Police Brutality, Fear of Blackness, and the Layers of Childish Gambino’s “Boogieman”

“With the gun in your hand, I’m the boogieman…I’m gonna come and get you!”

“Awaken, My Love” album cover

All-around artist Donald Glover (also known as Childish Gambino) just released his third studio album Awaken My Love. Met with mixed reviews, the funky record diverged from his usual mix of witty raps and crooning choruses.

Glover is known for pushing the envelope (whether it’s his music, stand-up comedy, or hit show Atlanta), but regardless of the chosen medium, he uses art to make multi-layered commentary on different issues of the time. One song where he does this most evidently is in “Boogieman”.

In the song, “boogieman” (the childhood scary story) is mainly a metaphor for three things: police brutality, black intra-communal violence, and the black musician.

In the first verse, Childish uses a metaphor to talk about police brutality.

If you point a gun at my rising sun
Though we’re not the one
But in the bowels of your mind
We have done the crime

Here, the “boogieman” is a black person (“rising sun” likely alludes to black youth) being shot by police. Childish is saying that in encounters with black suspects, many police are so terrified that they escalate tense situations into fatal moments. A notable instance was the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson (Wilson described Brown as a demon-like hulk who ran through bullets). Another is officer Michael Brelo being ruled not guilty for his part in the shooting death of Black couple Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. After a 20-mile, 60-police-car-chase, Russell crashed into one of the police cars, and officers fired approximately 137 shots at the vehicle in eight seconds (the final 15 shots came when Officer Brelo stood on the hood of car and unloaded into the windshield. Neither Russell nor Williams had a weapon).

Seminal American writer James Baldwin once wrote in an August 1965 issue of Ebony magazine that “…I have seen it in the eyes of the rookie cops in Harlem–rookie cops who were really the most terrified people in the world, and who had to pretend to themselves that the black junkie, the black father, the black child were different human species than themselves.” This irrational fear and dehumanization may be the reason why a black boy holding toy guns get shot within seconds, while white men with guns who have murdered people live to receive their due process.

A common refrain of police officers who killed black suspects, armed or (often) unarmed, is that they were “scared for their life”; justifying the use of lethal force. Childish is also critiquing a general assumption that black suspects are not just criminal, but have maleficent intent towards everyone around them (“But in the bowels of your mind we have done the crime”). We see this in “(s)he was no angel” rhetoric for conservative commentators, and the proliferation of the (statistically false) idea that there is a “war on cops”. Childish is asking police to stop seeing the “boogieman” when they see black people.

In the next part of the song, Childish addresses violent crime within the black community, where blacks are the perpetrators and victims.

Every boy and girl, all around the world
Know’s my nigga’s words
But if he’s scared of me
How can we be free?

In this verse, Childish is saying that black people need to also address the violence in their community. As they assert that their lives matter, and fight against police brutality, black people should also work to ensure their own neighborhoods are safer

Because of how segregated America is, the majority of murders are intra-racial (i.e. white people kill white people, blacks kill blacks, etc). But the fear of black people isn’t just a police thing, as studies have shown that everyone, including black people, are more scared of black people than whites. Essentially, African Americans need to fight the enemy (real and perceived) from without and within. The “boogieman” is the black person afraid of another black person.

Black artists have long used their platform to call for black folk to address “both sides” of social issues plaguing their community. One most current example is rapper Kendrick Lamar’s award-winning album To Pimp A Butterfly.

After each quatrain verse, Childish says he will use his art to help, using a call-and-response refrain:

You’ve got to help us, can you?
Yes I can

Now “boogieman” is Childish himself, or artists and griots who provide the musical backdrop for the times. He isn’t saying that black music will save black people, more so suggesting it can help them reach a higher collective consciousness, but at least, it give them a space for radical, communal joy.

Throughout American history, popular black musicians have amplified ideas within social justice movements, created anthems, and provided a way black folk can come together to laugh, cry, dance, or ruminate in their everyday lives. James Brown shouted “I’m Black and I’m Proud”, Nina Simone sung of strange fruit, Marvin Gaye asked “What’s Goin On?”, Michael Jackson wondered if they cared about us, Kendrick affirmed that “We gone be alright!”, and Solange sung about the importance of self-determination, and making things “for us, by us.”

Childish used other multiple entendres in other songs such as “Zombies”, “Redbone, “Terrified”, and others songs on the album to approach different topics. But “Boogieman” is a salient discourse about the current black American struggle.