FEATURE: Is This America? How Perspective and Direction Can Be Gained from Artists Regarding Gun Violence in the U.S.




Is This America?



How Perspective and Direction Can Be Gained from Artists Regarding Gun Violence in the U.S.


LAST night…


IN THIS PHOTO: Sacha Baron Cohen (right) in a sketch for Who Is America?/PHOTO CREDIT: Showtime

saw Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest project, Who Is America?, hit the screens. In it, he played a range of characters who, essentially, dupe idiotic U.S. figures – politicians, for the most part – into endorsing arming toddlers and children with guns. As the series progresses, he will fool high-profile politicians like Sarah Palin – perhaps not the hardest thing to do considering the sort of thing that comes out of their mouths! It is shocking seeing how easily these people open to up to Cohen’s characters and endorse the most ridiculous thing – whether it is guns camouflaged into soft toys or the idea of arming those as young as four! Whilst it is disturbing hearing and seeing such casual and reckless attitudes to guns; some critics have made a point: is it revelatory or does it already confirm what we know about many U.S. politicians (mostly Republicans)?! The Atlantic reviewed the opening episode of Who Is America? and had this to say:

The big, shocking capper of Who Is America?’s first episode sees Cohen’s character Erran Morad, an iron-jawed Israeli gun activist, coax several current and former members of Congress into endorsing a program that would arm kindergarten students. People like former U.S. Senator Trent Lott, Rep. Joe Wilson, former Rep. Joe Walsh, and gun lobbyist Larry Pratt are filmed reading ludicrous prepared statements peppered with lines like “Our Founding Fathers did not put an age limit on the Second Amendment!” It’s a gotcha moment meant to underline the blind extremism of ideology—but is that something American viewers really need further confirmation of right now?

There have been similarly mixed reviews that applaud the boldness of Cohen but wonder whether we are learning anything new. It will be interesting to see how the series progresses and what we can learn. It is hard, at a time when gun violence is at a shocking high and the ignorant Trump is in office, to find real solutions and breakthrough. Gun violence in the U.S. is as old as the nation itself: from Abraham Lincoln’s assassination to the ongoing and unending high-school murders; we have struggled to get to grips with the sheer volume of tragedies in the U.S. I realise gun violence is not a problem limited to America. Most nations on Earth, in some form, have to deal with gun violence but it is especially pronounced in the U.S. – especially such a powerful and influential world power. This current political incarnation (in the U.S.) is not going to further the calls for a ban on gun sales. The fact we have Donald Trump in office at the moment means the problems are as rife as ever – someone who feels owning a gun and ‘defending yourself’ is a right and is inalienable. Musicians have always been at the forefront when it comes to addressing the issue – mainly black artists, it has to be fair. Gun violence affects every community but it is the minorities of American that tend to suffer worse.

Whether that is a problem of social poverty or police brutality; there is a definite sense and spine of racism in America. Whilst a lot of high-school shooters, and victims, are white; police shootings have shown how there is a definite sense of discrimination and racism that has disgusted the world. A lot of poorer communities are seeing gun-related deaths rise; one-off attacks are going off – such a scattershot and frightening range of problems to address. Whilst mental-health is a subject and contributory factor; it is hard to find a common link and solution. Musicians are, to me, among the most power and influential people out there. We all remember Childish Gambino’s potent and extraordinary video for This Is America. The video was only released in May but had already received three-hundred-million views on YouTube. The video sees Childish Gambino in the forefront, dancing and smiling. In the background, there is carnage and riot; we see a scene of a man being shot in the head by Childish Gambino – all the while, there is a blend of blasé and shocking. Kendrick Lamar tackled gun violence and hypocrisy – being singled out as a terrorist or gang member – on his albums, DAMN. and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. WIRED wrote a piece following the release of Childish Gambino’s video for This Is American and nailed it alluring appeal:

Working under his rap pseudonym Childish Gambino, Glover, like Walker, suggests a story of impossible escape. It’s tough work, blood-soaked and vacant redemption, but—and here’s where the artifice begins to reveal traces of brilliance—it’s playful and soul-moving to the point one only wants to keep peering into its dark interiors, waiting for the next truth to sprout”.


IN THIS PHOTO: The tracklist for Kendrick Lamar's album, DAMN./PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It is the most striking and talked-about video we have seen in many years. It got me thinking back to the Folk protest movements of the 1960s and '70s when Bob Dylan was singing about war masters and political deceit; the anti-war artists proffered peace and love over arming troops and taking innocent lives. The idea of protest and musical rebellion got tougher and more inflamed by the time groups like N.W.A. and Public Enemy broke through. From the (mostly) white Folk artists offering a peaceful, if angered, plea for calm and togetherness; the new wave of Hip-Hop artists were a more fierce and direct example. From Public Enemy’s calls to fight the power and N.W.A.’s observations of police violence and racist attacks – artists have always been able to offer direction and perspective. A lot of the advice from artists – from the Folk agents to Hip-Hop heroes – has centred around greater awareness and care. It is not about vengeance and striking back at those who perpetrate murders and continue to keep gun violence in the press. Whilst the need for common sense and a change of the law has been a consistent vein running through decades of music; the way artists are discussing gun violence now has changed. The piece I have just quoted talks about Childish Gambino’s video and its climax:

“…And in this, his ultimate trick is his most nightmarish. Throughout the video, Gambino and the school children are the lone people untouched, dancing with the history of Jim Crow alive in their feet, contorting and romping, faces plastered with sly, elastic grins. But it turns out to be a mirage—in the final flash, Gambino’s character is seen manically fleeing down a dark hall, a mob at his back. With harrowing clarity one last note boils, then pops: even when you play their game, they still turn on you. "This Is America," unlike so much protest music, ends as it began—with death, pain, blood. We never know what exactly comes of Gambino, but Young Thug’s closing lyrics bear the impact of a dagger. "You just a big dawg, yeah/I kenneled him in the backyard".

The message is clear: ignorance and accepting what is happening is not going to be a solution. Activation and education are needed; people to stand up and do something. Whilst the actual solution to gun violence might be years away (or impossible at any time) pacifism and turning a blind eye will not improve anything. Songs like This Is America do not point at easy answers and say how we can end gun violence and ensure peace come to the U.S. (and the world). It might be a lot to ask that of musicians but, right now, artists like Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino are providing perspective and forcing us to open our eyes. Music videos are a powerful tool and can be more influential and revelatory than any political speech or news report. I feel, too, a lot of the powerful messages and call for action is coming from a very specific area of music. Black artists of music might have seen their race and people suffer the worse violence but, look at the statistics, and gun-related deaths affect everyone. I wonder whether more artists should be tackling the state of America and the endless spate of attacks. Maybe many feel they lack conviction or knowledge but that would be foolhardy – one need not be a gun expert or know the inner-workings of the N.R.A. (National Rifle Association) to realise what madness there is. The important thing to consider is bringing the subject to the people and getting them out of the assumption staying quiet will see the problem go away.

It is debatable how much constitutional change has been achieved from musicians’ messages but a well-timed song or extraordinary video can open up channels and educate. There are always those who will say music and certain genres have always had a rather spotty association with guns. Some have accused U.K. Trap music of influencing those who carried out gun-related murders in the capital earlier in the year. Others look at the so-called glamorisation of guns and that lifestyle in Hip-Hop videos as fuel for those who carry out murders and school shootings. If people think musicians are endorsing guns and saying it is ‘cool’, then that is motive enough to shoot. This debate has been going for decades and is usually aimed at the film and video game industry – are we all so impressionable we will copycat scenes of gun violence we see on our screens?! Another interesting article looked at those in the Rap and Hip-Hop communities not only opposed to changes in gun laws but culpable when it comes to associating guns with fashion and a normal lifestyle:

Unfortunately not every rapper believes in supporting the changing gun laws. On Saturday (while not in attendance at a #MFOL event) Killer Mike appeared in an NRA video voicing his support for gun ownership. The division of rappers on “conscious” issues affects their persona and their music. Artists who take time in their discography to discuss gun violence can be considered conscious rappers, while artists who use guns in their music to show they mean business are classified as gangster rappers. It’s rare to see someone who creates a gray line between.

As Gangsta Rap was born out of Compton in the 1980s, aspiring rappers tried to follow N.W.A. by not only voicing their reality on police brutality, but their fashion, including a bandana and a glock on their hip. While these defining characteristics poised questions towards gang culture and not always about the music, guns became a centerpoint for toughness in the streets.

Their ability to take a life or at least to scare an unwelcome beef away, created a persona of being untouchable to outside groups”.

I think there is a long way to go regards galvanising people on the issue of gun violence and bringing it to an end. There are even splits and divisions in the music industry which leads me to believe there will always be those out there who feel gun ownership is intractable and acceptable; shootings are either a form of defence or a reality of living in certain communities. It is hard to change everyone’s voting habit but it is clear artists are not lying down and watching these senseless killings. There has been a blindness that has run through music (and society) for a long time. I posed the question regarding music as a whole and why more artists have not spoken out against the horror we see on the news. They need not be American and do not need to be a Hip-Hop artist: any artist is entitled to their say and is capable of provoking reaction. The crucial message that has been common music since the 1960s to the current time is sitting there and expecting change to come will achieve nothing. So much discussion has opened up on the strength of a single music video alone. Childish Gambino’s masterful This Is America – directed by Hiro Murai - has scorched its images and messages into the eyes and minds of everyone who watched the video. It is a protest for action and awareness; that America’s gun problem is not going away and the only way we can ever hope to see any change and improvement is…



TO come together and speak out.