Lil Nas X has yet again found himself on the wrong side of some self-appointed gatekeepers of country, this time inspiring social media protests and sworn boycotts in response to his collaboration with Wrangler.
The heritage brand partnered with the young man who gave your screaming, adorably hyped children "Old Town Road" to create a collection of jeans and T-shirts inspired by the monster trap-country hit. The pairing seems like a match made in yeehaw heaven, and Wrangler agrees, especially considering "Old Town Road" includes the lyrics "Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty / Can't nobody tell me nothin'."
And yet, some people seem to have nonetheless felt the need to tell Lil Nas X and Wrangler somethin', indeed.
Both parties have been accused by country fans of appropriating cowboy culture, reports USA Today. One Instagram user wrote: "Some of the best cowboys in rodeo are of a different culture and skin color. But Wrangler is definitely getting away from the 'cowboy spirit.' I love all kinds of music including some rap, but this ain’t cowboy anymore. Sad to see Wrangler heading in this direction." Another commented, "Wrangler just lost my money, and I bet a whole lot of other people's money as well," while another wrote, "Wrangler is my favorite pant, and you just had to go and ruin it with Old Town Road.”
Lil Nas X himself responded on Twitter, writing, "y’all really boycotting wrangler?? is it that deep."
The angry mob seems to have either forgotten or never known that American cowboy culture was born of Mexico's vaquero culture post-Spanish colonization. Country music itself is derived from traditional Mexican rancheras and Black blues, and "country" culture is, in fact, historically Mexican.
As Ludwig Hurtado wrote in The Nation, "In the 1920s, early forms of country music were born out of honky tonk, which was adapted mostly from ragtime but also heavily influenced by Mexican ranchera music. At the height of its popularity, Western swing music was associated with acts like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, but that signature sound of the 1930s was actually largely adapted from Mexican musical styles, incorporating sounds that are common in mariachi music: stylized violin or fiddle elements, various string instruments, and lots of horns. This all makes up what’s known as the big-band sound, banda in Spanish."
Black cowboys, meanwhile have been around since nearly the beginning, and many more turned to ranch work after the Civil War, as it was one of the few jobs a freed slave could get. And let's also not forget the extent to which country music is based on the work of Black blues artists. In fact, neither country nor rock 'n' roll would exist as we know them without the music Black artists created.
Indigenous, Spanish, mestizo, and Black vaqueros rode side-by-side and worked the land together for centuries—but Lil Nas X twangin' while rocking his Wranglers is a problem? He has just as much right to be a part of country music and fashion as any white country folk out there.
This scenario echoes the racist gatekeeping that the rapper has faced for being Black and daring to express his undying love for "bull ridin' and boobies." From the day Billboard refused to allow "Old Town Road" onto the Hot Country chart for "not embracing enough elements of today’s country music," Lil Nas X has had to prove he's more than a little bit country. Billy Ray Cyrus had his back, and the song eventually shot to the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Hot Country and Rap/R&B charts. And the rapper is far from alone in his experience; Beyoncé faced backlash back in 2016 for performing her song "Daddy Lessons" at the CMA Awards with the Dixie Chicks, and Black country star Darius Rucker has openly talked about the death threats and extreme racism he has endured from white country fans. Black country fans have often described facing hardships and discrimination for loving a genre that seems to hate them back.
While Mexican country fans have plenty of Spanish language banda, Tejano, norteño, and other country-derived genres to choose from—all of which slap harder than anything Toby Keith could ever dream—they also have to reckon with a parallel genre and culture that at times celebrates their continued oppression and violence. Booths are often set up at country music festivals to recruit new officers to the U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
But American Western fans can also thank Mexican culture for their cowboy boots, cowboy hats, rodeos, and the very yeehaws that come out of their mouths. From a historical standpoint, country music—country culture—will always be brown as hell and Black as hell, no matter how hard white country patrons pretend it's not. Inequality is a cornerstone of appropriation, meaning that a theft of a culture can't occur by the dominant culture—and especially not when that dominant culture didn't create the culture in question. (In other words, you can't appropriate what wasn't yours in the first place.) Lil Nas X can—and should—take all that Wrangler money to the bank.
Wrangler, thankfully, didn't fold to the pressures of its more racist consumers, responding, "We have a long history of using the platform of popular music to embrace a new generation of fans, while staying true to our Western heritage."
The company added: "We believe the cowboy spirit is about having courage, independence and confidence, which are the same qualities encapsulated in this limited-run, one-of-a-kind collection."
Many Wrangler and country fans, white and non-white, drowned out the hate on social media, voicing their support for Lil Nas X and what the collaboration with Wrangler symbolizes—an important step in representation and opportunity for Black and brown people in American country. While a jean and T-shirt line may not, as Lil Nas X says, be that deep, the racism within country music definitely is, and those Wrangler booty shorts have the power to help shift that. Yeehaw, indeed.
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Follow Alex Zaragoza, who is hella ready for a Los Tucanes de Tijuana/Lil Nas X collab, on Twitter.