Childish Gambino "This Is America"
Songs That Defined the Decade

Songs That Defined the Decade: Childish Gambino's 'This Is America'

“It was pretty clear that it was going to have a major impact.”

Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved. 

Some of the greatest songs ever written were penned with impossible speed. The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” — all came to life in 30 minutes or less. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” was more of an odyssey. 

“I worked on that song for maybe three or four years,” says Riley Mackin, a sound engineer who’s recorded with Donald Glover since his 2013 LP, Because the Internet

Glover labored over the track during his Awaken, My Love! recording sessions in 2016, then into ‘17 and ‘18 as he searched for the right tone to ignite his propulsive protest jam, sometimes laying down a single line 50 different ways. “Then he'd be like, ‘Man, let's go back to the first one,’” says Dru Castro, another engineer -- one of nine credited on “This Is America” -- who recorded vocals with Glover in late 2017. “He was like a scientist exploring all the possibilities.” 

The tedium paid off; Glover’s vision of “America” -- with Young Thug, Slim Jxmmi (of Rae Sremmurd), BlocBoy JB, Quavo, and 21 Savage all adding ad libs -- was an instant smash. Critics and fans alike hailed the track as an unflinching reflection of racism, gun violence and police brutality -- an emphatic anti-authoritarian statement with swag to spare. 

It was a rare protest hit in an era when listeners, for a variety of divisive and tragic reasons, have called for popular music to better mirror the times. On May 14, 2018 it became the 31st single to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100 (also Glover’s first chart-topper) -- following Glover’s debut of the song on Saturday Night Live two weekends earlier, where he served as both host and musical guest.

While the song was brilliant in its own right, with its dichotomous pairing of jaunty South African choral singing and menacing trap pulse, much of its virality was bound to its visual -- easily one of the most incendiary and unforgettable music videos in recent memory. 

Directed by Hiro Murai, a collaborator on Glover’s acclaimed FX dramedy, Atlanta, the provocative piece depicted a shirtless Glover as a figure plucked from an unfortunate history, donning traditional slave pants and posing as a Jim Crow caricature while he commits acts of violence and bops through a warehouse that gradually erupts into chaos around him. 

“When we first saw it, it was an immediate jaw drop,” says John Fleckenstein, co-President of RCA Records, which released the song. “It was pretty clear that it was going to have a major impact.”

The video’s myriad cultural references -- from Glover’s interpretation of the South African gwara gwara dance to his controversial portrayal of the 2015 Charleston church shooting -- were dissected as closely as any Oscar-buzzy feature film. The response was a rarity for the 2010s; zeitgeist-busting music videos have become an endangered species as manicured social media accounts provide artists a daily direct line to their fanbases. 

“The truth is a lot of [music videos] do a fair job at showcasing an artist’s brand, but very few connect in a way that becomes art,” says Fleckenstein. 

Early in 2019 it won best music video at the Grammy Awards, a mere footnote to “America” also becoming the first rap single to win both record of the year and song of the year (as well as best rap/sung performance). 

While “This Is America” did have its dissenters, who claimed the video was sensationalizing real-world traumas, the overwhelming reaction was a celebration of Glover as a modern auteur and visionary -- one who could funnel his talents as a rapper and actor into a representation of the triumph, fear, celebration and outrage that permeates African-American life. 

“What stuck out to me [working with Glover] was that he never sold the record short,” Castro says. “He never underestimated the power that music can have on impacting culture.” 

Songs That Defined The Decade