Is This America? Jabaar Edmond weighs in on Childish Gambino’s message

BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG —  A week later, some of the furor over Donald Glover’s, aka Childish Gambino, instant video classic “This Is America” has died down, but the messages and questions it leaves in its trail seem too powerful to shake. One wonders if the stunning visual piece doesn’t foretell a dark direction for artists trying to create subject matter as shocking and distressing as our current news cycle.

With 131,327,857 views on YouTube at the time this article is being written, according to “Forbes” magazine, the video is tied for the fifth fastest music video to reach 100 million views in YouTube history (nine days), and it is the number one YouTube song in 11 countries including the U.S., South Africa, United Kingdom and Australia.

The song has also catapulted Gambino to the number two spot on the platform’s top 50. (Not surprisingly, the song itself is not listed on Billboard’s top radio hits chart at all.)

With the video being the subject of commentary on media outlets spanning from “The Washington Post” to “The View,” we asked filmmaker, community activist and recording artist Jabaar Edmond to share some of his thoughts on the piece.

Jabaar Edmond

What did you think of the video in general?

In general, I thought it was extremely creative; I think he showed some real creativity. I also think it sends mixed messages. Some people are seeing a political and activist message while others are seeing it as rehashing and reinforcing old stereotypes – while some see it as dispelling those stereotypes. I can see how people feel it reinforces the stereotype of the dancing, violent Negro.

What did you think of the message?

Being a director, I somewhat understand the message that he attempted to make, but I also understand it being seen as sending mixed messages — the throwbacks to the old jigaboo: big lipped, big eyes. And in the end, when he’s running down the hallway with people chasing him, those images are strong. Some of them are liberating images, but for some, they are reinforcing past ideas.

What about the violence?

I think he did the violence for shock value. I understood the commentary, but I also found it troubling, especially when he shot the choir. In the first scene it was shocking when he shot the guy in the chair, but when he did it to the gospel singers — while I understood what he was getting at with all the mass shootings and all the violence going on, I found it troubling.

People digest this stuff and regurgitate what they digest. So often when you’re trying to send a positive message, you can send a negative message. There’s a thin line between glorifying and pointing something out. A lot of rappers say they rap about the streets not to glorify it but to let people know what’s going on, but that’s a thin line.

Do you think artists have the responsibility to think about what they’re putting out?

I think artists, or anyone with a platform, have a certain amount of responsibility to the culture and to the people who they represent. I absolutely feel there is a responsibility. And there is also freedom of artistic expression. So, the balancing act that one has to do is very hard, and I think that the video for this song walks that tightrope.

What do you think about the “This Is America” title? Do you agree with that message?

I’m an artist as well as a director, so not only did I look at the video, I listened to the music. So, while I did feel it’s conflicted, I can respect it 100 percent. I think “This Is America” is a perfect title for it.

I feel it does illustrate what America is and what it does. A lot of people see a lot of different things in there – from the riot scenes, police shooting scenes, the proverbial white horse showing the apocalyptic angle. The imagery and the one-take directing style was amazing.

I think the conversation that it sparked was timely — right after all the stuff that Kanye West was saying.  I think it was a masterful piece of timing and execution. They broke the internet and had everybody talking about it and looking at it, so I guess it was successful in that aspect and I absolutely respect that.

But you’re still not convinced?

Me myself, personally, I’m not a huge fan of it. I don’t like watching slave movies, and I think it’s just a derogatory reinforcement of things we don’t want. For me, I don’t think the message outweighs the imagery. The imagery was extremely strong, and I don’t think the message and the music were that strong. For me, that was a letdown.

My thought process on doing provocative stuff that pushes the limit — you always run the risk of offending people, rubbing people the wrong way. I congratulate Childish Gambino and the director for their willingness to do it, even though I don’t absolutely agree with it. As an artist, I respect it, but as a deep thinker, I feel the imagery was way stronger than the message in the music.

How is this different than what you would want to put out in the market today?

I would absolutely feel stuff close to this; I just I think they put more thought into the video than they did the lyrics. They probably made the music in the studio a year and a half, two years ago, and the video was made now because of what’s going on now, so that might play into the disconnect of it.

But making music that gets people talking, he did a beautiful job. He got people talking, thinking…and I think it’s alright for people to like it, some people to love it and some people to not agree with it. I think that’s the intent of art – everybody’s not supposed to look at it and see the same thing or feel the same emotions. It’s supposed to spark different emotions and different thoughts from everybody.

How should parents guide their children in looking at these kinds of images?

I think it should be used as a learning tool for parents and kids to have deeper conversations and maybe look at it two or three times. Talk about the imagery, talk about the music and have a conversation. I think it does serve an amazing purpose for that, to spark much-needed conversation.

Did you like the dancing, how did you feel about the shooting, how did you feel about people falling off the balconies, how did you feel about the police and the violence? There are so many things to think about, and you can relate it back to history. You can talk about the minstrel shows and relate it to the new dances the kids are doing now.

Final thoughts?

I don’t want my thoughts to diminish the things I love, but I’m conflicted because I understand a few things. Sometimes some things you don’t need to see. You don’t need to see somebody grab an AK and shoot up people singing gospel. That’s satire, but you don’t need to see that.

As an artist, I respect his art because I get what he was trying to say…but someone else might not see that – all they saw was him grab a gun and shoot the church up. That’s where my conflict with it was because perception is everything, and how people perceive things is key.

It’s dangerous because it only takes one wrong person to perceive those acts of violence the wrong way. It’s confusing when you try to use violence.

What this was to me was an abstract piece of art — like a lump of clay that somebody painted pretty colors and it’s up to you to decipher what it is to you. Is it a basketball, or is it just a lump of clay?

I don’t think it has set the culture back. It’s timely and on time for what’s going on: some people are woke, some people are half-woke, some people are sleepwalking. That video speaks to everyone in their different levels.

It speaks to the person who is woke, who can see everything. It speaks to the person who’s semi-conscious and can’t completely perceive everything and it speaks to the person who is unconscious and completely asleep because they’re going to love the beat, the music, the violence. So, it has all the things that make a classic.

To reach J.A. Jones, email jjones@theweeklychallenger.com.

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