Everybody wants something from Lil Nas X. His fans want a constant stream of new music, videos, and laugh-out-loud content on social media. Parents, conservative politicians, and D-list rappers want to censor his art, to have him bow to their homophobic conceptions of what is and isn’t appropriate for young people to see on TV. Some (perhaps self-hating) gays want him to capitulate to the very performative cis-heteronormativy that dominates their own lives — to represent the LGBTQ+ community on the worldwide stage but not be too queer while doing so.
And all of this is just what’s been said in the five days since the Georgia-born rapper sealed his performance of “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” at the BET Awards — one of Black hypermasculinity’s biggest nights — by tongue-kissing a male backup dancer.
By the time we meet over lunch in Los Angeles that week, Nas has already addressed most of the criticism he’s received online in a way only he can: “Since y’all still doing all this over a kiss imma just fuck the [ni**a] on stage next time,” he tweeted. But prior to and in the midst of the performance, he was actually scared.
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“Going to this place with all these overly masculine rappers and you’re finna be in there throwing a little ass every now and then, touching on dudes and hugging them and kissing them…at some points I was like, ‘Should I even do this? I don’t feel like they’re going to love me like that,’” he admits.
Quite decidedly, the BET Awards and its network have a troubled history with LGBTQ+ people. “And [people always say] go where you’re accepted and stuff like that, but you can’t always just go where you’re accepted. You’ve got to go and break down those walls and say, ‘This is my space now too.’”
At this point in Montero Lamar Hill’s career, his journey is fairly well known, if only because it happened right before our eyes. Born just outside of Atlanta, the now-22-year-old only graduated Lithia Springs High School four years ago. Though he enrolled at the University of West Georgia, he dropped out a year later.
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While sleeping on his sister’s floor, Nas released his debut single, “Old Town Road,” in late 2018, the beat for which he bought online for $30. Putting to use his prior social media experience — namely running Nicki Minaj stan accounts — he used memes to promote the track until it was heard by millions on TikTok. The country trap song debuted at number 83 on the Billboard Hot 100, later climbing to the number 1 spot, where it stayed for 19 consecutive weeks.
Aided by a groundswell of controversy about the legitimacy of the track as a country song, and numerous remixes, including the first and most prominent with country star Billy Ray Cyrus, “Old Town Road” broke the record for the longest-running number 1 song. This distinction was previously held by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s “Despacito.”
Above: Scenes from Out's Los Angeles photoshoot of Lil Nas X.
In the glow of “Old Town Road’s” ubiquity, Nas dropped his debut EP, titled 7, which debuted at number 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. Days later, though initially worried about losing the fan base he’d cultivated to that point, the rapper came out publicly as a gay man on the last day of Pride 2019. Since then, his star has continued to rise, culminating, at this juncture, in two Grammys, two BET Hip Hop Awards, a Country Music Association Award, and countless streams, including for the global number 1 hit “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” which he released earlier this year to some controversy.
Apparently giving Satan a lap dance as a metaphor for self-acceptance and loving what the world once taught you to hate about yourself (being gay) was too much for the Bible-thumpers. Admittedly, for me, as a Southern Black queer person, it’s been a marvel to watch Lil Nas X be. I know the freedom he exhibits — from his timeline to the red carpet to the airwaves — doesn’t come easy.
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“Growing up in the Atlanta area, I [saw] a lot of microaggressions towards homosexuality,” he recalls. “Little things like going into an IHOP and hearing one of your family members say, ‘Look at those faggots’ to two people eating or even just a small [statement like] ‘Boys don’t cry.’ Little shit like living in the hood, not being super into sports, and then having to go outside and pretend that I was.”
As a result, Nas remembers “pushing that part of myself in more and more, almost convincing myself that it’s not even actually there.” He brings up a recent viral video of a Black boy named Tyler, reportedly in the Atlanta area, being abused by family members, including having the word “gay” shaved into the side of his head.
“It takes you back in time, watching somebody else’s experience,” he says slowly, obviously processing something internally. But that’s why his BET Awards performance was so important, he adds. “I was in rehearsals like, ‘Oh, my God. I have to do my absolute fucking best with this performance because of shit like this.’”
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There’s a unique pressure that those of us who are Black, queer, and visible often shoulder, just by the very nature of our existence. It’s a heightened version of the stressor that is the old adage Black people and other folks of color have come to know like the back of our hands: “You’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far.” Add being LGBTQ+ or a woman or disabled to being Black (not to mention the respectability expectations that sometimes come with being raised in the South), and the pressures — those foisted upon us and the ones we acquiesce to — magnify.
“Mentally, it’s really draining and straining sometimes,” Nas says. “The pressure of living your entire life knowing the identity of what a rapper is supposed to be, what rappers [are supposed to] do, and going out there in front of all these people, it’s terrifying. [The BET performance] was like jumping in a lake full of sharks and piranhas — and I’ve had to do that so many times within these last three years. Even coming out, that was terrifying. When I put on the costume of Nicki, terrifying.” (He dressed in drag as rapper Nicki Minaj for Halloween.)
Perhaps the world can’t see Nas’s fear. His witty clapbacks on social media — “why y’all get mad at me so easily. all i’ve ever done was be a bad bitch,” he tweeted recently — pull the wool over many eyes. He credits his “menacing past online, having dirt thrown my way and throwing dirt back” for the strength he displays virtually.
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“But I won’t pretend like I’m never sad or anything,” he says. “I’ve had a bunch of hard times this past week, after that performance and before the performance. But for me, that’s life, and one thing I 100 percent never do when I’m in these down moments is go to social media with them. Because I know that they’re going to pass, and what a lot of people like to do is use that against you.”
Nas says he first learned this tool for survival when he was younger. “Growing up, I didn’t realize it, but I’ve always been kind of my own hand on my own shoulder. I’ve had to keep a lot of secrets, and I can only share those things with myself. So, I had to lift myself up when I was down, from fucking 9 years old, because I don’t feel like me and my dad ever had a super emotional connection after he got custody of me and my brother, and I didn’t really get that with my mom and my siblings.”
The star we now see, then, is self-made, in that unique way we as Black queer people shape our imaginations into existences we once only dared to dream. With his self-titled debut album due out later this year, I ask about the difference, if there is one, between “Lil Nas X” and Montero, the man.
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“I’m turning into Montero more and more, day by day,” he admits, noting that the bulk of his music leading up to the most recent singles isn’t necessarily personal. “I named the album after myself because there are a lot of things I’ve been going through and dealing with and wanting to say. I wanted to let sides of myself show that I’ve been afraid of people seeing for so long.”
Those include difficulties he experiences with some family members; a love life he desires but sometimes feels like he doesn’t have the time for; the haters who don’t think he deserves the success he’s had; the insecurities of a baby gay, someone who just came out two years ago; the self-doubt and self-hatred often taught to those of us who are unambiguously Black.
Montero, the album, promises to document what Freshwater author Akwaeke Emezi calls “the unfolding of a self,” the process by which Nas continues to glow up into a living affirmation for countless Black queer artists claiming space in industries from which we’ve been erased and excluded, and Black LGBTQ+ people and beyond in communities that don’t yet love us.
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“I’m still not my full self,” he says, “but that fear of the people around you that you’re the closest to and loving the most not understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing, that’s something we just have to let go of. All of this is in pursuit of becoming my full self, more and more.”
Such clarity from a young Black gay man who is shouldering the burden that representation can sometimes be is refreshing. Still, the reality is that Lil Nas X is coming into himself in public. For most of us, this process was done in relative obscurity, which allowed (some of) us to navigate the sordid streets of internalized homophobia, anti-Blackness, and the like without the ogling of millions of people. To me, it often feels like, with each performance, each music video, and each red carpet slay, the rapper is unfolding into his divinely given brilliance. The stunts and shows are then not purely about shock and awe, as many may believe. Rather, they represent a constant exorcizing and unlearning of everything Nas and all of us were taught to hate about our Black queer selves.
When he first made the decision to pursue music full time, the goal was simply “to be this huge rapper,” Nas admits now. “I was looking to blend in when I first started, but now I genuinely don’t mind and wish to do my own thing and stand out. I wanted to just be an artist at first. I wanted to just make music.
“But now I have even more of a purpose: to continue to find myself and, by doing so, help others find themselves.”
Writer Tre'vell Anderson @trevellanderson
Creative Director Ben Ward @_benjaminward_
Photographer James White @jameswhitefoto for @artdeptagency
Photo Assistants Eric Larsen & Ethan Sharkey
Digital Tech Chad Brooks
Stylist Hodo Musa @hodovodo for @thewallgroup
Stylist Assistants Nash Koshiro, Anissa Silva, Gorge Villalpando
Grooming Stacey Kutz @staceykutzlive for @criteriongroup
Beauty Anthony Nguyen @anthonyhnguyenmakeup for @thewallgroup
Manicure Jolene Brodeur for @thewallgroup
Video Anthony Morales @subtitleproductions
This cover story is part of Out's 2021 Fashion Issue. The issue is out on newsstands on August 16, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.