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Lil Nas X, Country Music's Unlikely Son, Sparks Conversation On Genre And Race

Despite Lil Nas X's viral hit "Old Town Road" having a blend of rap and country elements, <em>Billboard</em> removed the song from its Hot Country Songs chart.
Eric Lagg
Courtesy of the artist
Despite Lil Nas X's viral hit "Old Town Road" having a blend of rap and country elements, Billboard removed the song from its Hot Country Songs chart.

When an artist finds their song climbing up the Billboard charts for the first time, it's usually a cause for celebration. But in the case of 19-year-old rapper Lil Nas X and his viral hit, "Old Town Road (I Got Horses in the Back)," it's also been a cause of controversy.

Lil Nas X first released "Old Town Road" in December 2018 and it quickly gained popularity on the social media app TikTok. "Old Town Road" blends genres of country and trap and in March, the song charted on Billboard's Hot 100, Hot Country Songs and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts simultaneously. But that same month, Billboard removed the track from its Hot Country Songs list. This raised questions and uproar from fans over discrimination.

The publication released a statement to Rolling Stone defending the chart revision that read: "While 'Old Town Road' incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today's country music to chart in its current version."

Critics of Billboard's decision, including artists like Moses Sumney and Billy Ray Cyrus, say it's proof that the music industry doesn't afford black artists the same creative license as white artists.

"The song is definitely a rap song. But who decides what is or isn't country music is very subjective," says Sam Sanders, host of NPR's It's Been A Minute. "Lots of folks are saying 'Hey, Billboard, Hey, country, You allow white artists to get on these charts with songs that aren't quite country all the time.' There are artists like Sam Hunt who was clearly influenced by hip-hop, artists like Taylor Swift who made country songs that were more pop than country for years."

Shane Morris, founder of BMD Agency in Nashville, says part of the push back against Lil Nas X wasn't just related to race. It was also the country industry being afraid of how the rapper emerged; on social media, without going through the Nashville gatekeepers.

"There isn't like a SoundCloud for independent country," Morris says. "The fans don't adopt music in the same way. They very much are given what they're supposed to like and then that's that."

With songs like "Old Town Road" changing the playing field, Sanders says it's country's job to adapt. "The question is can country music catch up with hip-hop and everyone else and make peace with this brave new world?"

On April 5, Lil Nas X released the official remix to "Old Town Road" featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.