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Martinez: Don’t call Glover a genius yet

Marissa Martinez, Assistant Opinion Editor

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“Gripping.” “Masterful.” “Beautiful.”

“Genius.”

These are just a few of the descriptors that have been applied to Childish Gambino’s new music video accompanying his song, “This Is America.” None have been as pervasive as the word “genius.”

And it’s easy to see why this adjective has been applied more than any other.

The camerawork is crisp and stunning, showcasing interesting and bold symbols. The choreography is intricate and calls upon a variety of both African and American viral dance moves — as well as the lasting Jim Crow symbol that has been seared into every viewer’s consciousness. Overall, there are many aspects to unpack and discuss.

Twitter certainly had a lot to say. A tweetstorm emerged within the 48 hours after the video’s release. Posts claimed viewers were missing its primary messages, indignantly posting GIFs and screenshots to prove no one noticed this symbol or that one. Others said the video bravely spoke out about topics no one else was mentioning: gun violence, race, commercialism. Still others posted memes.

There are some general consensuses the Internet has reached: This video is high-art. This video means something. This video is the wake-up call America didn’t know it wanted but desperately needed. Gambino — real name Donald Glover — is a genius.

But we should hesitate to just uplift this video (and its creators) as arbitrary saviors and leave it at that. Yes, “This Is America” is beautiful, but it should not be immune to the criticism that it merits.

At first glance, many of the articles and think pieces written about the video herald it for “waking up America” and being the black art our country desperately needs (even though this definitely already exists in multiple forms).

This in part speaks to a desire for distinct, big-budget works that appeal to the masses. Black art can be consumed, but only if it’s deadpan, socially conscious and completely clear and easy to digest. But why should these pieces have to be universally accepted, understood and uplifted by non-black people in order to be considered high-art? When I first saw the video, I expected to be forced into a new way of thinking, but by the end, I only sighed at how predictable it all was. Interesting, but nothing particularly new — a reaction held by none of my friends.

Alone, the song is not exceptional. When I saw Gambino’s Saturday Night Live performance, it was stripped down and eerie, with school children dancers moving feverishly to his left. While it could be considered catchy or part of a new stage of Gambino’s music, the number did not seem particularly special. Yet, despite the song’s repetitive nature, its lyrics’ page on genius.com set a record for the fastest song to reach 1 million views, according to the company’s Twitter. Upon hearing it without the visuals, the song is ultimately stratified phrases laid over a basic beat.

Thus, the video’s shock value — unwavering pessimism distributed using overt violence and symbolism — is supposed to carry the work’s full weight. Viewers are shuttled from trauma to dance to trauma to dance, all without a chance to breathe and process. The beautiful production both diverts the viewer’s attention from the background rioting and chaos — as many viewers have pointed out — and distracts from the somewhat purposeful lack of a deep, fluent message.

In the past few days, the video has been heralded as a prime example of Glover’s genius. Many profiles have painted him lately as part of a class of intelligent black artists — he is both edgier than the “clean-cut” Drake and more moving than rappers with “bad-boy swagger” like Travis Scott, said one particularly cringey New York Times column. To me, his punchiness and ability to emulate a “nerdy but talented rapper” personality means that, as Spin.com put it, Glover “could be as coarse, misogynistic and offensive as the rap he distanced himself from, but at least he could make literary references.”

Assigning the label “genius” to people who create works like Glover’s is not necessarily a reflection on the individual pieces, but on the larger system of rap and America’s view of black artists. It’s a clear sign of our expectations of the art and artists: According to mainstream America, rap nowadays is only about partying, drugs and sex. When it dares to leave these newly constructed confines to discuss politics or social issues, it’s considered shocking and, more importantly, genius.

It feels ironic that Glover — who tweeted in 2014 that Twitter activism is “wack” and “only half of activism” — seems to be leaning into an easily hashtaggable and shareable aesthetic. This latest work comes from an artist who has been repeatedly criticized for pandering to white audiences, especially in his earlier years. With this video, Gambino seems to be doing the same exact thing.

Black viewers are already very familiar with many of the depicted tropes — gun violence, a disinterested public, the virality of black suffering. Therefore, any value that can be gained from the gunning down of 11 black people is almost solely for the entertainment, consumption and education of white audiences. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but media that has this purpose should be recognized as such.

“This Is America,” in part, did do its job. There are hundreds of discussions, articles, analyses: The energy on the internet as critics and fans alike try to decipher the art is almost electric. I just fear that the dialogue will stay at surface-level. Gambino dropped a thought-provoking piece that resembles the viral phenomena the video tries to emulate and dismantle. Just as actors in the video quickly disregard the numerous atrocities committed, audiences will quickly grow tired of the hype — and move on, leaving us right back where we started.

This is why we should not be so quick to assign “genius” to works like these, pieces that may fade more quickly than they appeared. Artists can challenge the status quo, be intelligent and innovative — characteristics often associated with the word — without us slapping this facile label on them. Ascribing genius to simple creativity removes the necessity of hustle, of hard work, of the ability to make mistakes and bad decisions.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at marissamartinez2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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