My favorite Kanye West verse is from his debut album The College Dropout on the song “Never Let Me Down,” with a sample from the band Blackjack’s song, “The Power of Love” and the line “Oh no I’ll never let you down” as the hook. Well, in the past couple weeks, Kanye West has, in fact, let me down. With his tweets, his conversation with Charlamagne the God, and then finally by saying slavery was a choice in a TMV interview. I didn’t want to believe it when he initially endorsed Trump—I just chalked that up to some goofy, disingenuous Kanye-ness—but it seems like he has officially contradicted all of the things most people thought he believed in.
He begins his verse in the song mentioned above with these lines: “I get down for my grandfather who took my momma/Made her sit that seat where white folks ain’t want us to eat/At the tender age of six she was arrested for the sit in/With that in my blood I was born to be different.” Then, he acknowledged the importance of his history and asserted himself as someone who will stand up to society’s injustices. But now, Kanye has become what he calls “a free thinker.” In a recent, wonderful, essay in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehesi Coates lambasts Kanye’s notion of freedom as a specifically white freedom, touching on what it seems Kanye used to be: “West, in his own way, will likely pay also for his thin definition of freedom, as opposed to one that experiences history, traditions, and struggle not as a burden, but as an anchor in a chaotic world.” It seems that West used to have the latter conception of freedom Coates mentions, as expressed in his quoted verse and in much other work he produced in his pre-Kardashian era. So what really did happen to the Old Kanye? The one who would interrupt a telethon to say that George Bush doesn’t care about black people? The one whose music was so impressive that it more or less transcended cultural boundaries and allowed his truth-to-power message to resonate with communities of all races? Will we ever get him back? It seems like Kanye’s departure from the politics that endeared him to so many people has left a massive cultural void that needs to be filled, and for a long time, it wasn’t obvious that anyone has the talent or influence to do so. And then Childish Gambino dropped his “This is America” video.
Childish Gambino—real name Donald Glover—has already achieved something Kanye wanted but never did achieve: his own successful T.V. show. For years West worked with HBO to get a show going—mainly a sitcom about the perils of fame—but it never worked out. Glover, however, is winding up the second season of the very popular and critically acclaimed Atlanta (that I have written about before here). Glover used to be known as a talented, multi-faceted artist who had found mild success in many avenues, but was not considered a really serious artist, more of a gimmick—and a gimmick that often garnered some serious criticism. But in the past two years, the success of Atlanta and his last album, including the massive hit, Redbone has propelled him to a completely different level of notoriety. And on May 5th, during his SNL performance, he released two new songs, one of which included a video directed by Atlanta collaborator Hiro Murai: “This is America.”
The music video is set in a warehouse and follows Gambino dancing (dopely) while stopping twice to commit a horrible act of gun violence, once with a handgun on a single person and once with an assault rifle on a choir of people. Then, exactly three minutes into the video, he lights a joint, and the tone switches for the last thirty seconds. The fun chorus in the background fades away, and it’s just Gambino running away from what looks like World War Z-esque hordes of white people. The hook of the song is “This is America/Don’t catch you slippin’ up,” and the video and the song can easily be interpreted to mean that we live in an America that only cares about vapid things—vapidity does seem to have been one of Gambino’s main themes throughout his career (especially in his album Because the Internet that seemed to be an exercise in vapidity as much as about it)—and we care much more about material things than real human suffering. This theme is keyed up by the fact that every time Gambino uses a gun to kill, the killing is quick and brutal, but he hands the gun to someone who handles it with a red silk cloth which exemplifies the care with which we treat objects while we turn away from suffering.
This interpretation seems right, but I was listening to The Breakfast Club (radio show) the other day, and host Charlemagne the God (who Kanye referred to as the ‘new Oprah’) criticized the video by saying it propagated the myth of black on black violence and that he was especially hurt by the scene where Gambino shoots the choir—which recalls the Charleston Church shooting wherein nine black members of the church died, and was done by a white guy (like most mass shootings in the United States). Why did Gambino as a black man choose to do the shooting himself rather than have a white person do it?
It’s hard not to think of Kanye here and his search for the kind of freedom Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to as “a white freedom, freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next…a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak….” This kind of freedom requires abandoning marginalized communities, and when you abandon a marginalized community, there are real ramifications; when voices are stamped out, there is a physical toll. But, like at the end of the video when Gambino is being chased away, when those in power are done with you, no matter how good you have been to them, they will get rid of you. I don’t want to say Gambino/Glover intended the main character of the video to be a Kanye stand-in, but the strain of thinking that criticizes Kanye’s actions seems present there.
Nonetheless, Glover’s video, with its jarring aesthetics, sends at minimum the message that America is fucked up. With 60 million views, a hit T.V. show, a huge upcomingmovie role as Lando Calrissian in Solo, an SNL hosting gig, and a music career that could go anywhere (or maybe even end), maybe Glover is in the rare position—one that Kanye once occupied—to make people listen and make these messages count.