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What Lil Nas X’s ‘Montero’ says about Black queerness

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: The young superstar rapper Lil Nas X is no stranger to commanding the spotlight. His controversial new music video and the marketing campaign for it are drawing the ire of conservatives and right-wing media.

The reactions reveal undercurrents in the struggle of Black queer artists to make their voices heard.

Yamiche Alcindor has more, as part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Yamiche Alcindor: In 2019, he swaggered onto the scene with the country rap song "Old Town Road." Practically overnight, Montero Lamar Hill, a teenager who spent a lot of time on the Internet at home in the Atlanta suburbs, became superstar Lil Nas X.

"Old Town Road" caught fire on the video app TikTok, and it became a smash hit. It broke the Billboard record for longest-running number one song of all time. That year, at 20 years old, he was the most Grammy-nominated male artist.

Lil Nas X: Thank you.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

Yamiche Alcindor: While still on top of the charts, he came out as gay. He told CBS' Gayle King that he wrestled with his sexuality growing up.

Lil Nas X: I knew, especially like around my teenage years, I would just praying, praying, praying.

Gayle King: What were you praying for?

Lil Nas X: That it was, like, a phase.

Gayle King: That it would go away?

Lil Nas X: Yes.

Yamiche Alcindor: Last week, Lil Nas X released a music video that he says speaks to that teenage boy struggling to accept his true self. It's called "Montero."

It's a campy, fantastical journey that takes him from the Garden of Eden to the underworld, where he dances for the devil before stealing his horns for himself.

It's a tongue-in-cheek riff on the biblical themes that have long been used to demonize queerness and justify homophobia. Lil Nas X says it's an embrace of his identity.

But an online backlash is in full force. It intensified after he released a limited-edition model of sneakers called Satan Shoes. They allegedly contain a drop of human blood alongside the song. Nike sued the company that made the modified version of the sneakers for trademark infringement and blocked them from being sold.

Man: You have got to be kidding me.

Man: I'm not kidding.

Yamiche Alcindor: Right-wing media stoked the uproar.

Man: What's most outrageous is the timing of this. It was intentionally dropped on the eve of Holy Week.

Yamiche Alcindor: Politicians like South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, rapper Joyner Lucas, and conservative pundit Candace Owens have all taken to Twitter to criticize the rapper.

But Lil Nas X is known for his comebacks in his native arena, Twitter. He has been quick to defend himself against critics. And he's not waiting on anyone's blessing to express himself through his art.

To discuss all of this, I'm joined by Clay Cane. He's the host of "The Clay Cane Show" on SiriusXM. And he is the author of "Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race."

Clay, thanks so much for being here.

What did you see represented here in this video, this "Montero," video? And how does it speak particularly to Black and queer folks?

Clay Cane: To see someone as young as Lil Nas X really dealing with faith, dealing his own identity, it was really powerful.

I think what shook me is a tweet that he put out there saying all these years he had been taught to hate himself. And so this music video to me was him reacting to what I call spiritual and theological violence, and how that really harms LGBTQ Black folks, especially Black LGBTQ folks in the church.

When I was younger, if I would have saw an image like this, in many ways, it would have freed me from the hate I was taught to believe. So, it was very powerful. And I think for a lot of Black LGBT folks, I'm not saying Lil Nas X is Audre Lorde or James Baldwin, but young people are listening to him. And that power of him really dismantling a cycle of shame, I think it really resonates.

And for folks who listen to him, it certainly has an impact.

Yamiche Alcindor: You just touched on the cycle of shame that some people fear, especially Black people and queer folks.

Can you talk a little bit about how Lil Nas X's art and his success, rather, how they connect to that to people who may have felt that cycle of shame?

Clay Cane: Yes, well, listen, in many churches, you are taught that who you are naturally, it's an abomination.

Then you have this rhetoric, well, hate the sin, but love the sinner. You're an abomination, but you're still going to hell. Who you are is wrong, but I still love you.

And the truth is, you don't love me. The truth is, rhetoric like that, dogma like that is not affirming. And it really damages people for life. I have friends who have committed suicide. I have friends to this day, they are living their life, but they still have this gnawing sense in the back of their mind that who they are is inherently wrong.

So, Lil Nas X doing that, I think that it helps to say, hey, you're saying I'm going to burn in hell. And now, metaphorically, here I am going to hell.

And people still have an issue with it. People are still challenged by it. So he's doing what any artist does, where you put your work and your pain and your sorrow in your art. But I think, for some people, it's a little heavier that a Black gay artist is doing it.

When Madonna did it many years ago, it was controversial, but it certainly isn't the kind of backlash you see now with a Black gay artist doing it who is proud, who is remaining unapologetic and who is not guilted into these constructs of religion, that it really hurts people's souls and it prevents them from loving.

And in addition to that, some of that hate turns into policy.

Yamiche Alcindor: You touched on this. This isn't the first time that artists have used controversial imagery. You talked about Madonna.

What makes, you think, this different and new, what Lil Nas X is doing?

Clay Cane: Because he's a Black gay artist, because he's a Black artist, right?

I mean, of course, I think it's kind of funny folks are outraged at the religious imagery. AC/DC did it. DMX did it. Again, Madonna did it. Prince did it. But it's because it's a Black gay artist. And it terrifies people, because the truth is that -- and folks may get angry about this, but religion really isn't about God oftentimes. It's about control.

And so Lil Nas X is taking a narrative, this allegedly narrative that is rooted in Christianity, and he's blowing it up. Lil Nas X is insisting upon being free. And that scares people.

Yamiche Alcindor: I want to ask you, of course, about the blowback, because you said, of course, Lil Nas X is insisting on being free.

But there are people that are reacting negatively to the Satan Shoes, as well as to the video. What do you think might be lost in all this controversy?

Clay Cane: What's -- well, when it comes to the sneakers and the video, it's just so funny.

A pair of sneakers and a video is not going to dismantle centuries of religion. Your -- there is no threat to your faith. There is no threat to your religion.

There is a threat to LGBT folks being able to live and exist. And if Lil Nas X and so many other people weren't damaged and hurt by, again, spiritual and theological violence, which I always say can be just as damaging as physical and emotional abuse, then you wouldn't have a video like this.

So, again, I see him as acting out against the way that he has been hurt. And that, to me, is powerful. That, to me -- again, whether or not you like the song, that's one thing. But that imagery has people talking.

And we have to really examine the ways in which we pin our life and death to what I call culturally scripted sin. Sin is culturally scripted. And it varies in every culture. It varies in every experience.

So, I feel like, if I see somebody being rooted in who they are -- he's not lying to himself. He's being who he is. Feel free to turn it off.

Yamiche Alcindor: Certainly a lot to speak about.

Thank you so much for joining us, Clay Cane.

Clay Cane: Thank you.

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