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Backlash To ‘This Is America’ Remixes Shows Woke Art Must Be Engaged, But On Strict Terms


Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that hip-hop artist/comedian/writer Childish Gambino, also known as Donald Glover, brought forth into this world last week an internet-breaking work of staggering genius entitled “This is America,” which racked up 50 million views and at least as many hot takes in just days.

The four-minute song isn’t much for lyrics, but the consensus is the video’s imagery is pretty compelling, whether you actually like its message or not.

We are now about halfway through the “This is America” news cycle and cultural experience. I, having been in hiding with a family-wide stomach bug for a week, had not actually experienced it until this morning. As such, I was in a position to evaluate the progression of this Woke Art Event from the vantage point of an unbiased, albeit benighted, observer.

It went a little something like this, as it often does.

Release Art, Release Takes, Read Takes, Declare Some Takes Bad, Designate People Who Aren’t Even Allowed To Have Takes, Release Takes On How Original Bad and Prohibited Takes Confirm The Oppressive Structure That Was the Point of the Original Art.

In the second half of this cultural phenomenon, we have the Remixing of the Original Art and the Objecting to the Remixing of the Original Art.

The cultural saturation of “This is America” was so high that even while bedridden, I absorbed its imagery without ever having watched the video. It’s no surprise people with other messages want to play with the power of that, toying with Glover’s original creation in ways serious and silly.

But saturation wasn’t just high. The message of many of the aforementioned takes was that experiencing this Woke Art Event was a cultural imperative. To understand that this is America in this time, one needed to engage with “This is America.” The New York Times“8 Things To Read About Childish Gambino’s New Music Video” is a good example of the genre.

So, watch people did. And engage they did.

First a silly example. Someone set the Hiro Murai-directed video to Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2012 hit, “Call Me Maybe,” and lo and behold, it syncs up eerily. The juxtaposition of frothy pop with the weighty staging of Gambino’s production is absurd in a delightful sort of way. This is classic Internet, and some of the best it has to offer. Consider another surprise sync-up, Bob Fosse’s ’60s choreography and dancers with “Walk It Out,” a viral classic.

But one writer wonders if this is the wrong way to engage with Gambino’s art. The headline of this BoingBoing piece reflects the author’s belief the video might bring clicks, but trepidation about the cost?

“Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ set to ‘Call Me Maybe’ Walks A Fine Line,” the headline says, before the writer offers his personal misgivings about it along with his bonafides as a full participant in this Woke Art Event.

Believe me, I wanted to hate it but I can’t, not completely. I saw the link in a friend’s feed and immediately thought, “Too soon.”

Early last week, I watched and re-watched the original video to see what it was all about, to really understand its message. Then, I read nearly every article written about it that I could find…

Now, a more serious example. Canadian YouTube performer Nicole Arbour repurposed the idea of “This is America” to speak to feminist themes. Arbour plays Gambino’s part, rapping about her take on women’s modern plight amid the patriarchy. “Guns in my area” becomes “rape in my area,” and a lot of other heavy-handed lyrics and imagery ensue.

The Root is even more sure this is the wrong kind of remix, declaring “Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ Has Been Colonized.”

To be fair to the writer of this critique, it is indeed very lame. It’s been slammed as a “whitewashing” of the original.

But at the bottom of all this is an unfair expectation.

VICE is the most explicit about it:

But if the art in question seeks cultural significance, as Glover’s no doubt does, then it’s going to be talked about and remixed in ways maybe he would not have intended. That is how art works, and it’s something Glover has seen plenty of in his acting career. He was part of a six-season modern experiment in remixing genres, homage, and meta commentary as Troy Barnes in the sitcom, “Community.”

“Dan Harmon’s comedy masterpiece Community is known for three things: Never dying, having some of the most intense fans to ever watch television, and pushing the concept of meta humor to its absolute limits,” Kayla Cobb writes in Decider. “Basically, this NBC and Yahoo gem that lasted for six seasons was created to be obsessively dissected.”

He is now part of the artistic franchise in the modern canon perhaps most beloved, reinterpreted, fan-fic’d, merchandised, repackaged and retold. He’ll make his debut as young Lando Calrissian in “Solo” May 24.

Not all of the Troy-and-Abed fan art is good. Even some of the actual “Star Wars” movies fall short of the, ahem, new hope of the originals, and that doesn’t even begin to touch every bastardized metal bikini and its accompanying fan fic. But the passion, the creativity, the freedom of those worlds and the people who love them to play with them give the art and its message life far beyond what Dan Harmon or George Lucas envisioned.

Too often, Woke Art and its purveyors and cheerleaders demand engagement with Woke Art but only in very specific, approved ways. But that’s not how this works and in the end, prescribing, proscribing and scolding doesn’t feel that artistic. This is a hallmark of progressive, very woke climes. They are self-styled as very open and interested in dialogue, but in practice are often the opposite.

Glover is a fascinating and talented performer whose charmingly off-kilter persona strikes me as one to tolerate and even embrace more imagination than that. Some of the commentary on his work will affirm his intent, some will poke fun, and yes, some will likely confirm his societal critiques. Art!

But if loving this is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.