Lil Nas X Eschews Shame and Embraces Sin

After almost a year of teasing, viral star Lil Nas X has graced us with his eye-popping visual for his new single ‘MONTERO (Call Me by Your Name)’. In less than a week of release the three-minute video whipped up a whirlwind mix of applause and attack, from being hailed as an iconic work of contemporary queerness to being denounced as a sign of the end of days. While the 21-year-old rapper has once again given a masterclass on how to ride a wave of controversy straight to the top of the charts, ‘MONTERO’ isn’t pure spectacle: the visual serves as a searing commentary on the damage society does to LGBTQ+ kids on a daily basis, and to overlook that would be to miss the point.

Nas uses a variety of Biblical and Greco-Roman motifs to depict his experiences and those of many queer and trans people raised religiously. As he innocently sits in a CGI Garden of Eden, a creature which represents the infamous serpent seduces him, a symbol of the nascent queer desire that ultimately damns the protagonist. The first two acts convey how the external pressure to suppress himself is so strong that it manifests as self-hatred. His temptation, and the judges who put him to trial for it, look just like him; the angry mob is composed of carbon copies of the rapper, and the butt plug which kills him (a nice touch, by the way) is of his own creation too. What’s most insidious about the poisonous dogma preached at and about queer and trans people is that it takes hold young: his whole fantasy world ends up marked by torment that Nas has learnt to bring upon himself, a vitriol that threatened to end his life. 

This is the reason the third act is so gratifying. In the video’s final scenes, Nas rejects paradise, slides down the express pole to Hell, and grinds on Satan in thigh-high latex boots while staring down the camera. As he saunters up to the unholy throne, the phrase “they will condemn that which they do not understand” is written in Latin on the floor, in a pentagram where the artist performs. Inflammatory as this scene is, it isn’t only a ploy for publicity. While Lil Nas X has parlayed his aptitude for Internet trolling to a status as a master pop-culture provocateur, his chaos rarely comes without cause. The ‘Call Me by Your Name’ video is simply a response to years of taunts from holier-than-thou bigots, threats of fire and brimstone that every queer person has heard at some point, which have been flipped to centre Nas’s agency in the matter and prove that he isn’t afraid. If he has to go to Hell anyway, why suffer passively? If he’s already sinning just by virtue of existing, why not wear Loud-era red cornrows down his back and whine on the Devil? Why not go one step further by snapping his neck and taking his job? He said it himself in a tweet: “y’all love saying we going to hell but get upset when i actually go there lmao”.

Nas’ overlapping identities have invited scorn from a broad coalition: hotep rumblings about the “feminisation of the Black man”; conservatives convinced that the video is evidence of a war on Western values. Especially disgruntled, are some Christians who lament that fear (not faith or reverence, but fear) in God is lacking, unwilling to grapple with the fact that the terror that religious queerphobia aims at kids is in fact traumatising. What’s more, the anger at ‘MONTERO’ doesn’t just come from the fact that Nas is cavorting with the Devil. There is a latent fury at the fact that the rapper managed to revel in the most hateful insult hurled at queer youth: he dared to make eternal damnation look sexy.

Pop culture devil worship rumours, the demonisation of rap music, Hell used as a battering ram for queer and trans youth, the list goes on. Nas knows what it feels like to be condemned – a lot of us do, I grew up fearing Hell just like he did – and expressing it creatively is just one way for him to free himself from those shackles. The visual’s climax is at its core a rejection of the shame and fear which Nas has admitted he felt about his sexuality growing up. “I know we promised to never be ‘that’ type of gay person,” the artist wrote in a heartfelt note to his 14-year-old self, “but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist.” 

On top of his gender-bending aesthetics, it’s significant to hear a gay performer indulge in his sexuality in the song’s lyrics, in the same way that his straight peers do, chipping away at the idea that queer sex is somehow inherently more vulgar. Pop of eras gone by is no stranger to artists calling out cultural hypocrisy or pushing boundaries, but especially in an era where more young people than ever know they’re queer, an openly gay Black man who marries the world of pop and rap leading the charge feels right. Especially since he’s made it clear that living in the dark isn’t an option for him.

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