When it comes to the effectiveness of the church in addressing issues like violence and apathy, the verdict is guilty.
At least this is the critique I saw Childish Gambino offer in his visually jarring video, “This is America.”
The song begins with the lyrics, “We just wanna party. Party just for you. We just want the money. Money just for you.” Shortly after, Childish Gambino murders the hooded guitar player execution-style and begins dancing playfully while chaos erupts around him. Children join him in the spectacle, performing all of the latest dance moves as extreme violence and anarchy happen around them.
Nearly two minutes into the video, we see a jovial church choir dancing and singing in the same fashion. Childish Gambino enters the space and starts dancing with them. Shortly after, someone tosses him a semi-automatic gun and he murders the choir.
Among people’s initial responses was the idea that in this song, Donald Glover is paying homage to the “Charleston Nine,” the black churchgoers murdered by extreme racist Dylann Roof in the historic Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. While this disturbing imagery reminds us of this atrocity, while watching this scene, I also saw this as an indictment of the American church.
The “Sambo”-like smiles on the choir members is evidence that their presence is a negative critique. In the same manner that pop culture and mainstream society keep the masses dancing and ignoring the harsh realities around them, in many ways, the American church is doing the same. With this scene, I believe this video is saying the church’s presence has little effect on the violence and destruction that plagues American society.
In the video, Childish Gambino joins in the choir’s dancing and praising, then murders them anyway: Even in the midst of the churchgoers, there is little transformation in him.
Shortly after this, we see a man in dark clothing riding a white horse through the background. Many have drawn parallels between this imagery and the white horse of the Apocalypse in the book of Revelation.
In years past, churches have been a transformative institution in the community, leading the way for major societal transformation — in the abolition of slavery and emancipation to the civil rights movement. But “This is America” is suggesting that American churches, too, have fallen victim to American apathy.
“This is America” is a harsh critique of American pop culture. It’s also an indictment of the American church. We’ve lost our transformative power in the community. With his latest Childish Gambino video, Donald Glover is calling the American church out for her sins and forcing us to take a hard look in the mirror. There is destruction, violence, and apathy all around us. Who will blow the trumpet in Zion?