Appropriation, Misappropriation, or Re-Appropriation: “Old Town Road” – Part 2
Some will challenge that these stated claims have more to do with the displeasure of “Old Town Road’s” style rather than Lil Nas X’s race. And to prove it’s not a color issue, they will assuredly highlight black Country artists of today like Darius Rucker. Rucker, a former member of the rock band Hootie and the Blowfish, transitioned to a solo country career and has since seen his fame skyrocket with five No. 1 singles and a litany of Country Music Award nominations. They will undoubtedly use Rucker as the go-to example of the nondiscriminatory nature of the country genre. They will also probably point out their equal displeasure of previously mentioned groups and artists like Florida-Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and Luke Bryan. Critics call their 21st-century styles “bro-country.”
The Darius Rucker argument can be explained as a stipulation for assimilation if one is to be “accepted” on the country music charts. Rucker’s style and audience remain particularly white in style and content, whereas Lil Nas X maintains a distinctly black vibe with “Old Town Road.” The “distaste for bro-country” rationalization is even harder to explain away. If the emphasis for a specifically stylistic difference of taste, then, as mentioned before, those artists would also be removed from the country charts. As it stands, they are not.
For the Culture?
With X at the center of such popularity and controversy now, it looks as if country music could be on the brink of cultural expansion—whether the old guard wants it to or not. Producer/artist Blanco Brown is taking a stab at the “trap country” wave with his catchy tune “The Git Up.” Similar to the way X collaborated with known country artist Billy Ray Cyrus, Brown partnered with Lainey Wilson for a country music dance video. It is apparent that “Old Town Road’s” popularity influenced “The Git Up,” yet Brown’s angle for the song maintains a stylistic uniqueness that’s more “country-friendly.”
Regardless, country music artists and fans must determine if the limitations applied to songs like “Old Town Road” and “The Git Up” are worth lambasting. Time will reveal how receptive or hard-hearted the country music community will be toward future black artists who hope to expand the cultural limitations set by longtime country zealots. As with what’s evidenced, for now at least, the castigation from the traditionalists will continue.
But perhaps the collective blowback for these new “trap country” styles is steeped in fear. Maybe the essence of apprehension is trepidation of the unknown. Perchance there is a fear stoked in an inability to define what “Old Town Road” is, or exactly who Lil Nas X is. What will happen to country music if its rich history is not preserved, or if there aren’t any rules for future artists to abide by? Xenophobic alarms, like these, are triggered by cultural indolence—an apathetic unwillingness to categorize cultural phenomena.
Nailing down a definition for cultural entities like “Old Town Road” is difficult for most people. But it is a worthy task. Andy Crouch explains in his book, “Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling,” that “culture is what we make of the world. Culture is…the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the road as it’s given to us and make something else.” Even Adam, the first created man, could only create from what already was. There is indeed “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). So when Lil Nas X debuted the one minute and fifty-three second long “Old Town Road” record, he was not merely appealing to the qualities that fans of both genres enjoy. He made something from what’s already been created.
At the same time, we are creatures dependent on structure and order. It’s the reason we cling so tight to our beloved “hip-hop” or “country” genres as we personally define them. So when an artist like X and his song challenge us to redefine our cultural borders, our world is reshaped and we initially don’t like it. Regardless, we must do something with it. We cannot be indifferent to culture. Our environment is constantly shaped and reshaped by it. It will either be reformed out of displeasure for a thing or out of satisfaction for what it accomplishes.
Usually, though, reformation can feel threatening and unsettling to a world we’ve comfortably settled in, with all it’s simplified categorizations we can easily identify. When it’s not so easy to identify what’s what, the process of renaming can become infuriatingly frustrating. It’s the same reason church leaders excommunicated Martin Luther from the Roman Catholic Church when he nailed his 95 Theses on the church doors. And the same reason the other Martin Luther—King Jr.—was met with much hatred and vitriol when he led nonviolent protests and marches that challenged segregation and unfair economic practices. When we cannot define a new cultural entity, or find it too hard to do so, the easier and weaker action is to rid ourself of the thing’s existence. Thus a unique song like “Road” becomes the next piece of garbage chunked by a cadre of critics.
As previously explored here, complicating the legitimacy of “Road’s” country “elements” only further incites unnecessary assumptions and standards for who or what is allowed in an already dangerously polarized society. America’s history actively speaks to and informs us of what is implied when an ethnically or culturally black artifact is removed from a (perceived) structurally designated “white” space. So when a black artist like X and his obviously country song are dismissed as simply not having enough country elements, the truth embedded within American history will inform us of our present reality.
Put simply: the imbalanced and unfavorable critiques of this song’s ‘country-ness’ leave African Americans to ponder if the judgments of the song are—at their best—unnecessary gnat straining, or are—at their worst—actions of modern racism. We quietly pray it to be the former while history screams, “It’s the latter!”
Lil Nas X understands his critics—black and white—more than most probably realize, and it is with this knowledge he looks to creatively bring people together. His wisdom is displayed in the song’s star-studded music video/movie short, which was directed by Calmatic. The visual includes his trusted ally Billy Ray Cyrus, along with comedian Chris Rock, hip-hop artists Vince Staples, Rico Nasty, Jozzy, Diplo, Haha Davis, and the song’s producer, YoungKio.
The video opens with X and Cyrus making off like bandits on horses with a bag of money in 1889. The two are chased by Rock and his deputies before the comedian calls off the chase stating, “When you see a black man on a horse going that fast, you just gotta let ‘em fly!” The bandits stop at a house where Cyrus suggests they stay for the night. “I don’t know man,” X reluctantly states. “Last time I was here, they weren’t too welcoming to outsiders.” “You with me this time,” Cyrus tries assuring X, “Everything’s gon’ be alright.” But X’s premonitions were right. The owner of the house draws a gun and shoots at him. X makes for a tunnel that turns out to be a time-travel portal, transporting him to a black neighborhood in the future, our present-day.
When X is transported to the neighborhood, he is met with blank stares and intrigue. He rides his horse down the street with confidence and cool which reminds me of Django (Jamie Foxx) riding through a plantation where slaves looked upon him in awe. The residents’ curiosity in the video transforms the neighborhood, opening an avenue of possibility that communicates an idea that minorities can profit off of expanding boundaries.
The music portion of the video ends in a bingo hall soon turned dance hall where Cyrus performs his verse. The room is filled with elderly white participants where X joins them in a two-step. Overall, the video works to tear down needless boundaries between cultures.
The movie-short, like the song, is a soliloquy symbolizing the real-life journey of Lil Nas X’s adversity and success. But more interesting is the nod to the history and influence black cowboys and artists had on country music. 1889, the year the music video is set in, is also the same year Jack Thorp, the author of a small book called “Songs of the Cowboys,” began collecting cowboy songs.
According to Kansas History, Thorp’s “initial find was ‘Dodgin’ Joe,’ sung around a black trail crew’s camp fire.” Other songs, like “Home on the Range,” which became a Western anthem, can also be attributed to blacks. The suggestion and truth is that country music wasn’t, and isn’t, necessarily a “white” genre to begin with. Therefore, it should be a shared cultural experience – not an exclusive one.
Time will tell if “Old Town Road” will be a classic hit that can broaden the horizons for “trap country” or “country trap.” Maybe it will just be another summer trend. Regardless, we can grasp this moment, this artist, this song, the critiques and the praises, to better understand our beautifully complicated world. In that regard, we need “Road” and Lil Nas X. “Road” and X will challenge us to free ourselves from the imprisonment of our personal and cultural boundaries. It will help us identify and destroy our musical genre biases and stereotypes
In all sincerity, whether white country veterans can acknowledge it or not, they need “Old Town Road” on Billboard’s country music charts. It’s possible to respect western music history and hold it in high esteem while simultaneously exploring new heights and limitations of euphoric country tunes. Likewise, if black people can realize the full-circle effect of X’s “Old Town Road” and the black cowboy’s place on the country charts, we can once again push culture forward with the rhythmic and odds-defying music that helps our world keep spinning. We no longer need to run from the “country” label as a genre foreign to who we are. Country is who we are. We’ve simply allowed others to borrow it.
When Lil Nas X was asked by Time if he believes the removal of “Old Town Road” had racial undertones and if the song should be on the country charts, he replied: “I believe whenever you’re trying something new, it’s always going to get some kind of bad reception…The song is country trap. It’s not one, it’s not the other. It’s both. It should be on both.”