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May 12, 2021
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ColumnsPopped Culture

Column: How Lil Nas X danced away from hip-hop’s heteronormativity

Hip-hop has long been known for its deep-rooted culture of keeping it real. Since its origins, the genre has been highlighted by anecdotes of the Black experience. However, despite authenticity being the foundation of hip-hop, the genre still manages to lack representation. 

As the hip-hop scene evolved, there grew ideas of an ideal man that is portrayed within  hip-hop. With some of the most successful early hip-hop artists embodying a hypermasculine stereotype, themes including violence and the oversexualization of women came to the forefront of the genre’s content.

Only in the late 2010s — over 40 years after hip-hop’s “birth” — did we see the rise of openly queer hip-hop artists. Rap group BROCKHAMPTON has been praised as a pioneer in normalizing LGBTQ+ artists. 

“I have to exist in a homophobic space in order to make change and that homophobic space would be the hip-hop community,” said Kevin Abstract, BROCKHAMPTON member and openly gay rap artist. 

Fortunately, that’s exactly what BROCKHAMPTON and Abstract have done alongside other artists like Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean — both artists whose music references their attraction to men and women. Queer female hip-hop artists like Young M.A and The Internet’s Syd have started on the even longer path to representation of queer women in hip-hop.

The themes of sexuality and gender that artists like Abstract, Ocean and Tyler, The Creator have illustrated through their music are the opposite of the hypermasculine ideal within hip-hop. Tyler, The Creator’s 2017 “Flower Boy” and 2019 “Igor” — both projects that fans speculate to be about queer relationships — have furthered the defiance of hip-hop’s traditional themes, while Frank Ocean’s “Chanel” tells the story of falling in love with a “guy pretty like a girl.”

However, even with these artists’ content, the difference was still drastic in how sexuality was portrayed. Straight male rappers were making sexually explicit music videos in which the majority of the footage is naked women dancing around the artist. But Tyga didn’t face much controversy for his 2012 “Make It Nasty” video, other than a lawsuit from the women who were exploited in it. Why? Because it fit the mold of what hip-hop artists were expected to do. 

There really wasn’t an equivalent video on the other side of the spectrum to this display of heteronormativity. Queer hip-hop artists had yet to create something that shamelessly displayed their sexuality in the way that it was expected for heterosexual hip-hop artists to do. That is, until Lil Nas X, the rising gay hip-hop star — most well-known, until now, for his hit “Old Town Road” — released the music video for his latest release, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name).

The highly scrutinized music video, released in March, has wound up critics for a few different reasons. The video begins with Lil Nas X trying to get into heaven. It is implied that because he is a gay man, he is not allowed in, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t want to be somewhere where he isn’t accepted for who he is, so, dressed in traditionally feminine clothes and high heels, he pole dances his way down to hell and lap dances on the devil. This has received hate from the Christian right for the video’s satanic themes, but that isn’t the point. It has also received criticism because it’s a gay man expressing his sexuality without watering it down. 

The depiction and expression of homosexuality in Lil Nas X’s video is the dramatic declaration that queer hip-hop needed. The video does not attempt to censor or sanitize queerness. In choosing to go to hell, Lil Nas X embraces the demonization of queerness rather than attempting to be accepted into the space of heteronormativity. 

Before releasing the song, Lil Nas X shared a touching Tweet addressed to his past self explaining the inspiration for the song. “I know we promised to never come out publicly, … but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist,” he wrote. 

And he’s exactly right. The “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” music video is a big jump toward the dismantling of toxic masculinity within the hip-hop scene. Lil Nas X has made a huge step down the road of progress, making space for future queer hip-hop artists. If the genre prides itself on authenticity, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” is the epitome of hip-hop.