Donald Glover: The Cultural Impact Of "This Is America"

Initially intended as a Drake diss track, Donald Glover left an indelible mark on pop culture with the release of “This Is America.”

BYAron A.
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The year 2018 marked a turning point in Donald Glover’s career. A few years removed from Awaken! My Love, he was already into the second season of Atlanta and signed a deal with RCA Records months earlier. Even though the FX show appeared to be his main priority, he simultaneously emerged with a definitive song of the 2010s, “This Is America.”

Five years later, we learned that Donald Glover didn't initially intend for "This Is America" to carry such a strong socio-political significance. It actually began as a diss song towards fellow actor-turned-rapper Drake. “To be completely honest, ‘This is America’ — that was all we had was that line,” the multi-hyphenate told GQ earlier this year. “It started as a Drake diss, to be honest, as like, a funny way of doing it. But then I was like, this sh*t sounds kind of hard, though. So I was like, let me play with it.”

We’ve certainly seen the Canadian rapper trade bars with formidable MCs (i.e., Meek Mill and Pusha T). It would’ve been predictable if Drake aired his grievances towards the Atlanta artist through a series of subliminal jabs. Instead, the stage design for his It's All a Blur Tour included a scrolling text across the side of the stage. “The overrated and over-awarded hit song ‘This Is America’ was originally a Drake diss record," it read.

In the wake of Drake’s response to Donald Glover, we’re looking back at the release of “This Is America” and its impact on its SNL debut in 2018.

Read More: Marlon Wayans Says He’s “Proud” Of Donald Glover For His “This Is America” Video

"This Is America"

Childish Gambino/Donald Glover attends Rihanna's 4th Annual Diamond Ball at Cipriani Wall Street on September 13, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

As an MC, Childish Gambino proved to be a king of nerdcore since he emerged. Although his pre-Culdesac outings bore similarities to some of Drake’s earlier output, his ability to be humorous, self-aware, and lighthearted set the tone for his career. However, Childish Gambino felt like a nomad in Atlanta’s music scene at a time when artists like Young Thug and Future had already redefined the sound of trap music and began influencing another generation of artists, such as 21 Savage and Lil Baby

“This Is America” found Donald Glover successfully merging together sounds and textures that would otherwise feel out of place. The gospel influence extended to the choir’s inclusion, while the riveting 808s and warblings synths furthered the urgency of the lyrics. With assistance from artists like BlocBoy JB, Young Thug, Quavo, 21 Savage, and Slim Jxmmi of Rae Sremmurd, Donald Glover came through with a bursting banger that defined the year. 

Across the song, Glover details the concerns and anxieties that many Black Americans shared during the Trump era, from systemic racism to rampant gun violence and mass shootings – all of which remain unaddressed on a federal level. An infectious anthem that maintained a steady presence on radio, the politically-charged sentiment behind the song proved to be a pivotal moment in pop culture and a defining record in Glover’s catalog. 

Read More: The Chaos Of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”

Music Video

Perhaps, a significant amount of dialogue surrounding the 2018 single had little to do with the actual song itself rather than the Hiro Murai-directed music video. Murai and Glover executed a vision that perfectly encapsulated the chaotic soundscape it accompanies. The moment the video opens, we see actor Calvin The Second (who many confused with Tracy Martin, the father of Trayvon Martin) strum on a guitar before panning to Gambino. By this time, he already began executing his flawlessly choreographed number before pulling out a gun and shooting Calvin in the head in an eerie Jim Crow pose. Calvin lays on the floor dead while a child hands Glover a handkerchief that he uses to wipe the gun and proceeds with his number. 

Later in the video, Glover uses an automatic firearm to gun down a church choir, referencing the 2015 Charleston church shooting that killed nine Black churchgoers. There’s plenty to unpack at that moment in particular, but perhaps, the most significant is the intersection between systemic racism and gun violence in the country. But in the midst of it all the chaos, he continues to dance, pulling inspiration from the South African gwara gwara to BlocBoy JB’s “Shoot” and the Stanky Leg. 

Five years after the song dropped, this scene speaks volumes about how we consume media. The same platforms where dance challenges are pervasive are where we often consume news. The same timelines that propel TikTok trends to the top of the Billboard charts also where videos exposing police brutality often pick up traction. 

Read More: Alex Tumay Is Responsible For Iconic Ad-Libs In Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”

Accolades

“This Is America” was an immediate critical darling, becoming a decorated anthem in Glover’s catalog. The 3x Platinum-certified hit, which also became the 31st song in history to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100, made Donald Glover one of the most exciting nominees at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards. That evening, he went 4 for 4 in each category that he was nominated in, including Best Rap/Sung Performance, Best Music Video, Record Of The Year, and Song Of The Year. It marked the first time a rap song ever won in the latter two categories.

Read More: Childish Gambino’s Manager Denies “This Is America” Rip-Off Rumors

Legacy

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 28: Recording artist Childish Gambino attends the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)

“This Is America” certainly didn’t go without criticism. Whether you feel like it’s aged poorly since its release or you share Drake’s sentiment towards the song, it’s hard to deny its place in the pop culture pantheon. However, it also showcased a more raw side of Donald Glover that we’ve yet to see in the past. Unfortunately, it might be a while until he delivers new music, but the conversations surrounding “This Is America” have not faded away.

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About The Author
Aron A. is a features editor for HotNewHipHop. Beginning his tenure at HotNewHipHop in July 2017, he has comprehensively documented the biggest stories in the culture over the past few years. Throughout his time, Aron’s helped introduce a number of buzzing up-and-coming artists to our audience, identifying regional trends and highlighting hip-hop from across the globe. As a Canadian-based music journalist, he has also made a concerted effort to put spotlights on artists hailing from North of the border as part of Rise & Grind, the weekly interview series that he created and launched in 2021. Aron also broke a number of stories through his extensive interviews with beloved figures in the culture. These include industry vets (Quality Control co-founder Kevin "Coach K" Lee, Wayno Clark), definitive producers (DJ Paul, Hit-Boy, Zaytoven), cultural disruptors (Soulja Boy), lyrical heavyweights (Pusha T, Styles P, Danny Brown), cultural pioneers (Dapper Dan, Big Daddy Kane), and the next generation of stars (Lil Durk, Latto, Fivio Foreign, Denzel Curry). Aron also penned cover stories with the likes of Rick Ross, Central Cee, Moneybagg Yo, Vince Staples, and Bobby Shmurda.