one sweet old town road – and history

July 29, 2019
269 Picks

There was nothing I wanted to do more as a queer Black teenager than escape. My household was pleasant, my parents were fantastic, and school was, well, school. However, the longing to run away lived underneath my flesh even when I intuitively knew that my life was reasonably good. But it was not good enough. The hometown that saw me in youth and slowly watched me transform into an adult was beginning to suffocate my desires for expression. I wanted to wear things that familiar neighbors might think were disturbing, I wanted to say things that classmates might find rebellious and I wanted to have sex with other men. The latter because of my gay teenage hormonal reality became of the utmost importance. 

I didn’t want to sleep with any of the other teenage boys in my neighborhood. I wanted a man, I wanted a Black stallion like the ones in the porn websites I’d clandestinely watch to get a hint of the world I truly wanted to live in.

With “I’m gonna take my horses to the old town road and ride till I can’t no more,” Little Nas X has created a lyric that could be likened in impact and generational relatability to Bob Dylan’s proclamation “How does it feel? To be on your own…like a rolling stone.” Perhaps not quite fit for some people’s prestigious literary awards, but it has proven to be beyond impactful, at least according to Billboard magazine, the official keeper of the Hot 100 pop singles chart. Today “Old Town Road” officially spent its 17th week at #1, replacing Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” (and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito”) as the song to have the longest continuous stay atop the Billboard chart. 

When I first became aware of the news, my body was filled with elation for Little Nas X. I was thirsty for a hero’s story, and he was that in real life. He first entered hip-hop culture — a culture that is often as patriarchal as it is powerful, especially around queerness — quietly. He used that culture’s sonic sensibilities to establish himself into the modern country music world; a world built from the cultural productions of people with noses, lips, and skin like Little Nas X, but now exists as a largely white and historically racist culture. He used his artistry as the bridge for these worlds, gaining immeasurable success even when the country establishment rejected him; and, at the crescendo of this cultural victory, he risked it all. He came out as queer.

The decision could’ve gone one of two ways: Lil Nas X could have easily been shunned from both worlds, putting a definitive punctuation mark on his career, or he could’ve been celebrated by a newer, still imperfect world where a 20-something Black queer boy could amass influence and success. Imagine my elation when the latter manifested — a type of rapture took over my body with the idea that “Old Town Road” would replace Mariah Carey’s “One Sweet Day.”

Mariah Carey’s hit was a beautiful, gospel-tinged duet with Philadelphia R&B group, Boyz II Men. It was written to honor the lives lost in the AIDS epidemic, and it gives its own lyrics to the idea of escape, but from this earthly realm, the promise that despite the earth’s neglect to assuage the pain of the suffering, that the ultimate healing will one day happen even if it happens in a cosmic rapture called heaven. 

Knowing the pain and neglect that the AIDS epidemic caused along with the political neglect from the Reagan administration especially harmed other Black gay men. A nation — a generation — was robbed, and to this day the echoes of that pain can still be heard. 

What can also be heard if only symbolically by Little Nas X’s “Old Town Road” replacing Mariah Carey’s “One Sweet Day” is a fantastic exchange from grief to escape. Perhaps this exchange only exists in my overindulgent thought experiments, I thought, until Mariah Carey tweeted a picture of her in a cowboy hat in response to the imminent good news. In that moment, I knew that both the exchange and the escape, was real.