The song “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X has been a chart-topping hit for weeks. Conversations about the artist, the song, and its place in music dominates the airwaves and group text threads. The song quickly ascended Billboard’s Country Charts before it was removed for being too hip-hop and not country enough—whatever that means. The song then went to No. 1 on the Hot 100, where it enjoyed a comfortable reign before being embraced by the country music establishment in Nashville.
Lil Nas X has effectively reached listeners across age, race, ethnicity, religion, geography or sexual identity, gender orientation and gender expression (I mean, did you see the video of the elementary school students going up?).
Music is the most universal language we have and its popularity gives some artists the opportunity to not only entertain, but also to educate. As (Black) Pride Month came to a close, Lil Nas X used his platform to encourage us all to level up. There are a few lessons we can learn from our brother Lil Nas X.
1). We must all commit to shattering stigma, disrupting myths, and speaking full truth to power.
2). We cannot assume that everyone is strictly heterosexual. There is danger in missing the intersections between being Black and being Black and identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same-gender loving people (LGBTQ/SGL).
3) Heteronormativy, or the assumption that most people are strictly heterosexual makes many of us invisible and erases important parts of who we are and how we show up in the world.
By affirming his intersectional identities, Lil Nas X reminds the world that Black people show up and show out in incredibly diverse ways. Yet, the removal of “Old Town Road” from the country charts reveals deep and abiding fissures in our country around race, class, and representation. Somehow an artists’ race and class—more than his actual music—defined how his music was received.
Beyond complicating superficial understandings of race in (country) music, Lil Nas X also reminds the world that identity is far more complicated than assumed. As long as there have been Black people there have been Black LGBTQ/SGL people, too.
Lil Nas X never hid who he was. To most, Lil Nas X “came out” via Twitter. Even the idea that he “came out” is problematic. It implies the expectation that LGBTQ and same gender people are expected to announce same-sex romances or queer, intimate attraction to heterosexual people on command. Cisgender heterosexual people are seldom expected to announce their sexual identity, gender orientation, or gender expression. When you think about it, the “coming out” narrative only affirms the problematic assumption that heterosexuality is normal.
So we’re clear, it is not — this assumption is pejorative and is designed to assign special benefits to those that identify as heterosexual. This also assumes there is a period when LGBTQ/SGL people are “in” or hiding, or otherwise not acknowledging important, intimate parts of themselves.
Lil Nas X’s “C7losure” begins with the lyrics: “True say, I want and I need to let go, use my time to be free.” He continues, “Ain’t no more actin’, man that forecast say I should just let me grow/ No more red light for me baby, 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.”
If the lyrics aren’t illustrative enough, Lil Nas X has provided additional receipts. Consider his tweet, “Thought i made it obvious,” including a photo of him as a cowboy riding toward buildings lit by rainbows. While not explicit in naming same-sex or non-strictly heterosexual interest and attraction, Lil Nas X invites us all to consider what has been expected of him and the growth that will enable him to be free.
No one should be expected to announce to the world who they are, or who they love. The fact that we have come to expect access to this personal information is a reflection of what little regard we have for LGBTQ/SGL people.
If nothing else we can learn from Lil Nas X’s reminder to pay attention, ask more meaningful questions, and to suspend judgement when seeking to learn about one another. Lil Nas X has invited us into his world, invited us to learn about his experience as a young, Black, same-gender loving man. Rather than criticizing him or cracking jokes we should be giving thanks, for his vision, for his courage, and for having been invited in, by him, to learn more about who he is.
For Black people, "coming out" is as difficult, if not more so, than other groups. We do not come out and move to large, welcoming neighborhoods and communities like Chelsea in New York, Boystown in Chicago, or West Hollywood. Most Black LGBTQ/SGL people live with other Black people in the South, often in states where it is still legal to discriminate against a person based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. In these spaces, rather than “coming out,” Black LGBTQ/SGL people may “invite in” those we know and love to help them better understand who we are and how we show up in the world.
To those who have not yet invited others in, know that you are beautifully and wonderfully made. You are perfect the way you are. Our community will welcome you into a world that will learn and grow when you are ready to claim space, live and free yourself without shrinking or hiding or apologizing for who you are. We see you. We value and love you!
David J. Johns is the Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition, which works to end racism and homobia so that all Black people can get free. He is an educator, researcher, federal policy expert, and advocate.
Brandon Vincent is a Junior Sociology major at Loyola University New Orleans and Summer 2019 Intern with the National Black Justice Coalition.
(Photo by HGL/Getty Images,)