by Kamogelo Molobye
Lil Nas X is a deviant menace to society. He flaunts his queerness, making heteronormativity uneasy and uncomfortable, and I for one love it. As a gay male rapper, he threatens the hegemonic-patriarchal look and representation of masculinity in hip-hop music. Beyond that, Lil Nas X challenges the miseducation and misconceptions on gender and sexuality, allowing for visibility of marginalised queer identities to cement their progressive senses of deserved belonging in society.
In 2015, I authored an article titled ‘What does it mean to be a man?’ In that article, I remark, “to be a man is difficult. It is to search constantly for a language that defines one’s manhood in relation to generally accepted social and historical norms.” I later state that “the images of men are those that have been constructed to portray a hegemonic and dominant understanding of manhood and masculinity.” Six years later, I am reminded of those words as I think through the recent social media outrage surrounding the hip hop artist and rapper Lil Nas X.
Our identities, inclusive of our race, genders and sexual orientations, amongst other things, are essential to us. Identities allow for us to self-fashion our personal, cultural and social ideologies while navigating our senses within societal structures. Identities help us carve communities of belongingness that hold the capacity to accept difference as parts of the fabric of society, weaving progressive thinking about who we are and become. However, the unyielding grasp on traditional and rigid ideologies about gender, specifically regarding manhood and masculinities, suffocates any progress towards nuanced imaginings to the minimal ways we come to be and belong. Historical ideologies on manhood and masculinity are so tightly held, almost preciously, that any attempt to challenge them seems to reveal the fragility embedded within hegemonic and patriarchal masculinity. Challenges to traditional definitions and (re)presentations to masculinity are received more like personal attacks on individuals and systems that revere them so much. However, the visibility of nuanced complexities of manhood and masculinities are not a personal attack. Instead, we should view them as merely presenting limitless possibilities of who we are and can become.
The culture and genre of hip-hop music serves as an interesting case study that amplifies harmful ideologies about maleness and masculinity. Hip-Hop has strong foundations of asserting hegemonic, patriarchal, hyper-masculine and toxic masculine traits when representing maleness. The music genre employs toxic masculinity and a male gaze as tools to further a cis-heteronormative framing of manhood and masculinity. Toxic masculinity, referring to the set of behaviours and ideas that perpetuate dominance, aggression, and homophobia, advances the beliefs that suppress emotional intelligence while devaluing femininity or “feminine” traits by men to maintain the appearance of power that endorse systems of patriarchy, cis-heteronormativity, and privilege. The situatedness of toxicity in (re)presenting masculinity perpetuates a male gaze that frames bodies, specifically females, as objects of desire for cis-heteronormativity. But what happens when the frames of hegemonic, toxic, and patriarchal masculinity begin to be disrupted?
Figure 2 Lil Nas X, (2021). “Industry Baby”. MONTERO. Columbia Records, Amuse.
Montero Lamar Hill, popularly known as Lil Nas X, is a 22-year-old artist and rapper from Lithia Springs, Georgia, USA, serving as a site for masculine disruption in hip-hop and pop culture. Lil Nas X rose to fame in 2019 with his country rap fusion song ‘Old Town Road’ and later released a children’s book titled “C Is For Country” – a book following the story of a young cowboy living on a farm and locating his joy. The book, like his music, is cleverly written, flaunting all things that bring the young protagonist joy, such as fringe and rhinestone embellished cowboy clothes, being “extra”, and the fact that everybody can share in the spotlight. Lil Nas X’s career is a progressive act of unapologetic queer visibility that refused to be confined to social and cultural rigidities concerning his blackness, maleness, and queerness. In his song ‘Industry Baby,’ he writes, “I told you long ago, on the road I got what they waitin’ for. I don’t run from nothin’, dog. Get your soldiers, tell ‘em I ain’t layin’ low.”
Male hip-hop artists and rappers sell the fantasy of masculinity that men should aspire to attain. The genre equates to power opulence as congruent to masculinity. As observed in music lyrics and music videos, this masculinity positions manhood through the lens of a lifestyle of abundant wealth, possession of luxurious asserts, sexual prowess, and access to females for sexual pleasure. This imaging and (re)presentation of manhood and masculinity imply a relationship between desire and access that can only be attained through the hyper-performativity of masculinity that reinforces traits of dominance, power, possession, competition and toxicity. As such, hip-hop advances ideas that male rappers need to behave in a particular manner to be taken seriously. It censors and disconnects the nuances of complex and intimate sense of the self and becoming that illustrate the capacity for emotional intelligence. Much of the music and videos lack care, love, and abilities to dream oneself differently from the compliance of inherited scripts on masculinity.
Figure 3 Lil Nas X, (2021). “Call Me by Your Name”. MONTERO. Columbia Records, Amuse.
Lil Nas X’s body of work is transgressive. It is unapologetic in inserting and celebrating the queer self in heteronormative spaces. He approaches visibility through engaging selfhood, vulnerability, masculinity and homosexuality, allowing for discourse that unpacks shame – being shamed for being gay and feeling shame for being gay. In ‘Call Me by Your Name,’ he accepts the inevitable result of homosexuality as dictated by society. He rides his stripper pole to hell, claiming the crown of societal punishment due to openly living his truth – that of being a gay man. Beyond transgression, Lil Nas X subverts the look and feel of hip-hop music, particularly as a Black male in the genre. He subverts traditional (re)presentations of masculinity in hip-hop by centring his queerness on disrupting the image of a hyper-masculinity while simultaneously celebrating his femme sexual and sensual self. The idea of the hardened Black masculine male prisoner in ‘Industry Baby’ is complicated and subverted by the screwing up of its representation through pink costuming and twerking nude males that is incongruent with everyday actions and images of Black males in hip-hop.
Queerness, in society, continues to be considered as deviant, threatening traditions and systems of power and dominance. Lil Nas X’s proximity to hyper-masculinity, performed through femininity, is dangerous to the security of masculinity – socially and in pop culture. He and his work challenge the strict categorisations of sex-to-gender-to-expression. Lil Nas X is perceived as unboxed and ambiguous as he cannot be placed within hyper-masculinity or feminine performativity. He distances himself from the rigidities of prescribed masculinity. As a rapper and a pop culture figure, Lil Nas X seeks to break boundaries, cause discomfort, and push what is known as the “gay agenda”.