Residente’s “This is Not America” is about the Story of “America” and Who is Allowed to Tell It

Opening image from the “This is Not America” music video depicts an outline of the United States in colored LED lights with the words “This is Not America” written in all-caps using the same colored LED lights.

TW: This article contains depictions of violence, especially gun violence. It also depicts scenes from both Donald Glover’s “This is America” and Residente’s “This is Not America,” both of which are graphic.

Residente’s new music video “This is Not America” clearly builds on and challenges Donald Glover’s (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) 2018 music video “This is America.” One way it does so is by interrogating why people say “America” when they mean “the United States.” Residente makes this critique plain when he raps “Gambino, mi hermano, esto si es América” (Gambino, my brother, this is America) after giving two verses that center stories of violence and resistance from “Tierra de Fuego” — South America’s most southern tip — to Canada. But Residente’s music video raises more than this critique of language as applied to nation states and continents. In this music video, Residente questions whether the story of the Americas is merely one of inescapable chaos and violence as depicted in Glover’s work, or whether the story of the Americas is one of resistance.

When Donald Glover’s “This is America” dropped in 2018 it immediately caused a stir. The ways Glover constantly juxtaposed chaos and violence with dancing and celebration made plain his critique of the United States — a place that numbs itself from systemic violence. While many praised Glover for his provocative take that questioned, both, the centrality of guns and anti-Black violence in a nation that was still reckoning with mass shootings, murders by police, white supremacy, and the rise of Donald Trump, others raised concern about how Glover used violence in his art. Throughout the video, Glover would switch from shooting someone to smiling and dancing. In one especially challenging scene, Glover wields an assault rifle and kills a choir — a clear reference to the murder of nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2015 at the hands of a white supremacist. Professor Blair LM Kelley responded to this scene by saying “I’m not sure what is liberatory about reenacting the shootings of black people.” Mia McKenzie commented in a similar vein, “Erasing white people from white violence is not my kind of art.” My colleague and friend James Howard Hill, Jr. further noted that the lyrics of the song gave little framing for the violence of the video. So as you’re watching, the violence is presented but not situated or explained. These critiques make the artistic choices of Residente all the more palpable.

Residente is clearly building on Glover’s work in “This is Not America.” Aside from the title of the song, several scenes mimic Glover’s “This is America.” For example, both videos have key moments where someone with a gun shoots an unarmed person in the head and that individual slowly falls to the floor. While in Glover’s case, he is the shooter and we don’t know the person killed, in the case of Residente, the shooter is a man in a military uniform and the person killed is a guitarist who has been beat up but continues playing their guitar — likely a reference to resistance musicians like Violetta Parra and Víctor Jara of La Nueva Canción Chilena who pushed against the U.S. backed dictatorship in Chile in the 1960s. But these examples are significant for another reason.

Glover’s shooting of this unarmed Black man kicks off the beat of “This is America.” Put differently, in many respects this random act of violence begins the song in earnest. Residente mirrors this in “This is Not America” and also begins the song with a gunshot. But the gunshot is delivered by a woman in red lipstick shooting into the air in front of a municipal building. The woman is clearly meant to represent Lolita Lebrón, the Puerto Rican independence fighter who in 1954, along with a group of Puerto Rican nationalists, shot rounds into the halls of the U.S. Capital building to make plain the constant violence the U.S. government inflicted on Puerto Rico. This act of resistance—which came merely four years after the National Guard bombed the towns of Jayuya and Utuado to undermine an uprising of Puerto Rican nationalists—led to the arrest of Lebrón and her colleagues and became etched in Puerto Rican history as one of the bravest actions for Puerto Rican independence and the end of colonialism. Thus while both Glover and Residente’s songs begin with gunshots, by choosing to feature Lolita Lebrón shooting into the air in front of a municipal building, Residente sets the stage for the ways he’s challenging Glover. America — that is, Southern, Central, and North America — is defined by resistance, not merely violence and chaos.

This challenge to Glover’s thesis is further emphasized throughout Residente’s “This is Not America.” Residente’s video features violence and chaos and even mirrors the ways Donald Glover distracted from the violence in the background by dancing in the foreground — as demonstrated by a scene where two lovers dance tango as police in riot gear beat protesters in the background.

Yet the State violence, repression, and murder depicted in Residente’s “This is Not America” is juxtaposed by just as many scenes of people resisting that violence: from indigenous women in ski masks holding weapons ready to fight, to protesters kicking back police shields, to a child (dressed in clothes reminiscent of Aztec Emporor Montezuma) pouring out Starbucks coffee and throwing away boxes from Amazon, to images of an ancient pyramid sitting in the middle of a modern city calling forth the ways Aztecs, Incas, and other empires in Latin America resisted colonization. All these scenes occur while Ibeyi — a group known for musically centering the wisdom and resistance that stems from African Diasporic Religions like Santería — sing “si quieres mi machete te muerde” (if you’d like, my machete can bite you).

There is something to be said for the lack of explicit resistance movements in Glover’s work, by which I mean a lack of explicit references to activists and progressive political organizations as is prominent in Residente’s art. As an artist, the central claim Glover makes is that we constantly distract ourselves from the violence that seems random but is systemic. This is made most clear in the closing scene of “This is America” where you see Glover running while the violence chases him. One article notes that “Gambino’s sprint goes back to a long tradition of Black Americans having to run to save their lives,” further calling forth the ways “This is America” isn’t merely a critique on guns but on anti-Black violence.

Residente, however, wishes to make a different claim. Residente agrees that violence and chaos is systemic. Indeed, he opens “This is Not America” by talking about the ways the history of the Americas is shaped by colonization and extraction of resources from the people — “Desde hace rato, cuando ustedes llegaron / Ya estaban las huellas de nuestros zapatos / Se robaron hasta la comida del gato / Y todavia se estan lambiendo el plato” (For a long time, when you all arrived / Our footprints were already here / You stole everything including the cat’s food / And even then you’re still licking the plate you stole). But what Residente emphasizes is that this violence isn’t the end of the story; people have always stood up against the violence. Thus his challenge to Glover’s “This is America” isn’t just that “America” encompasses more than the United States. His challenge is that the story of the Americas is one of resistance, not just chaotic systemic violence.

I think there is space to sit with the political implications of both Glover’s “This is America” and Residente’s “This is Not America.” Indeed, in a world where violence — especially anti-Black violence — is so ubiquitous one wonders, like Glover, whether the violence could ever actually be escaped. Residente responds by arguing that perhaps we can escape the violence, perhaps we can’t, but the history of the Americas is a history of people meeting violence with resistance — put differently, whether or not they can escape that violence, they try. And thus Residente’s invitation to interrogate whether or not “America” is merely the United States is simultaneously an invitation to interrogate what defines the story of this place and its people. While doing so, Residente is also questioning who has the power to write that story — those who inflict violence, or those who rise up. My aim here is not to say that either Residente or Glover are “correct,” nor is it to say that one political vision is more compelling than the other. My aim is to say that if we’re going to sit with the invitation of this art we can’t stop at asking who is included in the moniker of “America.” We must move from there and ask: what is the story of “America,” and who’s allowed to tell it?

Note: This piece was re-published by Latino Rebels on March 21, 2022. You can find the publication by clicking here.

Further reflections on criticism received about my engagement with this topic.

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Dr. Jorge J Rodriguez V

Dr. Jorge J Rodriguez V

A DiaspoRican Theo-Socio-Storian contextualizing systems historically made Divine || PhD-Historian-Administrator || All Views My Own (He/Him/His/El)