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Discourse Analysis And Semiotics

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All art, regardless of shape or form, is inherently political. This is a simple fact. Ryan (2018) asserts that art cannot exist within a vacuum of apoliticality, for “[the artist’s] ability to create art is shaped by [their] political environment just as much as art itself is.” This is especially true for art created within recent decades, where more and more artists have turned to their own crafts to speak on socio-political issues and, in some way, turn their art into forms of protest. Take Lady Gaga’s “Till It Happens To you” (2014), the majority of infamous graffiti artist Banksy’s work, Beyoncé’s “Freedom” (2016), Brenna Twohy’s “Another Rape Poem” (2014)––these examples are only an extremely miniscule fraction of artists who have used their work to pave the way for discussions that needed to be had. Yet, the world has never been as violently shaken and pushed to discussion as it was following the release of Childish Gambino’s music video for his song, “This is America.”

“This is America” (2018), inasmuch as it is about racism, is a commentary on gun violence in the United States of America, and the role it plays as both a source of entertainment and a threat that must be discussed and regulated (Ramsey, 2018, as quoted by Gajanan, 2018). The music video, directed by Hiro Murai, features Childish Gambino, whose real name is Donald Glover, in an idyllic beginning sequence before everything abruptly spirals into a series of “haunting images of black oppression and gun violence” (Miller, 2018), while Glover dances on despite his surroundings.

There is no question about how deeply entrenched the music video, as a form of art, is in politics. To reiterate Ryan (2018), the creation of art is a byproduct of the political climate it is created within. The release of Glover’s “This is America” was as timely as ever, amidst the toiling racial politics––under which are the issues of police brutality, gun violence, racial stereotypes––that seemed to forever permeate America’s lands. Given the knowledge viewers would have of already-existing discourse surrounding racial politics in America, there is a network of meaning behind the music video that viewers must attempt to unravel and dissect on their own (Jones, 2018). This paper aims to arrive at and discuss the music video’s socio-political implications by means of analyzing its semiotic content, then discuss the lines of discourse it has thus incited since its release.

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and how they function (Fiske, 1990). The world we live in today is composed of many different signs and symbols. Wherever one goes, it is inevitable that one does not interact with these signs. Semiotics delves deep into what goes behind these signs and symbols and analyzes the role they play in regards to culture (Hall,1997). In analyzing the media text we have chosen, semiotics would be the best study due to the numerous signs and symbolisms present.

The “This is America” music video was released on the 5th of May, 2018. Both the song and the accompanying music video attempts to tackle many issues such as gun violence, systematic oppression, and countless other problems that plague modern America. In an interview with the music video director, Hiro Murai, when he was questioned about the elements of “This is America” he described it as “Reactions to what is happening in the world” (Coscarelli, 2018).

Upon further analysis of the music video, it can be said that it contains many signs and symbols from the start until the end. In order to make it more organized, the following symbols that will be identified will be grouped by each minute of the four minute music video.

Majority of these symbols reference the current times and the different issues that are present. The video starts off with an African-American man who picks up a guitar and pans to Gambino, who approaches him shirtless and proceeds to make exaggerated faces. Once Gambino is positioned behind the guitarist, now hooded, he strikes a “Jim Crow” esque pose and shoots the man in the head. After being shot, the lifeless body is dragged away and Gambino hands off the gun to a man who wraps it in a wrapped red cloth.

This first minute of the music video already presents the audience with an impact due to the explicit violence of the gun shot. Aside from this, the different signs and symbols shown already represent different meanings behind it. Gambino being shirtless, shows both his skin color and the vulnerability that comes with it. The exaggerated face that he makes as well as the “Jim Crow” pose references the Minstrel Show according to Telesma (2018). The American minstrel show scene composed of white actors imitating African American slaves by performing stereotypical actions and dressing in blackface (Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2008). The meaning behind the lifeless body being dragged away immediately can possibly represent how most shootings involving the African American community tend to be covered up. The action of the gun being carefully wrapped in a red cloth may represent how red america, the republicans, tend to prioritize having guns instead of lost lives.

Once the beat drops and Gambino walks away from the body, chaos ensues in the background. Despite the chaos, Gambino along with school children dance happily to the Gwara Gwara along with popularized dance moves. The video then pans to a happily singing african american choir which Gambino dances along to until he suddenly shoots them with an AK-47. Gambino dancing with the school children can be interpreted in two different ways, the first being how America consumes African culture by popularizing it as well as how the dancing can represent how we often distract ourselves instead of focusing on the harsh realities of the world (Gajanan, 2018). The choir strongly references the incident of the Charleston Church shooting where a white gunman murdered nine African Americans. The choice of weapon, an AK-47, can be alluded to the fact that this type of gun is mostly used in mass shootings in the United States (Chivers, 2018)

As the video progresses, the state of chaos in the background increases such as scenes of suicide, people running everywhere and etc. The video perfectly times with Gambino’s lyric, “this is celly, that’s a tool”, when the shot focuses on teenagers on their phones recording the chaos happening below. Aside from this, the video also pans to the location of the warehouse. A hooded black figure then runs across the screen on top of a white horse. If looked upon closely, Gambino pauses for exactly 17 seconds before the music plays once again. In the modern age of technology, it is common for people to use their phones as a device to record certain situations such as violence. Using phones as a tool can represent how the evidences would help raise awareness and justice however these tend to be silenced as symbolized through the white bandanas covering their mouths. The warehouse in a sense resembles what is a jail for its enclosed spaces. This could reference the use incarceration as a tool to keep African Americans at bay. The hooded black figure on a white horse represents the grim reaper or more likely the horsemen of the apocalypse as described in the book of revelation 6:8. The 17 seconds Gambino pauses in, is a tribute to the Parkland Shooting where 17 students died.

Lastly, the video returns to the same guitar melody and guitarist at the start of the video and Gambino is seen dancing on top of cars which driver’s doors are opened. The scene then fades into black, transitioning to Gambino running away with fear in his eyes from a crowd chasing after him. The symbol behind the opened doors would be the numerous occurrences where African American drivers would be pulled over and in some occasions, abused by the police. Gambino running away represents how African Americans would have to run away to save their lives (Gajanan, 2018).

Using Piercce’s categories of signs such as icon, index and symbol. Majority of the signs seen throughout the music video would fall under the iconic symbol, specifically

Throughout the video we see many choices that Gambino decides do in order to properly showcase the signs and the meanings behind them. The individual media text contained many elements, and they are each different. We classify these according to Saussures’ Paradigmatic and Systematic choices. The Signs’ meaning is determined mainly by its relationship to other signs. Where there is choice there is meaning, and the meaning of what was chosen is determined by the making of what was not. But to simplify it, Paradigmatic means the operating choices made, whereas syntagmatic means the ways of organizing, and the relationship that it has.

From a Paradigmatic approach we can see the way operation the choices. Throughout the video he takes us through the different events that shape the American society. We see the oppression and its relation to Jim Crow law. We also see the choice of Childish Gambino to film it in the way we did. Making it seem as though it is shot in one take was a choice that he made. We can assume it was shot in such as a way as to properly showcase how we are being taken on journey of what America is. The choices of casting the actors, the background scenes shown ex: the choice of props, and the choir, etc. Shows how Gambino chose to show the african-american aspects by tackling the situations head on with the scenes in the video. The choice of scene placement makes up for telling the bigger part of the narrative and creates a bigger impact. All these choices were done with a purpose by Gambino in order to accurately illustrate what he is trying to get us to listen and watch.

From a Syntagmatic approach we see the way Childish Gambino chose to organize the way the scenes are shown. There is a clear train of thought present, There is a clear relation throughout the video, and it is seen in the different scenes. The order in which they are placed is very important. There is an sequence that follows the song, that in itself is also seen to be a way or organizing that helps us, the viewers, properly digest these things. the increasing chaos in the background as the song goes along also affects the viewers, we see the ensuing carnage that goes on. A testament to the issues that plague that nation.

Each and everyone one of these choices, relations, and forms of organization affect how us the viewers watch and interpret that video. Each of these impact us and all have a reason as to why they are there in the first place.

‘This is America’ relies heavily on codes as well. Codes is the system into which signs are organized. The study of codes is what emphasizes the social dimension of communication. In this part of the paper we begin to classify the codes that Gambino uses in the video. Firstly, Gambino uses broadcast codes. Broadcast codes are codes meant to easily digestible to big audiences.

Throughout the video he is providing clear-cut examples of what is happening. He is not using sophisticated language, or jargon. It is not said with overly complicated technical terms. Mostly we believe that this is done in order to showcase the problems that is faced by Americans on a daily basis. The reason for the broadcast codes is to be able to share with the most possible amount of people. For a media object that is attempting to shed light on such events we believe that broadcast codes is the best way to define this. He is attempting to showcase these problems to all of America.

Secondly, we believe Gambino used representational codes, these are codes that regardless of most things can stand for itself. The video uses representational codes because of the different iconic symbols it has in it. These different symbols contain deeper meanings which go hand in hand in affecting the whole impact of the message. The messages would be elaborated because childish gambino expounds on these images and it is understandable to majority of the people.

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Lastly, we believe that Gambino is using restricted codes. These are codes that are concrete, mainly used by the average person on the street, and always points to social position. Gambino used this over it’s alternative, the elaborated code mainly because he was attempting to talk to the average American. These are people who he tries to show in the video. He is attempting to connect to those people who are affected by the things in the video. Those who are affected by Gun Violence, Racism, and things of the sort. That is why he choose to use restricted codes.

We also will discuss the denotative, connotative, and mythic meaning behind ‘This is America’ before we get into detail we will give a quick run down. Denotative is the simple, basic descriptive level of meaning attached to it. It is generally undisputable. The connotative meaning is how we as people perceive it. While the myth is the interpretation by which a culture explains or understands some aspect of reality or nature.

For ‘This is America’ it goes like this, From a Denotative Perspective, Childish Gambino is simply signing a song called ‘This is America’, going shirtless in the music video. While singing along to a beat about American pop-culture, gun violence, systematic oppression, and racial tension. All while the background is filled with visual compliments to this.

From a Connotative point Childish Gambino is looking discussing the the problems of American society. In scenes involving the gun violence , the dancing through all of it. The running away at the end showing us how he is attempting to escape, running for his life trying to get away from what the country is becoming. In addition, the

The myth however is that we see a theatrical version of what America has become, and how it has always been. It gives us a glimpse into how America functions exactly how it always has, and due to the amount of violence we see now thanks to widespread news coverage and social media people have become desensitized to the type of actions that plague the country every day. When on paper and in supposed constitution it looks better, but in practice it as a country is still yet to shake off the deeply rooted biases it still clearly has.

Given the music video’s semiotic content, the discourse “This is America” sparks must be as politically-charged, urgent, and controversial as the very figures, ideals, and issues the music video presumably alludes to. It is only by engaging in the discussions being had––this discourse taking place––that one may be able to fully realize the true reach of the music video’s socio-political implications. But, first: what is discourse?

Discourse, essentially, “is about the production of knowledge through language.” (Hall, 1992, p. 291, as cited in Hall, 1997, p. 44) Taking it even further, discourse is the means by which speech and conversation is analyzed in order to distinguish existing power relations and dynamics governing particular social scenarios (Cousin & Hussian, 1984). Given these definitions, it becomes clear just how crucial analyzing the discourse is to realizing the commentary “This is America” makes.

“This is America” presents a multitude of lines of discourse. The two dominant types of discourse the music video produces are that of race and of gun violence. Beneath the line of racial discourse falls discussions on police brutality, the history of black America, and racial stereotypes; whereas under the discourse surrounding gun violence lie discussions on the virtue of guns, mass desensitization against violence, and the role of pop culture and social media as instruments in mass desensitization against violence. It is impossible to separate these two lines of discourse from one another, as “This is America” makes it so that they are intrinsically tied. Jones (2018) explains, “America constantly relies on black Americans to create pop culture even though the country still runs on the idea that all black people are dangerous, an idea we’re often killed for.” As such, this paper will henceforth combine the two and refer to them as a singular discourse.

There are a series of truths made known within the discourse of “This is America.” Such truths are as follows: the existence of police brutality; the immense (albeit unjust) value placed on guns, despite its capacity for violence; the ease and nonchalance with which violence is both observed and afflicted; and black people as both victims of violence and a means to distract from it.

These truths are obviously in contention with the opposing side of the discourse, who will tote #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter picket signs, as well as advocate for the right to carry despite overwhelming evidence that ease of access to weaponry has done America more harm than good (Lopez, 2019). It also opposes those who think it ultimately sensationalizes violence as the music video blatantly presents people being gunned down and even the sight of blood and the chaos that surrounds the perimeter of Gambino’s performance.

It should become exceedingly clear, at this point, that the very object of knowledge of the discourse––what lies in the center of all the discussions surrounding the music video––is, ultimately, the African-American narrative. The narrative points to one thing: in America, it is the fate of the black community to be the victims of violence, systematic oppression, and dehumanization. Kornhaber (2018) says it best: “America is a place where black people are chased and gunned down, and it is a place where black people dance and sing to distract—themselves, maybe, but also the country at large—from that carnage.”

As the discourse’s object of knowledge is the African-American narrative, there is no question as to what, or rather, who, the subject of the discourse is. It is the black community. It is Glover, who, in “This is America,” is the image of America’s average, young black male citizen––whether he is dancing, wielding a gun, or running away from something. This discourse characterizes the black community as simultaneously vulnerable and self-defending (Simmons, 2018). The black community, for all its importance to pop culture and to discussions of social justice, remains a largely marginalized community, whose safety is constantly at risk, security undermined, and voices either silenced or ignored in the issues that directly concern them. The black man, as presented in the discourse, is resentful, and yet, is in some way acquiescent of his own reality.

Given that the subject of the discourse is an exclusive narrative, how then are the music video’s viewers made to engage with the discourse? “This is America,” in itself, was made to be engaged with––was made with the intention to compel its viewers to decode its symbolism, and to break down images into words and thoughts. The sheer amount of symbols present in the video is testament to that. By masking the music video’s true meaning behind images and symbols, the viewer is subjected to the discourse they are forced to take part in, by means of determining what exactly everything means, and eventually, what the greater message “This is America” attempts to impart is. The music video cannot be passively consumed, for to do so would be to fail to understand even a fraction of the presented discourse’s object of knowledge. Instead, the viewer must actively consume the music video vis-à-vis dominating political issues in America. “This is America” eases the way for its viewers through its careful crafting of symbols––like Glover’s mimicry of Jim Crow-esque physical contortions, or the guns reverently being placed on red, velvet pillows. The music video, thus, once again, functions as a call to hold the discussions that need to be amidst America’s increasing political turmoil.

Interestingly enough, however, “This is America,” for all its commentary on the black man in America, constructs the African-American body as that of which is expendable. According to the Oxford Dictionary (n.d.), an expendable object is “an object of little value and importance that which can be easily abandoned.” Given its definition, the African-American body, within the “This is America” discourse, is merely collateral damage in ongoing battles against what might appear to be bigger evils (and yet, what bigger evils are there than something so systematic as internalized oppression and the loss of empathy, of what makes man human?); or perhaps, the African-American body is doomed to insignificance. Inasmuch as the discourse may point to the African-American body as easily expendable, however, it calls for a reevaluation of that very ideal. By shedding light on the supposed expendability of the African-American body, “This is America” and its discourse begins to ask its viewers: How has society allowed the degradation of the black American’s identity to go this far?

And perhaps, that is precisely what the discourse in “This is America” wants its viewers to do: to question, and thus, to act. The African-American body cannot, and must not, be treated as an expendable object. Given the four truths previously mentioned in this paper, the discourse implores those who engage within it to sever the black American from racialized stereotypes, and to work to emancipate the black American from systematic oppression. Furthermore, the discourse calls upon society to reach deep down into themselves for an intrinsic, albeit buried, sense of love and empathy for people, and especially for the victimized and the marginalized. Call it poetics, but only by doing so can discussions that need to be had (as what has been mentioned time and time again) take place. There can only be one way to combat indifference and desensitization, and that is by means of love.

“The discussions that need to be had” is a concept mentioned a few times in this paper. The very systems and political climates society finds itself placed within now are exactly what allow the pockets in discourse in which “the discussions that need to be had” exist. As such, “This is America” is in possession of a sort of productive power. The repressive powers that characterized the political environment in which “This is America” was crafted had thus given Glover and the music video the authority to incite discourse and further discussions of racism, gun violence, and media-born desensitization. The music video’s productive power does not restrict itself to inducing emotions from its viewers, but rather opens itself up to becoming the frontrunner for, once again, what needs to be discussed.

As “This is America” inspires discussions, and therefore, discourse, it is important to identify what the existing discourse says about the presentations of power within the music video. The issues “This is America” tackles, after all, are, in some ways, offshoots of already-existing power relations. For example, the power of media, pop culture, and entertainment as a means to normalize and distract from violence and thus desensitize society is explicitly alluded to in the music video. The discourse surrounding “This is America” will, of course, frame this as a statement of knowledge, and yet the fact that it is so explicitly presented may imply that there is still something to be done about it. As harmful as it may be, hope is not lost––there remains a window of opportunity for society to combat its reliance on media, pop culture, and its treatment of violence. However, there is something to be said about the powers absent, but nevertheless at work, in the music video. There is the power of the government that exists quietly within the realm of the music video, but is never physically manifested; in a similar way, the power of white America and its historically-afforded monopoly on the episteme is absent from the music video, but nevertheless exists. These powers, as asserted by the discourse, are insidious. Because they are so, there is little society can effectively do––besides, of course, protest and activism––for without the power of the government or of the hegemony, the reach of these powers are beyond society’s control.

On the other hand, there exists the power of black America: black America’s power as a source of distraction and entertainment, black America’s power as a defiant voice amidst the silencing and oppression, and much more. They are both present and absent within “This is America” all at once. This, arguably, is a form of power that, by touching upon the issues that it does, “This is America” and its discourse give rise to.

At the end of the day, everything boils down to the black American. In fact, it is precisely the black American whom the existing discourse affords “the power of the look.” Because “This is America” speaks on uniquely African-American narratives, the black community is given the privilege of assigning meaning to both the song and the music video. While its viewers are directly involved in the discourse surrounding media content like “This is America,” it must ultimately be the victim––the marginalized––who speaks on the issues that directly concern them, and therefore dictate the direction discourse must take.

That is why This is America is a complex music video, one evoking a multitude of emotion, meaning, and significant historical events. In one’s viewing of the creative output of Childish Gambino, one must immerse the self into the entertainment artefact he put out for the consumer to consume and realize the application of symbolism and the amount of controversial pontificate that the video overall wants to relay to its intended viewers.

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Discourse Analysis And Semiotics. (2022, February 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/discourse-analysis-and-semiotics/
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Discourse Analysis And Semiotics [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 21 [cited 2022 Aug 9]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/discourse-analysis-and-semiotics/
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