Columbia Records / Lil Nas X

“Yikes.” When Billboard recently removed “Old Town Road” from the country chart because it’s not ‘country’ enough, Lil Nas X summed the situation up perfectly with this succinct reaction on Twitter. Since then, the viral star has responded to the controversy in more detail, explaining to Time that “whenever you’re trying something new, it’s always going to get some kind of bad reception.”

Plenty of celebrities from both the worlds of rap and country subsequently came out in support of Lil Nas X, and these critiques of Billboard’s decision were soon followed by a number of think pieces which argued that there’s more going on here than simply a resistance to change.

As Pitchfork rightly points out, “Top 40 radio has kept popular black rappers at bay, despite admitting their white counterparts,” and it seems that the “perplexing whiteness” of country music is responsible at least in part for the controversy that surrounds “Old Town Road” too. After all, popular white artists like Sam Hunt have long incorporated hip-hop influences into their music and yet they have no problem topping the country charts. Why should things be any different for Lil Nas X?

That’s what makes the success of “Old Town Road” so remarkable. Thanks to its viral reach on TikTok, the song’s unique blend of banjo strums and hip-hop vocals has bypassed the somewhat narrow-minded gatekeepers of country radio to draw in a wider audience than many would have ever thought possible. Of course, some might presume that the meme-friendly nature of “Old Town Road” will soon relegate Lil Nas X to the realm of one-hit wonders, but whether that’s true or not, the yeehaw agenda is just getting started and country rap is leading the charge.

The New Frontier Is Actually An Old Frontier

The pushback against “Old Town Road” and the question of what even constitutes country music feeds into a false narrative that would have us believe cowboy culture is solely the preoccupation of Southern white men. Much like many other facets of American history, the history of cowboys and the country music they inspire has been whitewashed to an almost unrecognizable degree.

In truth, black cowboys date back to the late 1800’s and musicologists have confirmed that country’s signature banjo instrument is rooted in the music of West Africa. Rap’s ‘newfound’ love of cowboy culture isn’t actually new at all, it’s simply evolved, and this is only being recognized now thanks to the current fashion and musical trends that have come to be known as the “yeehaw agenda.”

Back in the early 2000s, hip-hop’s mainstream flirtation with country music first took form in the studded belts and metallic cowboy hats worn by superstars like Destiny’s Child and Mary J. Blige. Hints of this culture began to lasso their way around the music itself too, but it wasn’t until Nelly teamed up with country star Tim McGraw in 2004 that the financial and artistic value of combining these two genres fully became apparent. The less said about “Wild Wild West,” the better.

Love it or hate it, Nelly’s “Over and Over” duet would go on to peak at number three on the Billboard US Hot 100 and number one in the UK, kick-starting a fascination with country that gave birth to his collaboration with Florida Georgia Line and even a cover of Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man.” Around that same time, a white Timbaland protege called Bubba Sparxxx also fused rural country vibes and modern hip-hop together on the charts while accidentally creating a new sub-genre called hick-hop in the process.

“Yeehaw!”

While Nelly and Bubba Sparxxx were both admirable in their aims to defy genre, neither could prolong their success in this regard. Aside from the cowboy get-up seen in early Azealia Banks videos and the occasional duet between Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson, few attempted to rekindle country rap in the years that followed their decline.

It wasn’t until the last couple of years or so that this aesthetic returned in full force and this was largely down to the double whammy of Beyoncé‘s first “Yeehaw!” on “Daddy Lessons” in 2016 and Young Thug’s own “Yeehaw!” heard a year later on the first track off his album Beautiful Thugger Girls.

The success of both songs helped drive a new conversation about the nature of country music and how the genre can best be defined. Since then, artists like Lil Tracy and Lil Uzi Vert have also played around with country iconography in their music, and Beyoncé‘s own sister Solange recently reclaimed the black cowboy image in the companion film to her latest record, When I Get Home.

More than just a mere aesthetic, the yeehaw agenda fights to uncover a lost history that’s been overwritten via a particularly pervasive form of whitewashing. Most people still seem convinced that black cowboys never existed at all, and this misconception recently helped fuel Billboard’s decision to remove Lil Nas X from the country charts, just like it fueled the Grammys’ decision to reject “Daddy Lessons” as a contender for Best Country Song a couple of years back.

“I’m gonna ride ’til I can’t no more”

Despite the best efforts of these misguided gatekeepers, hip-hop’s ongoing obsession with cowboy culture isn’t going anywhere. Thanks to a tumultuous political climate, America’s identity is deeply in flux right now, so it should come as no surprise that marginalized groups would hold onto their heritage tighter than ever before. This is even more true when it comes to aspects of American history which are often overlooked or hidden away completely.

Nashville and country radio can snub hip-hop all they want, but songs like “Old Town Road” shouldn’t have too much trouble sidestepping this institutionalised resistance thanks to both the democratization of streaming and interest from artists on both sides of the coin. As long as stars like Young Thug and Sam Hunt continue to recognize that hip-hop and country share powerful storytelling components that bind them together, then amalgamations of the two will continue to resonate with fans of both genres alike.

It’s only fitting that the immediate future of country rap can best be discerned by what’s coming next for Lil Nas X, the artist who helped reignite this debate in the first place. Along with the recently-released Billy Ray Cyrus remix of “Old Town Road” and his upcoming collaboration with singer Jake Owen, the young star has also promised fans that he plans to keep incorporating country music into his work: “…just don’t expect me to put my music in a box because of old town road’s success.”

Like he says on “Old Town Road,” it looks like Lil Nas X is “gonna ride ‘til I can’t no more,” and the same is undoubtedly true of country rap too. The success of songs like this will only inspire hip-hop artists to explore new frontiers and experiment with genre even more. No matter how much the old guard might try to stop them, this is one showdown that the country gatekeepers can’t win in the long run.

Words by David Opie
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