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lil nas x at the met gala

The importance of being Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X attends The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021 in New York City. Photo by John Shearer/WireImage

This month, Lil Nas X launched his highly anticipated debut album, “Montero.” The album, which follows Nas X’s hit singles “Old Town Road” (featuring Billy Ray Cyrus) and “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” was an instant success—it contains 11 tracks that charted on the Billboard Hot 100.

K.J. Rawson, associate professor of English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Northeastern. Courtesy photo.

Lil Nas X has collaborated with some of the biggest musicians of the day, including Megan Thee Stallion, Elton John, Jack Harlow, Doja Cat, and Miley Cyrus. His videos have been described by journalists and critics as radically queer, and theyve garnered a predictable backlash as such (including, perhaps surprisingly, from the governor of South Dakota).

But the pop-rap artist is breaking other ground, too: As a Black, gay man making wildly popular music, he’s transforming “the landscape of queer possibilities,” says K.J. Rawson, associate professor of English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Northeastern.

Rawson, who studies the rhetorical work of queer and transgender archival collections, situates Lil Nas X in the lineage of artists such as Sylvester, David Bowie, Janelle Monaé, and others, but his unapologetic approach to showcasing Black, queer stories in his music and music videos puts him in a league of his own.

To start, can you explain a bit about your work?

I am a rhetoric scholar, which generally means that I am interested in how words and texts help shape the world, and my specific areas of focus are the digital humanities and queer and transgender archives. Several years ago, I created a project called the Digital Transgender Archive, which is a free website that makes gender-transgressive histories widely accessible to a broad public audience. At the moment, I am working on several projects that are all related to revealing and confronting racism and white supremacy in archives, including the queer and trans archives that I work on.

How does Lil Nas X’s work fit into the larger historical context of work by queer artists?

There is a long and fabulous tradition of queer artists breaking the mold, but Lil Nas X seems to be shattering all the molds. We can certainly put him into a lineage with gender-bending musicians such as Sylvester and David Bowie, proudly sexual artists like Janelle Monaé, and unapologetically queer artists like the Indigo Girls. But as a young, Black, queer artist who is fearlessly pushing boundaries, he is in a class unto his own.

Who, if anyone, are his cultural ancestors, so to speak? Does his work follow in the tradition of queer art? Does he bring anything new to the table?

So much of what Lil Nas X brings to the table is new that it is difficult to capture. I have been particularly captivated by his highly acclaimed music videos, which are so powerful and direct in their political messaging and in the worldmaking possibilities they create. Even within queer traditions of art that use confrontational tactics and explicit sexuality, Lil Nas pushes that so much further with each subsequent video. But he’s also invested in Black queer storytelling, which is probably most obvious in his recent “That’s What I Want” video that riffs off Brokeback Mountain in an all-Black remix of the most iconic scenes from the film and ends with a wedding in which he is the bride and is presented with a guitar by Billy Porter playing a priest.

Maybe it’s too soon to tell, but do you have a sense about whether his album “Montero” will have a lasting effect on culture?

If we set aside the question about whether Lil Nas X’s music has an enduring impact, I would be confident in saying that there seems to be no question that his pathbreaking depictions of who he is as a Black queer artist will transform the landscape of queer possibilities for a long time.

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