I couldn’t decide if Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” was an unlikely success or a sure thing: with its sonic mishmash of dulcet guitar strumming with grimy bass, of gospel choirs and autotuned ad-libs, it’s the most sonically arresting song on the radio. At the same time, its mesmerizing video, a continuous shot of casually violent scenarios ripped from recent high-profile killings of innocent black people, interspersed with frenetic dancing, struck me as all too literal. For all the efforts of online sleuths to identify each individual reference down to Donald Glover’s gray pants, this was a forest far more visible than its own trees.
In its most widely discussed moment, Glover guns down a church choir, clearly invoking the Charleston shooting for any viewer except that guy the New York Times profiled for not watching the news. For all its striking dynamism, the video is, as Zadie Smith cagily puts it, “the most obvious metaphor possible”: black people are prized as musical spectacle while rendered disposable in civil society. And Glover indicts himself with his performative derangement; as Doreen St. Félix notes, while the video is a statement about contemporary antiblack brutality, it is also a statement about music’s inability to challenge it. Even the song’s title conjures that shopworn tautology of contemporary resignation: “It is what it is.”
My personal aesthetic judgments gradually gave way to my populist political sympathies as “This Is America” quickly began to dominate urban radio—and thus, my commute. But I had a full about-face when I discovered that the song’s seeming limitations had opened it up to the rest of the world. To my surprise, “This Is America” was proving endlessly adaptable outside the US.
The vast proliferation of adaptations for other countries—from “This Is Barbados” to “This Is Malaysia”—was something I should have expected: since before “Roxanne’s Revenge,” hip-hop has been, and continues to be, a dialogic and participatory art form, qualities that digital networks have only amplified globally. And so artists from every continent have used Glover’s template to launch their own social critiques, connecting local conditions to an international vernacular.
Just as Hiro Murai, director of the original video, drew inspiration from Brazilian classic City of God, so too did Brazil return the favor. The popular Porta dos Fundos YouTube channel faithfully restages the original’s stark parking lot and minimalist garb, only to descend into total parody. Before the protagonist (Gustavo Chagas) can start the song off with its execution-style bang, two cops burst into the frame. They stop the murder only to stage their own crime, maiming and robbing both the gunman and his would-be victim. This pointed criticism of police corruption is a common theme in these videos.
Popular singer and actor Falz provides a more faithful rendition in “This Is Nigeria,” which caused a stir on social media back in May. It wears its politics on its sleeve, with a voice on the radio intoning, “We operate a predatory neocolonial capitalist system which is founded on fraud and exploitation and therefore you are bound to have corruption,” before delving into a swirl of set pieces: dancing Chibok girls, money-eating snakes, lecherous priests, codeine abuse, and an especially brilliant choreographed section using portable generators—a necessity due to Nigeria’s crumbling infrastructure (a useful rundown of the video’s references is here). As in Brazil, the police are not merely brutalizers, but operate as a criminal gang, shaking down Falz and his friends for bribes in a shout-out to Nigeria’s #ENDSARS campaign, against the country’s detested anti-robbery task force.
“This Is Iraq,” by New Zealand–based rapper I-NZ, also hews closely to the original, but winds up in an even darker place. US soldiers gyrate around tableaux of prisoners in black hoods and orange jumpsuits, some mimicking poses from the infamous Abu Ghraib photos. As someone who reached political maturity under George W. Bush (here fittingly referenced with a rubber mask, like a Point Break bank robber), I found myself once again unsettled. While Bush is rehabilitated as a gentle painter and conciliatory centrist, references to Halliburton and “Mission Accomplished” might seem dated to some. But today, thousands of US troops remain in Iraq, a country that continues to careen through conflict upon conflict. I-NZ, born to Iraqi parents but never having been to Iraq, concludes with the words of poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, intoned over a shot of a prisoner hopelessly sweeping up a pool of blood.
Some of the lower-budget productions contain their own charms. Youth dance troupe Igiza provides a more modest entry with “This Is Kenya,” which restages incidents from the contested 2017 presidential elections, including a bit from a viral video where opposition leader Miguna Miguna refused to be deported to Dubai. Once again, the complaints are poverty, violence, and the corruption of a feckless political class.
“This Is Afghanistan,” an amateurish endeavor by aspiring viral video artist DawoodSAVAGE, is mostly notable for the irony of the title, invoked over shots of New York City and Dubai, suggesting that Afghanistan is no longer a concrete location, but exists in fragments scattered across the globe.
Europeans have gotten in on the trend as well. “Esto Es España,” by hip-hop group LOMO, lends its guitar a flamenco flavor and deploys quotations from Spain’s scandal-plagued and mush-mouthed ex–Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The song is supplemented with gentle ribbing of Spaniards’ love of alcohol and inability to make ends meet in a country still suffering under post-crisis austerity: “What I earn is taken by the bank.”
“This Is England” by Nizzy Nych is a no-frills effort shot inside a crumbling building, and political rapper ZEF’s “This Is France” focuses on the alienation of immigrants from the values of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Repetitions across these parodies show us what it was about Glover’s original that resonated globally. First, police brutality is a near-universal concern. Pop music and policing techniques are both major US exports. The late geographer Neil Smith wrote about the “globalization of zero tolerance” as part of the spread of neoliberalism. The recent volume Policing the Planet expands on this analysis, showing how increasingly militarized policing techniques circulate between wealthy core countries and poorer peripheral ones. New York City is the storied birthplace both of hip-hop and of broken-windows policing. Global commodity flows preserve the dialectic of both state brutality and the cultural movement that rose to contest it.
Also striking is the repetition of the set piece of a vast cavernous indoor space—hangar, warehouse, or, on a more mundane register, parking lot. These recall some of Rem Koolhaas’s cryptic polemics on early twenty-first century architecture: This is America, Nigeria, Iraq (or maybe New Zealand), Spain, but the spaces bear a striking resemblance to one another. They are part of what Koolhaas calls the Generic City. The inscrutable traces of logistical infrastructure are also predictable and uniform: the pallet, the freight container, the Crown forklift.
Yet the videos transform these spaces. These “adjunct infrastructures” of what Koolhaas calls “junkspace” paradoxically become a place to enact real local histories. And, like the return of the repressed, we can glimpse from the corner of our eye the return of the other triumph of modernity, besides architecture: mass politics.
Koolhaas criticized the modularity of contemporary architecture, its interchangeable parts, as a kind of soul-sucking standardization. At least one Nigerian critic had similar comments about Falz’s remix: Glover’s video “worked because it went first,” while Falz, and the others, are mere derivatives. But this apparent failure is the core of hip-hop’s success. The music’s modularity is reflected in its loop- and sample-based origins, giving it attributes of what we now call “platforms.” Its themes of subverting consumerism and resistance to urban austerity have worldwide resonance. The remakes are derivative because the authoritarianism of neoliberalism is itself derivative of the US model: its philosophies of policing, its financial institutions, its trade in drugs and firearms. Glover may have gone first, but the music of the African diaspora is a tradition of call and response. Hearing him say “This is America,” a chorus of voices answers, “This is the world, too.”