A few weeks ago, I went to an Earl Sweatshirt concert with a couple of friends at The Regency Ballroom in San Francisco. After enduring one opener who was too drunk to rap on beat, I was looking forward to finally seeing Earl. But, to my dismay, the next silhouette that slowly came into focus in the dark and smoky room had no hoodie or dreads. She was short, slender, wearing a pink cowboy hat and boots, and brandishing a water gun.
Some combination of willing forgetfulness and intoxication have erased this artist’s name from my memory, but what I do remember is how deeply confused I was throughout her performance. Her music was some experimental conglomeration of traditional Japanese music, ska and hip hop. But if you’d seen her performance with the sound off you would have mistaken the Regency that night for the Country Music Awards. Her box braids were pigtailed and at one point she did a quasi-do-si-do. I’d never seen anything like it.
But just a few days later, in a procrastination-fueled YouTube binge, I stumbled upon a similarly country-inspired hip hop artist: Lil Nas X. If you’ve been even remotely plugged into the Internet or social media in the past few months, you’ve probably heard at least one of these phrases:
“I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road.”
“I’m gonna ride til I can’t no more.”
“I’ve got the horses in the back.”
All three of those are lyrics in Lil Nas X’s Billboard chart-topping hit “Old Town Road,” the remix of which features country legend (and father of Hannah Montana) Billy Ray Cyrus. Having only heard those three phrases sprinkled in Instagram captions and ironic Tik Tok memes, I’d never thought to look up the song or artist that was behind it all. You probably haven’t either, so here’s what I found.
Lil Nas X is a Georgia native who initially became famous for running a popular Nicki Minaj fan account on Twitter. “Old Town Road” is his big break and the Tik Toks and memes that stem from it are part of the “Yeehaw Challenge,” one of those strange, seemingly random themes that catches on on video platforms and makes the song it features extremely popular and perpetually stuck in your head. Think “Black Beatles” from the “Mannequin Challenge” or the “In My Feelings Challenge.”
“Old Town Road” is not unique for its method of gaining popularity, but it is unique for the deep reckoning it produced within the broader music community. In March, Billboard removed the song from its Hot Country chart, prompting backlash and accusations of racism. After all, “Old Town Road” is certainly a country song, even if the person performing it doesn’t quite look the part. According to a Rolling Stone article, Billboard’s argument for the removal of the song is that, while “Old Town Road” does make use of many popular country song motifs, “it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
To me, that whole debacle isn’t the most interesting part of this story, though. What’s more interesting is that hip hop culture and black artists are beginning to make use of and capitalize off of traditionally white, Southern imagery and themes. This kind of musical cross-pollination isn’t unheard of. Genre-bending and mixing of diverse influences is what makes music interesting, after all. And the country-hip-hop mix does also go the other way. There are a handful of popular songs — dubbed “hick-hop” — that feature tattooed, muscle-tee-wearing white guys rapping over banjo and acoustic guitar beats.
One of the most popular songs of this genre, “City Bitch” by Mini Thin, is essentially a diss track for liberal women who live in cities. The music video features white women, clad in Confederate flag bikinis, wading around it what looks like a shallow, dirty creek. Mini Thin himself employs a style of rap that reminds me of Pitbull (minus the Spanish) mixed with what it might sound like if Blake Shelton smoked crack. In the music video he wears a range of outfits (all without sleeves) and displays a tattoo that reads “Malice” in the style of Tupac’s “Thug Life.” The video was uploaded in January of 2015; this trend of rap mixed with country is far from new.
What is new, however, is black guys in cowboy boots and hats. And the Internet seems to love it. Multiple celebrities who run the gamut from Mark Ruffalo to a member of pop-country band Florida Georgia Line have posted about it online. The audio for the remix with Billy Ray Cyrus has over 90 million views on YouTube and the music video has a third of that. Beyond these obvious markers of popularity, “Old Town Road” is somewhat ubiquitous on the Internet at large. It pops up everywhere, regardless of the setting. I’ve seen and liked multiple Instagram posts that lament the lack of “horses in the back” of the picture. It’s everywhere.
This is fascinating, because, historically speaking, the American South and black hip-hop culture haven’t always had a rosy relationship. Sure, you’ve got the twang-y “Come Get Her” by Rae Sremmurd which features cowboy hats and a teacup pig wearing a bandana in its music video. There’s also Lil Tracy’s “like a farmer” which is probably the closest thing to “Old Town Road” for its usage of country imagery, a rooster sample, and “yeehaw.” None of these, however, have had the same positive reception or direct connection to country music. It really does seem like, with “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X is — whether intentionally or not — claiming country culture for the hip hop world.
Most music and media news sources chalk up the success of “Old Town Road” to its creator’s Internet savviness. I think that’s definitely part of the equation, but to investigate the ins and outs of viral culture is not my goal. Rather, I think there’s a deeper, slightly more (ugh) political message here. Country music and hip hop music can co-exist; they can even mingle and mix. There are the Mini Thin’s of the world who essentially appropriate hip-hop culture to further arch-conservative Southern philosophy (read: Confederate flags, direct Obama shout-out). But there’s also Lil Nas X who presents a more utopian version of this relationship.
Lil Nas X’s lyrics are, for the most part, innocent. His twang is authentic enough for Cyrus to want to hop on the track. His fans are growing. And his use of country music’s unmistakable imagery is catching on. Take the Earl Sweatshirt opener I mentioned. Arguably, Earl fans and country fans do not overlap. Earl fans mosh and wear oversized Dickies and undersized beanies. Country fans might spend most of the concert sitting down with “Wrangler on [their] [booties]” (as Lil Nas X says of his own). Prior to looking into this connection between country and hip hop, the only thing I was convinced both fan bases shared was a love for beer.
I do not aim to make some larger point about race in America here. I’m still not convinced that the Billboard’s reason for taking “Old Town Road” off its country chart wasn’t race-related (and neither is a lot of the Internet). I also have yet to see another OTR-esque hit song — maybe this one’s just a unicorn.
What I do know is that, as an Earl Sweatshirt fan and quasi-hip hop purist, “Old Town Road” isn’t that bad. And whether or not the fact that I, and millions of other teens, think that speaks to something greater about race and American culture has to be left up to time. For now, though, “I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road.”
Contact Zora Ilunga-Reed at zora814 ‘at’ stanford.edu