Rapper Lil Nas X recently sparked debate about the erasure of black cowboys, musicians, and the settlers of yesteryear.
When Billboard removed his track “Old Country Road” from the Hot Country chart back in March, his fans argued that the move was racially motivated or bias against rap music. Then Wrangler announced it was launching a Lil Nas X collection and loyal customers said the brand was “taking the cowboy outta country” and threaten a boycott. Racist country music fans even took to social media to whine about “cultural appropriation.”
“The idea that Lil Nas X is perpetuating some form of cultural appropriation by recording and having success in the country genre is simply absurd,” pop culture commentator Jawn Murray tells vox.com reporter Nadra Nittle. “How can you appropriate something you played a significant part in shaping?”
Josh Garrett-Davis, the Autry Museum of the West’s Gamble associate curator of Western history, popular culture, and firearms, said the whitewashing of country-and-western traditions go back years.
“There’s a lot of media, whether the classic cowboy paintings or the Wild West shows, that were all sort of reinforcing this idea that the cowboy hero is white,” he tells VOX.
“When one understands that ‘country’ music is a marketing genre and that black country people are a culture, one begins to peel away the layers of perception and the definitions of who should be playing a certain type of music and why,” country musician Dom Flemons added.
Charles L. Hughes, author of “Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South,” noted that black music history has shaped country music, which has long struggled with its relationships to blackness and black musicians, per vox.com.
“But the space for black artists has been very limited,” he told me. “Black musicians have been very marginalized. I think the reason this [‘Old Town Road’ debate] has become such a massive cultural moment is that our understanding of rural comes from country music, even though African American folks have long been a central part of the story.”