A now-ubiquitous mash-up of country and southern hip hop, cowboy hats and Gucci, stallions and Maseratis, the wildly viral song “Old Town Road” went from meme to megahit within weeks.
Pairing banjo twangs with thumping bass, the snappy country trap tune by unknown artist-turned-industry maverick Lil Nas X appears set to soundtrack the summer, holding down the fort atop the US Top 100 chart for seven straight weeks and fending off advances from pop royalty including Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber.
But the infectious, genre-bending single by the Atlanta native didn’t soar to such heights without stoking controversy: as it booted Ariana Grande from the Billboard chart’s overall top spot, the industry tracker left it on the rap ranking but scrapped it from the country list, saying it was not in line with that genre’s sound.
Its removal triggered outrage over perceived white-washing in the country music industry, with many saying the novice musician’s hit was pigeonholed as hip hop purely because he is black.
Billboard denied those allegations – but didn’t allow “Old Town Road” back onto the country chart, even after genre veteran Billy Rae Cyrus offered vocals for a remix of the hit.
“Getting kicked off the country music charts seems like a small thing but represents something much more pernicious,” said Charles Hughes, author of the book “Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.”
For him, the pop culture smash is more than an earworm: “It also caught fire because this is entirely unsurprising – to see this kind of false border that’s meant to keep black people out of a space that black folks are already a part of.”
“Music is a primary way that we think through questions of race in the US,” he told AFP. “Country music and blackness is a very rich cultural symbol, even for people who don’t listen to country music.”
The success of “Old Town Road” didn’t happen in a vacuum: the so-called “Yeehaw Agenda” highlighting black cowboy culture has been gaining traction on social media for months.
Though historians estimate one in four cowboys were black, the popular notion of the trailblazing outlaw has largely omitted that aspect.
“The black cowboy was dropped when Hollywood told the story because it didn’t fit into an idea of their stereotype of an individual American with guts and bravery – a cowboy like John Wayne,” said William Katz, a historian who has written books on the topic including “The Black West.”
“It was one more way of saying black people were inferior.”
Today, images of black celebrities like Beyonce, Solange and Cardi B sporting decidedly western garb – think fringe, chaps, cow prints, rhinestones and 10-gallon hats – have found a rapt audience on Twitter and Instagram, where something of a visual archive celebrating black Americana has coalesced.
For her recent album “When I Get Home,” experimental pop star Solange – Beyonce’s younger sister – developed a companion video lauding black southern culture in her home state of Texas.
“All of the first cowboys I saw were black,” she told Vogue. “We’ve had to constantly rewrite black history and what that means for us from the beginning of time, and so that was really just the moment to really express this culture that was so enriching for me.”
‘Wrangler on my booty’
Despite the genre’s association with white musicians – and apparent efforts from taste-dictating country cradle Nashville to keep it that way – black musicians have been a part of country music long before Lil Nas X.
Charley Pride, Aaron Neville, Darius Rucker, Cowboy Troy and Kane Brown are all prominent examples. A number of hip hop artists have also released countrified rap songs, including Nelly and Outkast.
And in the wake of “Old Town Road” another country trapper, Blanco Brown, has dropped “The Git Up,” a choreographed track on its way to virality.
But according to Hughes, “black artists have not been given opportunities to become mainstream country stars, even as country music has been consistently influenced and changed by black music.”
“Black artists have routinely pushed to get broader recognition within country music, or identity with rural culture,” he said.
“The narrative that we’ve created it is that that’s supposedly a white space – it’s had musical ramifications, it’s had political ramifications,” he said. “All of that is wrapped up in this.”
But for Lil Nas X, who earlier this year was a college dropout crashing on his sister’s couch, it’s a moment to ride ’til he can’t no more.
The 20-year-old born Montero Lamar Hill is working on an album, making appearances at major festivals and scored a clothing deal with denim brand Wrangler, inspired by his lyric: “Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty.”
This week he also released a five-minute video clip for the song that sees him time-travel from the Old West to contemporary Los Angeles, featuring a slew of cameos including Cyrus, comedian Chris Rock and a washboard-rocking bit from DJ Diplo.
“When you see a black man on a horse goin’ that fast,” says Rock to open the video, “you just gotta let him fly.”