childish gambino this is america

If this is America, what is Pakistan?

In Childish Gambino’s latest single and music video, the fantastic ‘This is America’, he deconstructs the modern American society of spectacle. He explores the lived black American experience, gun violence, the new Jim Crow, the reliance on entertainment as social distraction, cultural appropriation and much much more.

What was most fascinating about the whole thing, what made the blogosphere go crazy and the music video rack up over 150M views in a week as of writing this article, was the confidence of Donald Glover’s message. The title is not a question, it’s a statement. This IS America. Don’t catch you slippin up.

Childish Gambino - This Is America (Official Video)

For many people, including me, it was a cathartic summary of a current predicament. It’s like when you go to your friend with your personal issues and they manage to condense it into a single sentence: ‘sounds like you’re just angry about this’. What Glover managed to do is lend language to a problem, to give chaos and disorientation a space on the stage.

Of course, Glover is not the first to do this. Kanye West’s Yeezus was an industrial, abrasive, stunning record that was a furious reaction to racism and classism in America. Beyonce’s Formation had striking imagery and galvanising language. Kendrick Lamar’s exceptional To Pimp A Butterfly was a pure deconstruction of modern American society through hip hop, jazz, and Lamar’s talent for writing. You can add many many more to this list.

Kendrick Lamar - Alright

But Glover’s video surfaced at the right place, at the right time, drawing from his contemporaries and forging a more accessible discourse, presenting a looking glass that America desperately wishes not to peer into.

So of course the question arises for people watching globally: what is your country? If this is America, what is Pakistan?

This is not a case of trying to piggyback on Glover’s message, or a case of appropriating a cause, but rather to try and identify, in the way that he has done, the struggle of contemporary Pakistan.

So of course the question arises for people watching globally: what is your country? If this is America, what is Pakistan?

But that’s where the artist comes in. She arrives and wraps up a contemporary moment into a piece of art. His art may be messy and incoherent. She may be oversimplifying or obfuscating. Their art might be too influenced by their social position and economic class, or not influenced enough by it. But it nonetheless presents itself as a gift of perception, a kind of secret communiqué -- is this what’s going on?

Beyoncé - Formation

For many in Pakistan, art and the study of it is the haven of the privileged. Recording music isn’t cheap, short films are expensive to produce, art has fewer barriers for entry but has also been stigmatized by elitist gallery culture. In this way, then, culture becomes gentrified, seats at the table are marked as reserved . I’m part of this too, of course. But for artists who recognize their own privilege, who understand the benefits their economic class affords them, who recognise their ability to create art is inextricably linked to their family history, the idea of political art is something to run away from. After all, how can you criticise a system that you benefit so dearly from? You fucking hypocrite.

There’s not much to say to really disagree with this, to be honest. Bourgeois art that pretends to be ‘real’ and ‘raw’ and proletarian is disingenuous. But bourgeois art that retreats from the public sector into the safe confines of the private self isn’t much better. The art recoils into private living rooms and galleries, too afraid to talk about political issues in case the silver spoon is pointed out.

Kanye West - Black Skinhead (Live on SNL)

I wouldn’t dare tell artists what to create or not to create. As someone who would like to consider themselves as an artist, the idea of someone saying ‘create political art!’ is irritating. I’ll make whatever I want to make. That’s the selfish and inalienable right of the artist after all.

But this retreat benefits no-one. No conversation is started, no discussion engaged with. If you’re educated you maybe prefer to write op-eds in newspapers and magazines, long think pieces about the contemporary political situation (wink wink). At least this does open up a field for discourse, but much like the situation in America, there are word counts being filled but not much being actually said.

The artist can deliver message rather than thesis. Take all the think-pieces dedicated to Childish Gambino’s latest video, and the deconstruction of the themes and symbolism. This is all useful stuff, and interesting to parse out, but the art operates on a level above this, as a gut-punch.

You realise you may have witnessed something important, even if you don’t quite understand it yet. And that’s why it’s necessary to create art that responds to the current moment, and that dares to be political.

Only our artists can actually tell us what the hell is going on, what Pakistan actually is, what it can be. And even if that message comes from an ivory tower, at least we’ll be able to see how things look from up there.

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