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Lil Nas X Makes History

Montero Lamar Hill’s parents must be proud. Surprised, but proud.

Hill, now better known as the country trap star Lil Nas X, has produced has a record-breaking hit single and sparked a conversation about establishment country music, race, and allyship – all less than a year after he worried his parents by dropping out of college to make his way in the music business.

Lil Nas X’s song, “Old Town Road,” is a little bit country and a whole lot of hip-hop, a genre-bending foot-stomping ode to the cowboy life. But it’s also a sign of Hill’s marketing genius. He skipped the “languish on Soundcloud” part of his career and debuted the song partly as a meme which he nurtured until it became a challenge on TikTok, an app which lets users create videos set to music clips.

Before the song reached the mainstream charts to be sorted into limiting categories by music industry professionals, “Old Town Road” had millions of avid fans who accepted it for what it was, a cowboy song featuring trap drum beats and both horse and Gucci references.

In addition to earning Lil Nas X a record deal, “Old Town Road” appears to be the first song to appear on these three different Billboard charts: The Hot 100, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Country Songs, where it debuted at the 19th spot on March 16 – until it abruptly disappeared.

“Upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts,” a Billboard representative told Rolling Stone. “While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” They also informed Lil Nas X’s label, Columbia Records, that the song’s inclusion on the chart was a mistake.

Fans of Lil Nas X, who is a black teen from Atlanta, protested. Even the cast of Avengers Endgame did a dramatic reading of the lyrics.

But the tip of the ten-gallon hat goes to country music legend Billy Ray Cyrus, who joined Lil Nas X in a remix version of the song which debuted over the weekend. While he gave the song the country bona fides it didn’t actually need, Cyrus sent a bigger message: Everyone is welcome to enjoy the Yeehaw Agenda.

While black artists have always been a part of country music – check out this truly amazing threadBillboard’s decision is seen by some as designed to protect a mostly-white genre and a dominant Nashville machine. “It doesn’t take much to question whether something is really country or not,” one expert tells Rolling Stone. “Trap drums [like the ones in ‘Old Town Road’] are one of the things that make people want to say, ‘It’s something else.’”

But it’s no secret that traditionalists have been unwelcoming to artists of color. “Hate mail has been a part of my life. That’s just the way it is,” country star Darius Rucker told the Wall Street Journal in 2014. The former Hootie and the Blowfish frontman says while it’s been worse for earlier artists, there are some people who just don’t want him playing the music. “I always say that no matter what happens to me as a black man in country music, I can handle it.”

While Lil Nas X phenomenon could have been a delightful chapter in the burgeoning business case for diversity, your faithful amateur historian would be remiss if she didn’t point out that gatekeeping and erasure is nothing new when it comes to mythmaking the American West.

Here’s just one example: While there were plenty of black cowboys in our past, it’s quite likely that the character of the Lone Ranger was based on an escaped enslaved man who lived and worked with Native populations.

Bass Reeves, a master of disguise with a superhero reputation, was instrumental in bringing order to the developing western territory, in part working to protect five Native American tribes—Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw—whose land had become overrun with criminals, and who were barred from apprehending and prosecuting non-Native people for their crimes thanks to restrictions associated with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. He was fluent in two Native languages and he fought alongside Native American troops who turned out for the Union cause during the Civil War.

Think how different cowboy-and-Indian play dates might have been back in the day!

Reeves left his work after he was freed via the 13th amendment, but was recruited back years later to become the first black deputy U.S. marshal in the West. And by the time he hung up his spurs, he’d had arrested over 3,000 men and women who had broken federal laws in the Indian Territory, sometimes wearing clever disguises, rarely firing a shot.

And yet, Bass Reeves never got a movie, a television show, a comic book, or a country western song.

It’d sure be cool if he did. Maybe Lil Nas X should write one.

On Point

Beyonce has created a documentary about her Coachella performance and all is right with the worldThe Beyhive and the world was blessed with the news this morning when streaming service Netflix dropped the trailer online. It begins with a familiar voice over: “What I really want to do is be a representative of my race, of the human race,” says Dr. Maya Angelou. “I have a chance to show how kind we can be, how intelligent and generous we can be.” The clips include rehearsal footage and yes, Bey and Jay’s very famous children. Beyonce’s tribute to the historically black college experience deserved a deeper look, and this appears to be it. Look for it on April 17. #BeyonceHomecomingNetflix

Advocates are gearing up for more court battles on Medicaid work requirements
While work requirements have been struck down in federal courts for Kentucky and Arkansas, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) allowed work requirements to be established in Utah last month. It sets the stage for more court battles to come, reports David M. Perry for Pacific Standard. The central legal argument is an existential one. CMS is arguing that Medicaid’s job is to get people healthy and getting them into the workforce is a way to do that. But advocates and the courts argue that Medicaid’s job is to provide medical assistance and access to services. For CMS to prevail, “other states will have to demonstrate that their work requirements do not conflict with Medicaid’s central mission of providing access to health care and services,” explains Perry.
Pacific Standard

A Brooklyn public school changes its name
Back when it was called Breukelen, a family of Norwegian and Dutch descent made a fortune, in part, using enslaved people. Their last name, Bergen, is still all over the place in modern Brooklyn: Bergen Beach, Bergen Street, a couple of subway stops. Now, there is one less place that will carry the Bergen name – Public School 9, in the Prospect Heights neighborhood. Earlier this year, the school’s PTO voted unanimously to change the name of the school from the Teunis G. Bergen School to the Sarah Smith Garnet School, in honor of the first black woman to serve as a NYC public school principal (among many other cool things.) The students were involved in the decision and the new namesake, and the Garnet family is thrilled. The Bergen descendants, funnily enough, are pissed. Click through for some interesting history.
The City

Surviving on what Mark Zuckerberg throws away
This poignant and often disturbing piece focuses on the life of Jake Orta, a once-homeless military veteran, who now lives in subsidized housing in San Francisco just three blocks from the Facebook CEO’s $10 million home. Orta survives as a“trash-picker,” someone who rummages for things they can sell from the garbage of their neighbors. It’s a gray area of the global economy. The nonprofit advocacy group, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, says there are more than 400 trash picking organizations mostly in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. But, reports Thomas Fuller, homeless and vulnerable trash scavengers do exist in the U.S., “a signpost of the extremes of American capitalism.” Among the things Orta has recovered in perfect or working condition: Silver goblets, dishes, a vacuum cleaner, coffee maker, hair dryer, phones, iPads, three wristwatches and bags of marijuana. “I smoked it,” he said of the latter find.
New York Times

On Background

The many faces of transmasculinity in the U.S.
Photographer Soraya Zaman traveled from coast to coast and interviewed and photographed more than thirty people for their new book, American Boys. The photos, which are striking and beautiful, show each person in their own environment, whether in a big city or a small town, and evoke a confident intimacy. It’s an important topic, says Zaman, because there is so little understanding of transmasculinity. Like, for example, how, why, and whether people use hormones or have surgery. “I do hope that if trans and non-binary people buy this book and can’t ‘see’ themselves in any of the images, that they can find shared experience in the stories,” Zaman said. More about Zaman and twelve of the photos below.
Them.Us

Moving back to your dying town is easier for some than others
Writer Lyz Lenz challenges the now popular notion that wayward professionals should turn their back on their city lifestyles and move back to their “dying” Midwestern towns. The op-eds encouraging people to nobly bridge cultural and economic divides by returning to their roots is a privileged endeavor from the start. “It’s easy to look at this problem and see it as one that can simply be solved with some goodwill and a moving truck. But it’s not that simple.” Straight, cisgender white people, may find welcome, Lenz certainly did. Citing research for an upcoming book, anyone who doesn’t match notions of majority culture do not. Black, immigrant, LGBTQ, and disabled people report feeling othered and isolated. “To put it another way, 79 percent of rural populations are majority white. And this didn’t happen by accident.”
Vox

Being black on the Appalachian Trail
There are many I-hiked-the-Appalachian-Trail-alone tales in the world, all of them worthy additions to a noble canon. But Rahawa Haile’s contribution deserves to be an instant classic. She is black, from Miami by way of Eritrea, “but not black-black,” a friendly white man is quick to point out to her at a popular layover. “Blacks don’t hike.” And so begins her tale, surrounded by others who have given it all up for the Trail, none of whom are black like her. “Heading north from Springer Mountain in Georgia, the Appalachian Trail class of 2017 would have to walk 670 miles before reaching the first county that did not vote for Donald Trump,” she writes. Cold, wet, achy and awed, she reconciles the grandeur of nature and the smallness of those who profit from it. “It will be several months before I realize that most AT hikers in 2016 are unaware of the clear division that exists between what hikers of color experience on the trail (generally positive) and in town (not so much).” A must read, if only for the resplendent prose.
Outside Online

 

Quote

In nothing was slavery so savage and relentless as in its attempted destruction of the family instincts of the Negro race in America. Individuals, not families; shelters, not homes; herding, not marriages, were the cardinal sins in that system of horrors.
—Fannie Barrier Williams