The importance of being Lil Nas X

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This month, Lil Nas X released their highly anticipated debut album, “Montero”. The album, which follows Nas X’s hit singles “Old town road“(With Billy Ray Cyrus) and”MONTERO (Call me by your name)”Was an instant hit – it contains 11 songs that mapped on the Billboard Hot 100.

KJ Rawson, Associate Professor of English and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern. Courtesy photo.

Lil Nas X has collaborated with some of the greatest musicians around, including Megan Thee Stallion, Elton John, Jack Harlow, Doja Cat and Miley Cyrus. His videos have been described by journalists and critics as radically queer, and theyhave gathered a predictable backlash as such (including, perhaps surprisingly, Governor of South Dakota).

But the pop-rap artist is also innovating: as a black and gay man making very popular music, he is transforming “the landscape of queer possibilities”, says KJ Rawson, Associate Professor of English and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern.

Rawson, who studies the rhetorical work of queer and transgender archival collections, places Lil Nas X in the lineage of artists such as Sylvester, David Bowie, Janelle Monaé and others, but his unabashed approach to showcasing black and queer stories in his music and music videos set him in a league of his own.

To begin with, can you explain your work to us a bit?

I’m a rhetoric scholar, which usually means I’m interested in how words and texts help shape the world, and my specific areas of interest are digital humanities and queer and transgender archives. A few years ago, I created a project called the Transgender digital archive, which is a free website that makes gender transgressive stories widely available to a wide audience. At the moment I am working on several projects which are all related to revealing and confronting racism and white supremacy in the archives, including the queer and trans archives that I am working on.

How does Lil Nas X’s work fit into the larger historical context of the work of queer artists?

There is a long and fabulous tradition of queer artists breaking the molds, but Lil Nas X seems to break all the molds. We can certainly put it in a lineage with genre musicians like Sylvester and David Bowie, proudly sexual artists like Janelle Monaé, and decidedly queer artists like the Indigo Girls. But as a young black, queer artist who fearlessly pushes the boundaries, he’s in a class of his own.

Who, if any, are its cultural ancestors, so to speak? Does his work fit into the tradition of queer art? Is he bringing something new to the table?

Much of what Lil Nas X brings to the table is new that it’s hard to capture. I was particularly captivated by his highly acclaimed music videos, which are so powerful and direct in their political message and in the creative possibilities of the world they create. Even within queer artistic traditions that use confrontational tactics and explicit sexuality, Lil Nas takes this much further with each subsequent video. But he’s also invested in black queer storytelling, which is probably most evident in his recent “That’s what I want”Riffing video brokeback mountain in an all-black remix of the film’s most iconic scenes and ends with a wedding he is the bride of and is given a guitar by Billy Porter playing the role of a priest.

It may be too early to tell, but do you have any idea if his album “Montero” will have a lasting effect on the culture?

If we put aside the question of whether Lil Nas X’s music has a lasting impact, I would be confident to say that there seems to be no doubt that his groundbreaking portrayals of who he is as a queer black artist will transform. the queer opportunity landscape. for a long time.

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