The musical resistance just came roaring back with the release of the searing “This Is America,” by the irrepressible Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover). Here is a song that reminds us of music’s power to provoke and confront society in the tradition of great protest work such as Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. The video invites frame-by-frame dissection with its disturbing, powerful images — such as a Jim Crow caricature, gun violence, images of dancers frolicking amid chaos — and lyrics such as:
This is America
Don’t catch you slippin’ up
Look at how I’m livin’ now
Police be trippin’ now
Yeah, this is America
Guns in my area (word, my area)
I got the strap
I gotta carry ‘em
Released on May 5, “This is America” has gone massively viral, accumulating 23 million views within two days and sparking discussion among social mediaand news media ranging from The Atlantic to The Guardian. Although the song stands alone as a strong statement, “This Is America” assumes even more gravitas when you view the work in context of the political and social consciousness that has gripped popular American music in recent months.
Regardless of your taste in music or political leaders, it’s hard not to notice how a number of mainstream artists have released music that confronts American society about social ills. That unrest became especially acute in 2017 in the months after Donald Trump became president. For example:
- Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.was both a highly personal, spiritual journey and a thoughtful meditation on the black experience in America — so well-crafted that DAMN.became the first work of music outside jazz or classical music to win a Pulitzer Prize in Music.
- Roger Waters spent most of 2017 on a high-profile concert tour in which he eviscerated President Trump while challenging his audience to think for themselves. The tour accompanied his album, Is This the Life We Really Want?, a somber work that confronts Americans for accepting an erosion of their civil liberties, becoming indifferent to the presence of warfare and everyday violence, and becoming numbed by entertainment, among many other ills.
- Angaleena Presley confronted sexism — especially the institutional sexism pervading the country music industry — with Wrangled. The album, released in April 2017, raised eyebrows with its cover, depicting Presley as bound and gagged — and the music delivered. When the #MeToo movement erupted months later, the album became a symbol of “woke country.”
- Eminem issued a clear and urgent protest against Trump with his fist-pumping rap freestyle, “The Storm,” which quickly went viral on social media.
- All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ by Joey Bada$$ laid bare everyday racism and attacked Trump (Joey Bada$$ name-checked Trump on the album but would later say that in doing so put too much blame on Trump for racism that precedes the current administration).
We’re living in an age of heightened activism. Although the groundswell around social justice issues such as #BlackLivesMatter has been happening over the past few years, the election of Donald Trump has unquestionably turned that activism into dissent for many artists. According to The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber, the first 100 days of the Trump administration alone inspired a bumper crop of protest music. And Cat Buckley of Billboard characterized, 2017 as a year of a “brewing musical resistance” with President Donald Trump the focus of that resistance.
In 2018, we’ve seen musicians continue to challenge while also puzzle their fans. Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, released in April, celebrates Monáe being a member of the LGBTQ community while also taking to task American intolerance – “a battle cry for those of us who refuse to surrender,” in the words of one reviewer.
On the other hand, Kanye West has angered and astonished both fans and casual followers with his public endorsement of Donald Trump and backward remarks about American slavery. Within a few weeks, West threatened to sidetrack a movement. But with one well-timed song, Childish Gambino has reclaimed the narrative of the musical resistance. He urges his audience to resist — to resist the acceptance of a grotesquely violent status quo; to resist the impulse to skip to a Bruno Mars YouTube video.
The next step after listening and watching is up to us.