'This is Nigeria': Childish Gambino's 'America' has found an echo in Africa
Viewing the music videos for Donald Glover’s ‘This Is America’ and artist Falz's 'This is Nigeria' takes you into the heart of a conversation between the children of the Transatlantic slave trade and their cousins in Africa, writes Fred Khumalo
The camera, in wide angle, takes us inside one of those cavernous, dingy warehouses which the average moviegoer will immediately associate with a drug deal about to go wrong, or illegal bare-knuckle fighting.
In the middle of the floor, an empty chair. A man with a guitar walks into the frame, and sits in the chair. He starts strumming.
Soon music with a hesitant, if silly, beat floats in the air. We hold our breaths, for there is an eerie feeling that we are about to be plunged into either a horror movie, or over-the-top slapstick comedy.
Cut to a rapper dressed only in pants and shoes as he comes into the picture. He accepts a gun from someone.
Fifty-two seconds into the video, he shoots the guitar player, now hooded, through the head.
Then he starts rapping furiously: "This is America/ Don't catch you slippin' up/ Look what I'm whippin' up."
We flinch. We want to look away, want to shut our eyes, but now we are hooked. More blood-drenched lyrics ("Look at how I'm livin' now/ Police be trippin' now/ Yeah, this is America/ Guns in my area") and more heart-stopping images follow.
Only when the video comes to its crashing climax, with the rapper running away from a lynch mob, do we begin to breathe again.
WATCH | Childish Gambino's This is America music video
Cynics will say: "But we've been listening to and watching violent rap videos for the past 30 years, so what's the big deal?"
When Beyoncé released her Formation video (from her Lemonade album) in 2016 the US and the rest of the "woke" world gasped.
The video was an unapologetic commentary on slavery and black pride. It also was an angry rant against what seemed to many to have been a half-hearted response from the US authorities to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, especially in neighbourhoods populated by black people.
The image of Beyoncé sitting on the roof of a police car provoked the ire of the US mainstream which saw this as an unpatriotic gesture from a musician it had embraced as a paragon of what it means to be American.
But in this video, Childish Gambino (the music alter ego for comedian Donald Glover) brings it all together under one roof: inner-city decay, Guantànamo Bay, police brutality, Confederate racial shootings inside churches, poverty, black people turning themselves into minstrels — just to survive in a hostile US.
In just four minutes and five seconds Gambino gives us what I want to call the Great American Visual Novel.
This Is America is a low-budget, no-frills video that takes an unflinching look at contemporary US life.
There's a striking scene of a hooded figure riding a white horse, clearly a reference to the biblical Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
There are also slices of action [in the 'This is America' music video] clearly inspired by South African history
There are also slices of action clearly inspired by South African history: in one scene, Gambino is accompanied by youngsters dressed in school uniforms, a scene that could have come from our own Hollywood blockbuster Sarafina, inspired by the Soweto 1976 uprising.
They break into the gwara gwara dance that was popular in South Africa in the 1990s.
The video racked up 30 million views within 48 hours of being uploaded onto YouTube on May 5. A month later it had been viewed 242 million times, eclipsing Formation, which has had 112 million views.
'THIS IS NIGERIA'
Inevitably there have been imitators but few have captured the political nuances Childish Gambino infused in the original. Until now.
The Nigerian artist Falz, without trying to be smart and apologetic, created his own vehicle which he called This Is Nigeria.
Uploaded on YouTube on May 25, it delivers a biting critique of political corruption, money-grubbing pastors and the conflict with Boko Haram. The video has garnered 4.3 million views.
Falz copied Gambino's work almost frame by frame but gave it a sensibility that is all African, all Nigerian.
WATCH | Falz's This is Nigeria video
So, viewing the two videos one after the other — not once, but a number of times, as I recommend — you are taken into the heart of a conversation between the children of the Transatlantic slave trade and their cousins in Africa.
Childish Gambino, an experienced comedian, excels in this visual language. Every tic on his face is packed with nuance.
His minstrel-like wide-eyed expression soon morphs into the scowl of a streetwise thug. A playful manner of dancing, almost unco-ordinated, develops into mean moves reminiscent of Michael Jackson.
On the other hand, Falz, more of a musician than an actor-comedian, lays down some hard-hitting lines, also leavened with humour: "This is Nigeria/ Praise and worship we singing now/ Pastor put his hands on the breast of his members/ He's pulling the demons out/ This is Nigeria/ No electricity daily o/ Your people are still working multiple jobs/ And they talk say we lazy o."
You can see that in making his video, he had no intention of competing with the American. His intention was to spread the message, carry aloft the torch that illuminates our shared humanity.
In the video he also appears, like his US counterpart, dressed only in pants and shoes. Ah, yes, his pectorals are even more enviable than the American's. Cassava versus hamburgers right there.
The Nigerian video will also resonate with South Africa because it touches on many ills confronting our own country
But back to serious stuff: the Nigerian video will also resonate with South Africa because it touches on many ills confronting our own country. Falz raps about internet fraud, government corruption, Nigeria's slow response to the missing Chibok girls, over-policing, the nation's youth drug epidemic and extreme consumerism.
He ends the video with a re-enactment of Nigeria's inspector-general Ibrahim Idris struggling to give a speech — a scene that will remind some of former president Jacob Zuma's many oratorial gaffes.
When art works so powerfully, when it probes so that it can illuminate, you sometimes wish to shut up and bask in its warmth. But you can't shut up until you have shared.