lost. However, a second take reveals:

  • A carjacking
  • A suicide jump
  • An explosion
  • Pedestrians flailing weapons and running into one another

Did you miss any of that?

The thing is, Gambino’s shootings are blatant. They’re also acts of black-on-black crime. Notice there are police cars everywhere, yet no sign of legitimate rebuke from law enforcement.

Hmmm, I wonder if that’s saying anything?

Everything else, though, is uncomfortably subtle.

You’ve gotta ask, why are these things happening without scrutiny? What’s deferring all our attention for these unjust and nefarious acts?

What is it?!

3) Media. Instances of poor media use are sprinkled throughout the film. The biggest one is hidden, but I think I’ve found a pretty stark symbol for the media: the surrounding dancers.

The dancers move simultaneously with the chaos — ignoring what’s really happening, infatuated by Glover.

This scene (pictured above) is particularly interesting. Yes, that’s horse back there. No, it’s not random. Here’s a passage the internet’s pushed to surface:

“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.

Revelation 6:8 King James Version

This passage insinuates the horseman is a symbol of Death — the police car acts as Hell. It’s literally spot on. Important to note, Glover and company pay zero attention to what’s taking place right behind them.

It’s a f*cking blinded apocalypse.

…Ooo, scary.

In other scenes, you can spot masked bystanders observing and recording the destruction from a far; they appear safe and unfazed.

This reinforces how popular media (in this case, a black artist) detracts from the more serious happenings within American society.

4) Gender Inequality. This last one is a bit of a stretch, but it’s something I’ve yet to see acknowledged in other music reviews. Please point your attention to this scene:

This takes place toward the end of the video. If you don’t recognize the woman on the right, that’s SZA, a highly popular R&B artist who coexists with Childish Gambino. While there aren’t any telltale signs, there’s no way I’m believing she’s placed there without reason.

To me, this is an indication of gender inequality.

In terms of success and impact, SZA is an equal counterpart. However, in terms of recognition and prominence, she is not equal. Notice she’s merely sitting on the car, rather than standing on it.

Although assumptive, I find this to be a solid inkling of inequality among sex.

Why all the commotion?

I’ll keep this short, but I want to give some insight on why everyone lost their balls over this 4 minute video.

First off, it speaks to Americans; the title directly addresses us. Also it helps that Glover premiered this on Saturday Night Live… that’s one way to break the internet. But, neither of those truly resulted in “This is America’s” immense coverage.

Above all, it’s the creative cinematic nature of the video. The performance is scatterbrained, quirky, and surprisingly intriguing.

You want to keep up with everything happening, but you can’t. Especially when Gambino pops out from behind that door, scoots across the floor then abruptly murders the entire choir — you just sorta go “Oh shit. Okay, something’s happening here.”

There is plenty of room for interpretation; that’s a huge plus, too.

The Big Picture

So, time for the almighty question: What’s it all mean? I’ll tell you — it means we still have a ways to go. Even America, the most advanced culture on the planet, deals with lack of peace, empathy, and order.

“This is America” is a visually pleasing depiction of the pitfalls within American society we still deal with.

Oh, it’s not what you expected? I don’t blame you.

With a title like “This is America,” you could have predicted a gleaming video full of blue skies, billboards, elaborate cities, and stoic mountaintops.

Not even close.

Glovers rendition is confined to a manufactured warehouse, full of passive hate, disarray, and American-made commodities — it’s far from beautiful. It’s a testament to our infatuation with commercial popularity and ignorance of social inefficiency.

As much as it pains me to say it…

This is America.

- AZ

Thanks for reading 👏 I write about more hip-hop over here. 🎵



Alec Zaffiro

I write to think and organize my ideas. I like psychology, philosophy, and self-improvement—em dashes are my specialty. Not an expert.*