If you've been online in the past eight years, you've probably come across the “LOL Nothing Matters” GIF, rotating in sparkly letters. Deployed as an exit to a debate, or an expression of exhaustion to a troll, it has become a de facto national flag of the internet. It says, finally and definitively: enough.
“This Is America,” the new video by Childish Gambino released Saturday night, perfectly capped a wild week in America — which is to say, these days, any week in America. When the president of the country wasn't running through his greatest hits of "NO COLLUSION!" on Twitter, he was busy changing his story on a $130,000 payment to a porn star. Meanwhile, Kanye West appeared on TMZ to declare that slavery is a choice, earning the admiration of said president, who praised Kanye in an NRA speech instead of talking about the 67 mass shootings so far in the United States in 2018.
When I watched “This Is America ” — graphically showing Gambino shooting first one person dead, and then an entire gospel choir dead, only to continue dancing in unconcerned fashion to a carefree music of African highlife and adlibs from a half-dozen current rappers like Migos and 21 Savage — I initially felt like one of the country's favorite artists had, like Kanye and Trump, entered the business of poking a stick into a beehive just to watch the resulting frenzy. The unconcerned smile, the overt provocation, the guaranteed reaction to it all led me to wonder if maybe Gambino didn't actually believe in anything anymore.
Then it hit me: Maybe I didn't believe in anything anymore either.
“This is America” is not a salve, nor a solution, nor a guideline. It's a mirror. It's right there in the title of the song, which quickly lit up the very same social media networks that are corroding our communication and our political process. The video's careful detail — guns wrapped in cloth, for example, and treated more reverently than dead black bodies — has already been analyzed and decoded, and it ends with Gambino running from a mob of white people, a precursor to what'll likely be a conservative-led parade of outrage about it come Monday morning.
Jim Crow, corruption, Charleston, police brutality — these are all a part of "This is America." But overall, its presentation reflects another national ugliness; the growing sensation that there is no purpose, nor hope, nor reason for faith. It's a sad and harrowing work of art, a spinning “LOL Nothing Matters” GIF, and 100-percent on point about the state of discourse in America.
There are those who oppose this administration but believe its sowing of discord and untruth will result, eventually, in a net positive for the country. That we are in a reckoning with ourselves which was already coming. That it's merely expedited by Trump, with a few years of social and political chaos as collateral damage. I can't join them, but I know what they're getting at, and part of it is that deep down, we as a country are better than all of this.
On Saturday, before “This is America” was released, I attended a lecture in Berkeley by Lil B, one of the first rappers to maximize technology and social media to build a career that, for a time between 2010 and 2014, looked like a movement.
It's hard to explain Lil B to the unconverted. (When I asked a 15-year-old once, he said “imagine if the internet threw up all the good things in it.”) At his lecture, he wore a salmon-colored ladies jacket and a long print skirt; he spoke of his duty as an artist to respect everybody, and to bring people closer to his “Based” philosophy of creative energy, removing filters, and free expression.
Those ideas parallel the Instagram-ready inspirational quotes currently comprising Kanye's Twitter stream, but in Lil B's hands, they're in the service of generosity and selflessness. Fifteen minutes into his lecture, Lil B became overcome, and invited the audience to take anything they wanted, absolutely free: his art and photographs from the museum's walls, his photos and other ephemera from a table, a Casio keyboard he'd used for his latest album.
A crowd formed to take him up on the offer. Lil B spent the next hour hugging people. “It's all love!” he intermittently said into the mic. “I love you all!”
No new album to generate interest for. No $700 Adidas to sell. No alignment with white supremacists. Just a kid from the Bay Area who once believed in the power of connecting everybody.
The internet was once Childish Gambino's hometown, too; in 2014 he made an entire album about it, referencing E-Vites, Instagram, hashtags, various memes, friend requests, Twitter, and Worldstarhiphop.com. When I saw him that year, it felt like Gambino also believed in the power of connecting everybody, or at least acknowledged the reality that, hey, we all live online now, and it's kind of fun.
A lot changes in four years. Gambino, a.k.a. the inconceivably multitalented Donald Glover, has hopped from the internet to television, where he's making some of the most interesting work on TV with Atlanta. As if to prove that real life is more important than URLs, he premiered his latest album Awaken, My Love! at a campout in the Joshua Tree desert.
And on Saturday, after hosting Saturday Night Live, Glover offered up the result of all that time online, a place he left but we all stayed, arguing with each other and spreading misinformation and elevating narcissists. And, for four minutes at least, watching “This Is America,” and then quickly opening a new tab to post something about it.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.