Lil Nas X and the Challenge to Country Culture

The prominence of artists like Solange Knowles, Blanco Brown, Kane Brown and Rhiannon Giddens mark a challenge to country hegemony

Photo: Tanima Mehrotra

BY Erin LowersPublished Dec 10, 2019

When Solange Knowles released her fourth studio album, When I Get Home, in March 2019, she did it to highlight Black cowboy culture.
"I knew about a year-and-a-half ago [that] it would be really, really important to me to tell a story about Black cowboys. I feel so privileged to meet so many of these cowboys, hear their stories and see them pray before they go in the bullring, and see what they're willing to do to their bodies for the sake of entertainment — which is something I can relate to," she said at her album release party in the Third Ward neighbourhood in Houston, TX.
In a timely coincidence, her release coincided with the rise of 19-year-old Lil Nas X, whose 2018 single "Old Town Road" had started going viral via TikTok videos. Adorning cowboy hats, Hèrmes belts and extravagant jewellery, the young Black artist left audiences confused. Was he a country artist? Was he a rapper? Quickly, the intersection between country music and Black culture was up for discussion.
While the single, which Lil Nas X marked as "country" in streaming service metadata, found itself charting on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in March, the organization decided to remove it from the country charts claiming, "It does not embrace enough elements of today's country music to chart in its current version."
Lil Nas X was quick to point out that Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha's "Meant to Be" was allowed on the country charts, despite also featuring "trap drums." Similarly, country artists such as Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett have geared their music to being more bass-heavy, while Blanco Brown's breakthrough single, "The Git Up," (ironically referred to as the second coming of "Old Town Road") was tracked on Billboard because it was promoted on country radio, and Brown had a previous history of recording "traditional" country music.
Unlike his Black peers, such as Blanco Brown and biracial artist Kane Brown, Lil Nas X was met with hesitation at every corner — even more so after coming out as a gay man. Despite "Old Town Road" becoming the longest-running song to hold the #1 position on the Billboard Hot 100, dethroning Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men's 1997 single "One Sweet Day" and Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber's "Despacito (Remix)," the Country Music Awards failed to recognize the single in any musical categories, but rather for "Musical Event of the Year."
It's a category that biracial folk/Americana singer Rhiannon Giddens — who recently put together the all-Black socially and politically driven group Our Native Daughters — was also nominated for in 2017 after releasing Freedom Highway, an album about the slavery and Civil Rights era.
While Black country artists are no longer an anomaly, underlying racial tones, reluctance to change and the unwilingness to reflect on the origins of this genre's history consume their stories. For the 2020 Grammy Awards, Lil Nas X is eligible for six awards — including Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Album of the Year — three more categories than his "co-star" Billy Ray Cyrus received for "Achy Breaky Heart" in 1993.
Ultimately, the arrival of Lil Nas X, the success of Blanco Brown and Kane Brown, and the introduction of new sounds into the country's sonic lexicon begs the question: on the heels of change, will the country music industry step up?

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