By Keith Magee
What is it about this 22-year-old music star, whose career has seen a vertiginous rise over the last few years, that has some people so very upset that he has been nominated for an NAACP Image Awards? I
t has come to my attention that his inclusion among the nominees at this prestigious celebration of Black excellence has reignited outrage about Lil Nas X’s body of work in a certain portion of our community.
On Saturday February 26, the ceremony is scheduled to grace our screens again. This year the Grammy-award winning rapper Lil Nas X has been nominated in three categories – Entertainer of the Year, Outstanding Male Artist, and Outstanding Hip Hop/Rap Song.
Lil Nas X, born Montero Lamar Hill, who publicly declared his homosexuality in 2019, clearly takes some delight in hitting a nerve.
His music videos feature scenes that some have found shocking, often depicting an array of gyrating, naked or semi-naked male dancers.
One scene in the video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” shows the singer defiantly pole-dancing his way to hell, where he performs a lap dance for Satan, then kills him and steals his horns before sprouting his own wings. Cue furious backlash, accusations of “devil worshipping,” and demands that Black pastors voice their disapproval to “protect our children.”
Instead of reacting to these award nominations with anger, it might be more helpful for us to wonder why Lil Nas X chooses to use such imagery in his videos. He has described how difficult he found it, as a teenager, to reconcile his queer identity with what he heard in church about homosexuality being a vile sin and all gay people being destined to spend eternity in hell.
Same-gender loving young Black people like him often find themselves demonized by the very Christian pastors and brothers and sisters who should be embracing them understanding that the primary mission of Jesus was the promise of eternal life through the sacrifice of love.
I cannot speak for Lil Nas X, but I think it’s a fair assumption that the depiction of his descent into hell in the “Montero” video is meant to represent his frustration at being told he would never be allowed to enter heaven.
The fact that he is shown seducing the devil in order to murder him surely suggests the singer feels he has had to defeat his own demons – those negative messages planted in his brain by the church – in order to liberate himself from fear and prejudice and be comfortable in his own skin as a gay Black man.
Isn’t the truly shocking thing here is that some of our young people are growing up not only having to deal with racial inequality and hatred but also being made to feel that they don’t even belong in certain Black churches because of their sexuality? That they are supposedly so unlovable in the eyes of God that they can never be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven? That they are destined to burn in hell as a punishment simply for being themselves?
Now, as a Black pastor myself, this harmful treatment of children is something I would be happy to protest about. I’ll be honest, I won’t be letting my 7-year-old son watch Lil Nas X’s “Montero” video, because the sexual imagery it includes is clearly not appropriate for young children. I won’t be letting my little boy watch any of Megan Thee Stallion’s extremely raunchy videos either, and she is also nominated for the 2022 NAACP Image Entertainer of the Year award. (Although, after centuries of the hyper-sexualization of Black bodies by others, part of me cannot help but admire young Black performers who are now seizing control of how their bodies and their sexuality are portrayed.) I certainly don’t allow my son to listen to rap songs that appear to glamorize violence, misogyny, or drugs, indeed I pray for a world in which no Black music stars feel the need to write such lyrics.
I wish I didn’t have to work quite so hard to shield my child from what I see as unsuitable material. But I accept that, as a father, protecting him is my job. One day my boy will be old enough to decide for himself, and if, among the messages I don’t much like, he also hears some messages about racial equality, female empowerment, body positivity, and the acceptance of homosexuality and gender difference, then I’ll see that as a bonus.
Let’s be clear here – the NAACP’s role is not to parent our children or to sanitize pop culture in order to avoid shocking a particular demographic. Nor is it to police adherence to a conservative version of Christianity or any other religion.
The NAACP operates under the same separation of church and state as the rest of American society. Like us all, they cannot oppose any individual’s right under the First Amendment to free speech – and that extends to song lyrics.
Its historical roots may go deep, but the NAACP is also – happily – adept at moving with the times. It can see the considerable value in nominating high-flyers like Lil Nas X – it’s good PR to embrace the stars that today’s Black youths idolize. What does it matter if the great civil rights organization occasionally hitches a ride on the coattails of young Black stars’ success? The NAACP is perfectly aware, I’m sure, that it can only have a positive impact on America if it continues to mean something to every generation. Our young people are our future. If the NAACP fails to reflect their idea of Black culture, engage with them, and galvanize them to continue the fight for Black people’s advancement, then where will we be?
knows we have some fights on our hands right now – against attacks on our voting rights, gerrymandering, police brutality, attempts to deny our painful history and prevent our children from learning about how we overcame oppression. Is this really the moment to be bickering amongst ourselves instead of uniting in our collective struggle, along with our allies, against racial injustice?
On Saturday evening, I for one will be enjoying the 53rd annual NAACP Image Awards’ festival of amazing Black talent without reservation, and I wish all the nominees in every category the very best of luck.
Keith Magee is Senior Fellow and Visiting Professor of Practice in Cultural Justice at UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, a Fellow at UCL Centre on U.S. Politics, and Professor of Practice in Social Justice at Newcastle University. He serves as Commissioner on United States – United Kingdom Fulbright Commission and was appointed to the Mayor of London’s Commission on Diversity in the Public Realm. He is the author of Prophetic Justice: Race, Religion and Politics, January 2021