This is A Musical

Childish Gambino’s “This is America” has been seen in two major iterations: in the song’s music video, released in May 2018, and in the film Guava Island, released in April 2019. Both are performed by Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover); in Guava Island it is performed by Glover’s character, Deni. The two performances resemble each other in many ways. However, Guava Island is a musical film, an entirely different medium that generates a different understanding of meaning and intention than in the original music video. 

The difference in medium between the music video and film influence the context in which the audience views the performances. As a music video, the performance exists in relative isolation. Its visual images accompany only the song. As an audience, we recognize some of the video’s imagery from history and popular culture. Many of the dances are viral ones, and we see gun violence against Black people. We cannot help but see the performance as a reaction to its time. In Guava Island, however, the performance happens in response to one of the men in the warehouse (Deni’s coworker, Coley.) Coley explains that he’s working to save up his money, move off of the island and to the US, where he’ll start his own business. Deni responds: “This is America…America is a concept. Anywhere where in order to get rich you have to make someone else richer is America.” He then dances with other workers in the warehouse, fixed on Coley, convincing Coley that they’re essentially in America right where they are. While the audience may import some of our cultural/historical knowledge when viewing the performance, we’re primarily thinking of what’s happened previously in the film. We’ve seen the prologue cartoon, watched Deni run through the streets and sing with his guitar. We know that Deni is a both a caring and rebelling figure. The intention of the song shifts. Unlike in the music video, it doesn’t seem to be about intense, destructive violence, so much as it is about the weakness that one person has in a system that requires them to work only so those already above them can get richer. 

In addition, the shift in medium shifts the singer’s perspective. In the music video, Childish Gambino frequently looks into the camera (at the audience.) He asks the audience to recognize what is happening, and demonstrates both his pain (his movements at the beginning) and his ambivalence (after shooting the choir.) The message is intended for the video’s audience. In Guava Island, Deni performs the song for Coley. Deni consistently faces him as he sings, and he and the other warehouse workers form a circle around Coley. Deni’s message is for Coley. As the audience, we hear what Deni says and take that into our consideration, but the performance isn’t for us. It’s for Coley and the other warehouse workers; Deni gets on a soapbox, facing them, not the camera, to perform. As the song continues, Deni really becomes another dancer in the mix; it’s only when he’s pulled from the crowd and thrown in the back of a van, bag over his head that we return to his story. (Not to mention that the bag over his head is reminiscent of the man who Childish Gambino shoots at the beginning of the “This is America” music video.)

Question: How is our understanding of “This is America” in Guava Island impacted by already knowing the song (and music video) which premiered a year earlier? Would it have the same effect if the audience wasn’t already familiar with it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *