With outrageous dress sense and an attitude to match, Lil Nas X is one of modern culture’s most visible and outspoken media personalities. He is also one of its most misunderstood. Answering the question of who he is, how he found success, and the impact of his work as a Queer artist is a far more complicated matter than many media commentators make out.
Old Town Road
Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ was released in 2018. It later went viral in March 2019. The unique mix of rap and country had never been seen before. It was welcomed as a global phenomenon for its novelty. However, no one could have predicted its lasting impact.
Since its 2019 release, ‘Old Town Road’ has become one of the US Billboard 100 singles chart’s longest-running number one hits in history. It topped has the US charts for 19 consecutive weeks, almost 4-and-a-half months. At the time of writing, it sits at number 70 and has spent 33 weeks on the chart. ‘Old Town Road’ boosted the Georgian rapper to an unprecedented level of fame. But there was more to be seen of Lil Nas X.
Lil Nas X Comes Out
On June 30, 2019, Lil Nas X came out as publicly gay. “Some of ya’ll already know,” he Tweeted on the last day of American Pride Month, “some of ya’ll don’t care, some of ya’ll not gone fwm no more. But before this month ends I want ya’ll to listen closely to C7osure.”
To many fans, the star’s outrageous dress sense and flamboyant personality had already given several hints. To Lil Nas X’s large conservative fanbase, it was a shock. The blowback was significant. Something Montero Lamar Hill addressed in a follow-up Tweet. “Thought I made it obvious,” he stated before pointing out the album art of 2019’s 7 EP even includes an LGBTQI+ flag on the cover.
There was no turning back for Lil Nas X. His new single ‘C7osure (You Like)’ served as an open-hearted letter to fans. It described Lil Nas X’s fears and hopes for the future after being upfront about his sexuality.
“No more red light for me, baby,” Nas sings, “only green, I gotta go pack my past up in the back, oh, let my future take ahold. This is what I gotta do, can’t be regrettin’ when I’m old.”
In a few short Tweets, Lil Nas X flipped the switch on his public persona. He quickly became looked to as a leader and spokesperson for the Queer Community. The liberation of revealing more of his real self to the public was not without a cost. It also attracted a newfound level of public scrutiny. Lil Nas X’s actions were now placed under a new kind of spotlight.
Shade Never Made Anyone Less Gay
Lil Nas X embraced his new persona with exceptional speed. Still touring ‘Old Town Road’ across the US, he replaced his worn-out denim jackets and pants with reflective rhinestone suits, cut-out pants, and chest exposing tops. His bold pink Grammys outfit, which included a bondage-inspired harness, further made the message clear while causing waves of applause within the fashion community.
While many praised the rapper’s statement and new look, others were not so enthusiastic. Gay identity has often been the subject of ridicule in hip hop. “I think in the daily life of a black male, we gay-bash way more than we disrespect women,” Kanye West controversially proclaimed in 2014.
In opening stating his sexuality, Lil Nas X took a risk. In previous eras, the labeling of a Black American artist as gay could bring down their careers. Today, many still hold to this narrow and outdated view of masculinity.
Following Nas’ coming out one rapper, Pastor Troy went on a homophobic slur-filled rant. The viral statements claimed Lil Nas X was “pushing his homosexuality” and that his agenda to take away Black men’s masculinity. Homosexuality said Pastor Troy was to be hated not to be defended. Scorned, not understood.
Out and Proud
Outside the rap community, Lil Nas X also faced pushback from religious groups. These conflicts would come to a head when Lil Nas X released the provocative 2021 single ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)‘. The single and its accompanying video gained traction for its bold representation of sexuality and religion. It is more than a crass attempt to gain media attention.
The video for ‘Montero’ retells theological stories through a Queer lens. Lil Nas X aims not to corrupt scripture, but to include Queer people in stories where they have always been present but have been erased by history. The single quickly became one of the most listened-to songs in the world.
The backlash was considerable. The protest videos of several religious groups quickly made global headlines. A key point of criticism was Lil Nas X’s use of Satanic imagery. (The video notoriously ends with Nas chaining Satan to his throne while mounting the fallen angel’s chair for himself.) No longer one to shy away from controversy, Lil Nas X shortly after released a set of Nike Air Jordon “Satan Shoes” featuring a pentagram, bible scripture, and human blood.
Ousted by Faith
The feeling of being ousted by one’s own faith on the basis of sexuality is a collective experience for millions across the globe. While it may have been eclipsed in the media coverage of the song, many amongst the LGBTQI+ community praised Lil Nas X. Many admired his articulation of a topic rarely touched upon in mainstream pop.
This isn’t the first time Queer artists have found themselves in hot water with religious communities. The battle between secular culture and religious values is as old as recorded music itself. And, as ever, it is musicians themselves that find them subject to these pressures. As with Madonna‘s Black Jesus-depicting ‘Like a Prayer’ before it, Lady Gaga’s 2011 single ‘Judas’ caused a number of highly public protests its use of Christian imagery.
But, somehow, the response to Lil Nas X was different. Not only did Nike start a lawsuit against the singer, claiming his use of their sneakers would cause irreparable damage to the brand, but streaming services temporarily removed his song from all platforms. (Though it was later reinstated, and the removal claimed to be a technical difficulty rather than active censorship.) The situation was well documented on Lil Nas X’s social media, through a series of posts detailing his warning that the song would be deleted, to its eventual reupload.
The cover of Lil Nas X’s ‘Montero’.
Understanding Lil Nas X
Fans and critics alike praise Lil Nas X’s in-your-face attitude and sense of individuality, while attempting to categorize and put him in a box in order to understand him. The reason why many have failed to see Lil Nas X as a fully formed artist comes down to overlooking the role intersectionality plays in his music, as well as artists like Lil Nas X’s public appearance. Lil Nas X is a Black, Queer, man, but these identities are often treated as separate from each other. In his rise to fame as a Queer artist, some have made statements such as “This the only gay person I can respect” and there have even been claims that he is not really gay.
Lil Nas X is Unashamedly Queer
These claims are unfounded. Lil Nas X has been unashamedly Queer throughout his career. From his fashion, music videos, and overt lyrics to a makeup collaboration with James Charles, Lil Nas X presents himself as an arguably ‘stereotypically’ gay man. So why is it that some still refuse to believe it? It may point out an underlying flaw in the way the music industry and mainstream media fail to accurately include Black artists.
Lil Nas X and beauty YouTuber James Charles.
It’s Time to Throw Out Racist Genre Labels
The problem is labeling. People want to put others into simple categories to understand them. This can often run against the reality that each individual is a unique, complicated, and wholly original creation.
Genre labels are a perfect example. In the streaming era, genre labeling is becoming increasingly outmoded. And popular music is reflecting this.
What better example than Lil Nas X? His breakthrough track, ‘Old Town Road’ is a genre-bending fusion of country, hip hop, and pop. It was originally listed in both the Country and hip hop charts but was controversially removed from the Country charts by Billboard. This move was met with public backlash.
Why The ‘Urban’ Genre Category Is Racist
What is more, it stirred up an ongoing conversation around the way Black and other artists of color are forced into specific genre labels and how traditional genre labels such as ‘urban music’ have carried racists connotations. Reflecting these views, Tyler, the Creator called out the music industry in his 2020 Grammys speech. “It sucks,” he shared, “that whenever we, and I mean guys that look like me, do anything that’s genre-bending or that’s anything they always put it in a rap or urban category. I don’t like that ‘urban’ word — it’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me.” Tyler’s enigmatic contemporary Frank Ocean has expressed similar frustrations.
Tyler, The Creator.
How Non-LGBTQI+ Artists Embrace Queer Identity
Speculation on the sexuality of publicly heterosexual artists is a favorite pastime for many thousands of fans. Harry Styles and Taylor Swift are both artists who many fans theorize to be “Secretly Queer”. These conclusions are generally based on layers of background context and the belief that there might be hidden meanings behind many of the more ambiguous lyrics of fans’ favorite artists.
Both artists dismissed these claims early on in their careers but have more recently utilized ambiguity in recent years to align themselves with the Queer Community. Examples of this include Taylor Swift’s ‘You Need to Calm Down’ video featuring appearances from a list of gay and trans celebrities, and Harry Styles’ headlining making gender-bending fashion. While it is a good thing to see traditionally Queer aesthetics being celebrated, it is bittersweet to see this occurring when proud members of the community are being ignored.
Taylor Swift in 2020.
Black Artists Face Double Standards
Black men, in contrast, have to prove their queerness. In recent years, there has been an insurmountable increase in Queer characters on television. But time and time again these roles are played and written by people with no experience in these communities. This has led to an extremely limiting narrative in how queerness is expressed. What is needed is a greater need for authentic, multi-dimensional representations.
Things are getting better. While not everyone in society is willing to, many more traditionally conservative people are willing to accept and celebrate gay culture. Lil Nas X is a shining example of this. Online, many Queer Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) men recount experiences where their flamboyant fashion has been praised for “looking like Lil Nas X”. Their likeness to the artist has helped them in situations where, in past, they would have feared, or actually have ended up in, a violent confrontation with those outside the Queer Community.
Pop music has been an avenue to fame, status, and respect for Black American artists in the light of systemic racism at all levels of society. Yet even today the idea of an empowered Black man has been considered a threat if not diffused with camp elements. In past, pioneering Black label Motown presented its male artists as perfectly manicured and in suits. Prince and Little Richard created outrageous stage personas and wore purpled camp suits. Today even hip hop’s cartoonish element sometimes seems to cushion pop’s predominantly white audience from acceptance of Black Power. Lil Nas X is diffrent. He is not using his camp image as a distraction. Instead, he manifests the inner in the outer. The way he dresses is a joyful expression of the person he really is.
Lil Nas X Refuses to Be Boxed In
Montero Lamar Hill is constantly fighting to take control of his image. But there is something going on here that is greater than just one man. His personal struggles are having a flow-on effect. Lil Nas X is changing how Queer and Black men are perceived by society as a whole.
Lil Nas X reflects a too-long overdue cultural acceptance of gay artists. Undue focus is heaped upon his controversial acts. Many fail to celebrate the fact he is one of the most successful openly gay men in music history.
While Lil Nas X embraces the whimsical elements of Queer culture, he also projects the image of an ambitious, creative, successful, and ultimately genuine gay man. This opens the way for others to be the same. While acceptance of Lil Nas X is far from universal, it is unquestionably a step in the right direction.