Childish Gambino, provocateur 

Kathleen Posted by Kathleen at September 4, 2018 13:53:26 September 4, 2018 13:53:26

Last year, Donald Glover mentioned on stage at Governors Ball that the next Childish Gambino project would be his last. He confirmed the news in January saying, “I like endings, I think they’re important to progress.” It appears that Donald Glover wants Childish Gambino’s ending to be one of provocation and endless interpretation. For the second time in a row, he’s delivered a music video that is rife for think-pieces and boundless dissection. This is Childish Gambino’s new normal. 

Like “This Is America” before it, Childish Gambino’s “Feels Like Summer” music video is jam-packed with visuals that are up for elucidation. Unlike “This Is America,” I don’t think the intention is as clear but that feels like it’s on purpose. You don’t release a video this celeb-heavy in the social media era without intending to break the Internet. You don’t leave so much up for interpretation if you aren’t baiting the online discourse. 

“Feels Like Summer” features a cartoon Childish Gambino walking through a neighbourhood while animated versions of prominent hip-hop figures, music legends, and pop culture staples act out various summer scenes. There’s a cartoon Janelle Monae and SZA (or Tessa Thompson?) skateboarding, Migos playing basketball, Batman aka Jaden Smith crashing a Chance The Rapper and Birdman barbecue, Solange, Willow Smith, Frank Ocean and more playing tug of war, Future stealing Drake’s bike (lol), Nicki Minaj and Travis Scott playing with toy blocks, Oprah and Tiffany Haddish braiding Zendaya’s hair, ETC. Rihanna shows up in a solo dream-sequence situation. I could go on forever. You don’t need me to recap every cameo in the video. You can click here and here and here for that. The cameos I listed are just the beginning and the least controversial.  

When the song “Feels Like Summer” dropped (along with “Summertime Magic”), I wrote about how refreshing it was to hear recent Childish songs that had nothing to do with black pain. They were just smooth, soulful tracks to end our summers with. They weren’t urgent or socially important pieces of work and that was OK. Allow me to quote myself like an asshole but I promise I’ll make a point on the other side. 

Let’s not overthink the two big scoops of refreshing ice cream Donald Glover just gifted us. We can go back to the worry, the pain and the suffering tomorrow. Today, we dance.

Today, we’re analyzing the sh-t out of a music video that takes a slow, sizzling summer jam and turns it into background noise for a satirical commentary on NO ONE REALLY KNOWS masquerading as a lost episode of The Boondocks. It’s impossible to consume “Feels Like Summer” like mindless dessert and dance away the pain and suffering when there’s a glaring reminder of that pain in the form on a MAGA hat on the top of Crying Cartoon Kanye West’s head, while an animated Michelle Obama hugs him. I’m going to come back to the image of Kanye and the only First Lady we recognize because it’s doing a lot. 

First, let’s get into what the video as a whole means. I actually like the video in theory and until about halfway through, I think I kinda loved it. One interpretation of “Feels Like Summer” is that Childish Gambino is walking through the current hip-hop landscape on his own, as an observer and not an active participant, to symbolize his exit from the game. The scenes that he’s walking past are the distractions that pull focus away from the music (see: Travis and Nicki). So, it’s a similar point he was making in “This Is America”, but less impactful? 

If the video is meant to show Childish Gambino passing through the current state of hip-hop and leaving it all behind, tell me why Oprah is there. Why Whitney? Why Michael? Why bring Michelle Obama into this? That understanding doesn’t exactly hold up. The Kanye and Michelle moments are the few frames of the video that have been dissected the most. After this tweet by The Root… 

… Twitter erupted. This is how The Root and many others interpreted the image of Michelle Obama hugging Kanye West. Before I get into whether I think that was Donald Glover’s intention let me clarify this: The idea that black women are the saviours of the world who will come behind black men (and everyone else) and clean up their sh-t is harmful. It’s harmful because it perpetuates this idea of an infallible Strong Black Woman who doesn’t need her own help. It reinforces the fascination with a black woman’s strength while ignoring the need to support and uplift black women in institutions that continually ignore and marginalize us. Here’s Feminista Jones with the definitive word on this subject:

You think you’re complimenting us by saying “Black women will save us” and “Black women have been right all along” and “We need to follow the lead of Black women”, but you’re not. Not really. What you’re doing is demanding more work against our consent and masking it as praise, admiration, and support.

Michelle Obama “saving” Kanye West from his own dumbassery and ignorant support of Klan President may not have been Childish Gambino’s intention. Some commenters think he’s recreating an image of Michelle and George Bush to make a point about how far removed Kanye is from the man he used to be. 

Others think the Kanye and Michelle image is in direct response to Snoop’s comments that Kanye West needs black women in his life, especially after his mother Donda’s death. So, Michelle is depicted to act as a mother figure to Kanye. Are you confused yet? Even if The Root’s interpretation is not what Childish Gambino intended, that is the easy interpretation. If he put any thought into what the public’s reaction might be, I find it hard to believe that the idea that Michelle Obama is comforting or “saving” Kanye West wouldn’t have come up. Maybe it’s Donald Glover who needs more black women in his life – a critique he’s actually gotten for years, sometimes fairly (professionally) and sometimes not (personally – his partner is not black, which has nothing to do with his ability to create black art). 

A multi-dimensional character like Van on Atlanta doesn’t go from page to screen without the influence of at least one black woman—one named Stefani Robinson to be specific — so Donald could have asked her, not that it’s her job to save him from himself or anything, but someone could have told him that the Kanye/Michelle thing plus drawing Chris Brown as a sympathetic figure were both BAD IDEAS. The video was directed by Donald Glover, Ivan Dixon and Greg Sharp so while I’m inclined to believe that they knew exactly what they were doing here, you could argue that three men didn’t realize the backlash images like these would receive. Sure. 

With this video, Childish Gambino has come full circle. It’s a fitting end, really. How did Donald Glover go from guy who everyone recognized for his comedic talent but mocked as an MC to one of the most celebrated and analyzed artists of the moment? By design. This is the dude who released an album called Because the Internet. He came up making satire videos on YouTube and as a comedy writer on a show riddled with pop culture references. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He wants to provoke. He is pulling from the Beyoncé playbook (our Queen makes an appearance in an RIP Fredo Santana shirt) of not explaining the symbolism in his videos which worked for “This Is America” because the commentary was clear and searing but it doesn’t work as well in this case. His message, whatever it is, has been muddled by the Easter eggs and contradicting images that have fostered incessant over-analysis, which I know I just took part in. Damn, he’s good. 

Childish Gambino has used cartoons to become a caricature of himself. I’m already equally excited, annoyed and exhausted by whatever video he drops next. 
 


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