Lil Nas X has made history. On Monday, the rapper became the longest-leading No. 1 single in Billboard 100 history at 17 weeks, surpassing Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day" and Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber's "Despacito."
In just seven months Lil Nas X has become a household name, as quickly as his viral genre-bending song “Old Town Road” made its way across platforms like Tik Tok, Twitter, and ultimately to the top of the Billboard charts. The song responsible for giving his career a jolt also, single-handedly, shook up the country music genre, caused some listeners to squirm at the thought of a country-rap single topping the country Billboard charts. In March, the country-rap tune debuted at No. 19 on Hot Country Songs but was abruptly removed the following week after being deemed not “country enough,” among other reasons. Country music superstar Billy Ray Cyrus was then recruited for the remix, a challenge to the outlawing of the song by country airways, and simultaneously went triple platinum, reminding everyone that you “can’t tell” Lil Nas X nothing. His impact, however, wasn’t beholden to the record charts.
On June 30, as Pride month came to a close, the 20-year-old rising star urged his followers to listen closely to the seventh track, “C7osure (You Like),” from his EP 7. In the song, Lil Nas X talks about his need to be free, having the space to grow, and not wanting to have regrets well into adulthood — ultimately coming out while floating over a techno-like beat. His coming out as gay received an outpouring of support and became a significant moment in music.
Popular music has always had an incongruent relationship with homosexuality, particularly the genre of hip-hop. While some of the most lauded artists identify as LGBTQ, some believe upholding heteronormative stereotypes of masculinity, and/or the fear of rejection by their peers and fanbase, has kept many artists closeted.
“Hidden or not, homosexuality in hip-hop has been around ever since the Sugarhill Gang dropped the first record to become a Top 40 hit,” says hip-hop writer and cultural critic Kevin L. Clark. “Ice-T, the Beastie Boys, and in more recent years, Eminem and Cam'ron introduced their brand of homophobia to the game with mainstream successes. With artists such as Young M.A, Gyre, Kodie Shane, Tyler, the Creator, and others expressing themselves truly as who they are, I feel the hip-hop community — especially in the age of Trump — is missing an opportunity to "grow the ranks," so to speak. Hip-hop should ensure that the "peace, love, and soul" elements the culture claims to be founded on reject ignorant people who think rap is only full of nonsensical words, anti-gay slurs and sentiments, and normalized violence against LGBTQ people.”
While he isn’t the first Black queer artist to tread the shaky waters of the music industry, Lil Nas X is the first making Billboard history and breaking records.
Music historian, journalist, and lecturer Dart Adams elaborated on how Lil Nas X arrived at this point in his career. “His record is important for several reasons," he says, "the main reason being that he was denied on the country music charts for something that didn’t make any sense — not to writers, producers, even people in the country genre, like Billy Ray Cyrus. What he did, expertly, was pivot. He rallied everyone on his side and eventually hit number one. Using the internet and not alienating anyone, but instead, he got everyone to essentially root for him in breaking this record.”
Dart continues, “He played 4D chess at 20 years old, and he won. On top of that, he comes out. He checked every box, flipped the paper over and checked more boxes. He was able to find the loopholes in the industry and create remixes, and the way he’s executed it is almost perfect.”
On a grander scale, as an openly queer man, Lil Nas X joins the likes of other Black artists who have navigated the industry, unapologetically being themselves.
In 2011, Frank Ocean debuted his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra after writing songs for some of music's top artists. The following year he penned a revealing Tumblr blog post, coming out as bisexual. He then followed up with Channel Orange, which debuted at No. 2 in its first week on the Billboard charts and took home a Grammy for best urban contemporary album.
Some critics believe that Frank Ocean's coming out was a turning point in hip-hop. He became a glaring example of being out and proud; he was already perceived as an artist ahead of his time in music, but the Tumblr statement further cemented his significance in a cishet-dominated genre. Artists like Lil Nas X also elevate the conversation of what it means to be a queer in hip-hop, and defy all the rules.
“Steve Lacy and Frank Ocean’s songs being about a guy doesn’t change the song or the greatness that is their artistry. Art is art,” Dart adds. “There’s so much more visibility, access, and openness now. It’s not the agenda that people believe it is; people have been so pushed underground so they never lead with their sexual orientation.”
As the music industry seems to progress toward a more inclusive climate, artists are releasing songs that leave us no choice but to tune in as they dominate the charts and inspire others. The contributions to music made by Black queer men are simply undeniable. Whether the subject matter differs or not from the heteronormative roots of their genres, whether they’re wearing jeans or a dress (á la Lil Uzi Vert), these artists are reminding everyone that there is space for them to talk about their experiences.
“Sylvester wasn’t tolerated and there was a lot of push back. He was flamboyant and very much himself,” Dart says. “Growing up in a time when Sylvester and Prince dressed as a 1970s aristocrat and wore high heels, it seemed weird, then but it’s been forgotten about. It’s not a new phenomenon, but recently we’ve regressed. There’s always going to be this thing with the scrutiny of Black males; it’s different than it is with Black female artists. What’s going to happen is we’re going to get to a point where artists come out from the outset and not after their successes.”
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue