Cultural appropriation in music has been an ongoing conversation in hip-hop. In the early 90s, the conversation emerged with Vanilla Ice, Eminem challenged expectations throughout the ’00s with record-breaking rap music and we’ve all explored the topic through the likes of Macklemore, Iggy Azalea and Logic. Often music derives from cultural experiences as a form of expression leading to the “appropriation” of certain types of music, especially in hip-hop. However, music has always had a low-cultural context often being described as the “global language. “Low context cultures are not significantly unified and can easily be changed and adapted” (,). Most recently “country-trapper” Lil Nas X has been the poster child of this conversation after his debut single “Old Town Road” was removed from the Billboard Country Charts for “not embracing enough elements of today’s country music in its current version” (Billboard). Let’s take a closer look at Lil Nas X and how the controversy surrounding the hit “Old Town Road” translates.
“Old Town Road” was independently released by Lil Nas X in December 2018 on Sound Cloud. It should be noted, Lil Nas X started his career as a popular Twitter personality known as both NasMaraj and FactsAboutNM. The track itself went viral earlier this year for its use in the viral “Yeehaw Challenge” on the popular app TikTok. With a popular following and viral single, Columbia Records signed Lil Nas X and began distributing the single to the mainstream. “Old Town Road,” listed as a country-rap single finds X glamorizing the life of a cowboy over a Nine Inch Nails sampled production. The interesting combination of the banjo amongst trap drums places the track in a space that fails to meet either hip-hop or country, but right in between. “It’s not quite country, yet not so hip-hop,” one may express. But the combination alone was enough to drive the single up the charts. The song reached the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 and #19 on the Country Charts when Billboard announced the track would be disqualified.
Billboard’s decision to remove “Old Town Road” from the chart can be traced back to racial divides in music in the south. According to Dom Flemons, “In a way of hyper-targeting, the audiences the record labels in the 1920s came up with two categories: race records which were for African American, Southern working-class people and Hillbilly Music which was for the white counterparts. So blues, jazz, and spiritual gospel music became the foundation for race records. As hillbilly music evolved it became a string band, vaudeville music, country, and western music” (Angeloni, 2019). In doing so, record labels created a space exclusively for white artists to express themselves through country music. The Hot Country Charts is currently entirely white even though country music is influenced by black artists. In contrast, the Hot R&B and Hip-Hop chart, originally created for music played at “urban or primarily urban venues,” has changed its name numerous times over the years to “accurately reflect the industry at the time”. Currently, Post Malone, a white southern rapper/singer tops the Hot R&B and Hip-Hop chart with his smash single “Wow”.
How this translates is modern-day discrimination. The Billboard has created spaces exclusively for white artists to express themselves while limiting black artists in doing so. Earlier this year Ariana Grande released the hit single “7 Rings” featuring 2 Chainz. The heavily urban-influenced track was met with controversy for “cultural appropriation” but charted at #1 on the Hot R&B and Hip-Hop chart despite the criticism. Pop singer Bebe Rexha topped the Hot Country Charts with her pop/country fused single “Meant To Be” ft. Florida Georgia Line for the majority of 2018. Regardless if the tracks were culturally appropriate or just an appreciation for different genres, these white singers were allowed to freely express themselves across genres, while achieving success – a privilege that black artists currently don’t have. Maybe it’s time Billboard changed the name of the Hot Country Chart seeing the popularity and influence of current country music? Although Lil Nas X has been removed from the Hot Country Charts, “Old Town Road” has been widely accepted by the country community with popular country artist Billy Ray Cyrus hopping on the remix! As of today, “Old Town Road’ would have been #1 on the Hot Country Charts. With a track this massive, I’m interested in Lil Nas X’s projectory! What do you think of this controversy? Sound off in the comment box below!
Lil Nas X – “Old Town Road (Remix)” ft. Billy Ray Cyrus