New American Songbook: 'This Is America'

May 22, 2018

In 1992, the rap-metal group Body Count released one of the more infamous songs that you’ve probably never heard. The song, "Cop Killer," generated a ton of controversy--even then-President Bush chimed in--and it was eventually removed from the album, but not necessarily for the reason you might think. When asked about it, Ice-T explained that he removed the song because “it got out of hand...let’s get back to real issues, not a record, but the cops that are out there killing people.”

The reaction to Childish Gambino’s new release “This is America” has been similar insofar as it’s missed the forest for the trees. The speed with which the conversation about the video became more about how many times a person watched it, or how many Easter eggs they could decode, was remarkable, especially for a video and song that is stunningly straightforward in its message. Spoiler alert: It’s about white supremacy and police brutality.

A common refrain online is that the video rewards multiple views, and it does, as long as you take the deeply cynical position that there is a checklist to complete, much like completing goals in video games. The symbolism in “This is America” becomes like Pokemon: You gotta catch ‘em all! But there’s a grim correlation underlying this perspective, one that connects enjoyment to the consumption of the spectacle of black death.

The only escape from this trap is to make the radical move of taking the song at its most superficial level: This is America, cops are out there killing people, white supremacy is real and rising. Now what are you going to do about it?

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