Despite not showing up in person and declining an invitation to perform, Childish Gambino has made history in more ways than one during this year’s Grammy awards. His controversial and racially charged song This is Americais technically the first hip-hop song to bag a Grammy for Song of the Year, which has honored songwriters for the past 60 years. On top of that, it also won Record of the Year, which honors recording artists, edging out hits like SZA and Kendrick Lamar’s All the Starsand Drake’s God’s Plan. This is Americaalso bagged this year’s Grammy awards for Best Rap/Sung Performance, and perhaps most significantly, the one for Best Music Video.
While the first Song of the Year Grammy being awarded to a hip-hop record is unprecedented, no one is surprised that Childish Gambino’s This is Americawas the song that finally broke the 60-year mold. Since its release in the middle of 2018, the song, as well as the video, has spurred countless discussions about race, symbolism, and the fine art of media misdirection. CNN’s Lisa Respers France in her short breakdown of one of the most analyzed songs/videos of 2018 believes that it requires multiple viewings. Viewers need to see and understand what is happening in the background to fully appreciate the message of the song/video.
Police be trippin’ now / Yeah, this is America / Guns in my area / I got the strap / I gotta carry ’em. One of the most apparent themes in the This is America video is how guns are treated with more care, ceremony, and dignity than human lives. In the background, scenes of chaos and police brutality dominate as African-American performers (including Gambino) dance and grimace in Jim Crow-esque caricature in the foreground. Apart from the racial overtones, Gambino’s own impressive dance moves have also been interpreted as a reference to viral web videos – highly effective distractions from the negativity of real-life chaos, which mostly just occurs as background noise.
You just a barcode, ayy / You just a black man in this world / Drivin’ expensive foreigns, ayy / You just a big dawg, yeah / I kenneled him in the backyard / No proper life to a dog / For a big dog. However else you might interpret the elements in the song and the video itself, This is Americais without a doubt a continuation of western music’s long history of protesting racism and police brutality in the US. A Lottoland infographic on rock songs that changed the world shows how bands, like Rage Against the Machine (RATM), have previously tackled institutional racism in the US with the song Killing in the Name Of. That song was released in 1991, showing how little the conversation has changed. It also mentions U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, which was about workers’ rights and police brutality in Northern Ireland. And out of these historically powerful and awareness-raising protest songs, only This is Americahas been honored by four different Grammy categories.
Again, this surprises no one, least of all us at Daily Dose of Bass who are highly familiar with Childish Gambino’s career. As the director behind the acclaimed show Atlanta, he knows more than a thing or two about videography. His album Awaken My Love was not only nominated for a Grammy this year, but also set a precedent for today’s artists to cross genres. Although he wasn’t the first to do it, Gambino remains one of most impressive trap rappers to effortlessly create an entire traditional R&B album. No other artist who started in trap rap has contributed this much to the renaissance of gospel, soul, and R&B in contemporary music. To have a better sense of how far the artist has come, check out Gambino’s earlier work and compare that to This is America.