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Childish Gambino sparked an international conversation with the release of his music video, “This Is America”. Janelle Monae’s equally provocative new album and “emotion picture”, Dirty Computer, received praise but should by no means be forgotten now that “This Is America” is out. Although it seems like Dirty Computer got swept under the rug with Gambino’s release, both projects represent strides for black artists and must be celebrated.
In a sense, Dirty Computer and “This Is America” could be looked at as opposite entities. Gambino’s music video relies on brutally graphic visuals to fully illustrate his lyrics, which occasionally utilize metaphor and ambiguity. On the other hand, Monae’s visual project operates on fiction and is open to interpretation, allowing her straightforward lyrics to speak for themselves. That isn’t to say that one is more or less effective than the other. Each visionary tapped into their own talents, voices, and experiences to give a unique perspective on America’s most contentious controversies.
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Childish Gambino made his message loud and clear in “This Is America”. The Grammy Award winning artist shows no reluctance in his depiction of America’s gun-violence. He uses an array of symbolic and literal references to paint a picture of the climate surrounding brutality towards and the victimization of black people. This picture serves as Gambino’s primary tool in the deliverance of “This Is America”.
On its own, the song does emit some of the themes he aims to put forth. The drastic phonic change between the joyous gospel choir at the song’s opening and the dark, driving tension behind Gambino’s first verse does create a sudden sense of seriousness and urgency. However, it’s really the video’s portrayal of Gambino posing in the style of a Jim Crow sketch as he shoots a hooded black man that makes the tone shift unmistakable. Similarly, lyrics like “This a celly, that’s a tool” wouldn’t present as clearly if it weren’t for the the video, which shows school children using their cell phones to film the violent chaos beneath them.
Simply the fact that Monae’s project is more a short film than a music video entails an utterly different experience than Gambino’s work. The 48-minute “emotion picture” creates a lot more space for creative interpretation and therefore averts the frankness that characterizes “This Is America”. Keeping with the “Afrofuturistic” themes of her previous work, Dirty Computer tackles intersectional feminism, sexuality, and race through a distopian narrative. As for the songs themselves, unlike Gambino’s track Monae’s lyrics need no explanation. The album’s final song, “Americans”, provides the most poignant example:
Until women can get equal pay for equal work… Until same-gender loving people can be who they are… Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head… Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful This is not my America
Monae’s crystal-clear verses illuminate her abstract video, whereas “This Is America” does the opposite.
“Dirty Computer” addresses issues that, while pertinent to people all over the country, are particularly personal for her. “I actually had this title … before my first album The ArchAndroid, and it scared me because a lot of the things that I knew that I needed to say were very deep, very personal, from the heart. … This is an extremely vulnerable album” she told Beats 1. Therefore, it makes sense that Monae would choose to deliver Dirty Computer the way she did. While the way she chooses to depict sexual liberation and class oppression may be abstract to us, it reflects the way Monae sees and interprets her own life experiences. Contrarily, Gambino takes a reality that we are faced with everywhere from TV news to Twitter feeds and places it in an even grimmer, more recognizable visual context. While Monae is illustrating the overlapping prejudiced proclivities of her America, Gambino is bluntly stating that the violence against black people masked by social media trends is America.
As I stated earlier, this isn’t a competition; the point of this article is not to prove who did it better. The point is to give equal praise to two black visionaries who use their music and their platform to address the toughest topics facing this nation. Together, Childish Gambino and Janelle Monae have used art to reveal the adverse America all of us dirty computers are living in.
My name is Ina and I'm an avid lover of fashion, food, friends, dance, music, and herb puns. I want to be as cool as Millie Bobby Brown when I grow up. Boston University Class of 2020.