America has a long history of racial-purity rhetoric -- and the legislation to back it up. Laws as early as 1662 stated that “If any Christian shall commit fornication with a negro man or woman, hee or shee soe offending shall pay double the fines imposed.” In 1878, a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling defended the banning of interracial marriage on the basis that legalizing “intermarriage between the races,” would lead to “deteriorating . . . Caucasian blood and . . . the social and legislative decorum of the States.” When discussing the ways in which white people have normalized themselves in American legal and social culture, Ehlers states that “whiteness becomes visible and begins to take shape through the articulations of what it does not purport to be, through the designation of ‘acts’ or ‘behaviors’ that reside beyond its sanctioned boundaries.” Essentially Dr. Ehlers is saying that, rather than have defining characteristics that mark whiteness like blacks, Latinos, Asians do, white people primarily know that they are white people (or, indeed, what whiteness is) through the legal and social recognition of what it is not -- the Others. But in order to be fully identified and to identify as white, there are some acts and rituals one must perform for white society. In Ehlers' formulation, the American legal system has been so dominated by white masculinity that an all-white, all-male jury she examines becomes, indeed, the law itself. “A legally defined white body must perform whiteness in order to survive. The body must perform the law, must demonstrate that the sanctity of whiteness be upheld.” This concept is nearly identical to the one expressed by Jocelyn Neal in her study of country dance halls across the country. While the clienteles of some dance halls were amazingly diverse across racial as well as sexual boundaries, Dr. Neal takes note of one dance hall where the clientele “adopts a performance of identity more grounded in racial distinctions: country music is not just white, but decidedly, not black.”
And indeed, the concept of defining entire groups of people by these color designations was an invention of the transatlantic slave trade, so as the concept of blackness was being conceived, the concept of whiteness was being constructed simultaneously and in opposition to it. As argued by Winthrop Jordan in White Man’s Burden: The Historical Origins of Racism in the United States, the colonial era was the first time that Europeans began to willfully construct the notion of race, a concept borne out of British transatlantic explorers’ attempts to both justify and delimit their exploitation of African labor. Having first encountered the African in 1550, the English soon developed an implicit discourse of relating “blackness” with all things evil. “No other color except white conveyed such emotional impact. As described by the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of black before the sixteenth century included ‘ . . . having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly, baneful, disastrous.’” Or as Ehlers states, “Within this oppositional logic, these terms gain meaning only in relation to one another. And ‘the second term’ in each pair is considered the negative, corrupt, undesirable version of the first. A fall away from it.”
In that sense, brown skin became not just a color, but part and parcel of the negative energy of blackness itself. And in fact, many Catholic priests of the colonial era liked to buttress their support of slavery with the logic that it was not the darker skin that was offensive in and of itself, but that the skin was a mark of Cain, “the external manifestation of . . . internal racial differences,” as Dr. Ehlers writes. It was acceptable to discriminate against darker races because their inferior traits were manifested in their dark skin—so racial purity and separation was a top-flight priority. According to Ehlers, though differences existed between racial types, individuals within these types were seen as [having] shared attributes. It was these attributes that were used . . . to continually reinforce racial lines, positioning race as that which signifies a resolute and unalterable boundary that cannot be traversed.”
Lil Nas X is not the first black country rapper. Cowboy Troy was rockin’ mics back in 2006. This is, however, the first musical collaboration of this type, where an established country star sings on the record and appears in the video of a black country rapper. And the fact that he followed it up with a cover of a rap song himself completes a devastating artistic and political assault on mainstream ideas of what both country and rap should look like. And it’s a changing mainstream, because this is a generational thing. People who have a problem with Lil Nas X’s appropriation of country culture tend to skew older. He’s only 24, and although Cyrus is 59, his daughter’s name gives him street cred with millennials down to Gen Z. (Props to him for covering an artist his own age, btw.) So this fight is for the very heart of what country is, and it is a generational tug-of-war just like the 1960s Countercultural Revolution was.
But breaking down the walls between the musical categories and racial categories will not be easy, because our identities are so important to us psychologically and emotionally. Our identities are our stories about who we are, which also reflects who we take pride in, the heroes we have, and the histories we revere. So people do not easily give up the categories with which they identify. And even though we all know race is not biological, according to Benn Michaels from the office of Management and Budget, race is a “subjective fact about individuals, a function of perception rather than biology . . . What you’re really being asked [on a census form] is how you perceive yourself.” The key to that idea is that “perception” is the key to identity. Every person has groups with which they identify: fathers, Americans, plumbers, wives, clergy, etc. The higher “white people” or “black people” is on your list, the more it is a part of your personal identity. And breaking down the walls between musical categories might also mean literally breaking down the walls in record-label offices that split up their workers by genre. According to Keith Negus, the segmented character of the radio industry permeates the entire record-company operation, with staff working in small concentrated areas. “Promotions departments are subdivided into specialists who deal with the different radio formats. . . . When an A&R person finds at act they wish to sign, they are immediately confronted with the promotional staff, who want to know what format the artist fits into.” But it is difficult to determine whether it’s record labels who keep using musical categories to suit radio programmers, or different radio stations that create playlists to suit the tastes of record-label musical departments. This is the ultimate chicken-or-the-egg riddle, in which both industries would undoubtedly say that they are only reacting to the actions of the other.
And LNX and BRC aren’t saving the world just because they are turning the recording and radio industries on their ears, but also because they have so successfully bucked the pressure to conform to the industry pressure to stay inside the categories. According to Negus, artists are often taught to tailor their sound more towards what their label thinks will fit a particular format. And at the end of the day, recording artists are artists, so they are used to the constant compromise of their art in order to make a living. Making a living as an artist is often feast or famine—and the alternative might actually literally be starving. As Negus observes, “In Britain, records are prioritized according to the musical tastes . . . of disc jockeys and their producers; the emphasis is on placing tracks with the ‘right people.’ In the United States, the priorities have more to do with the format categories; tracks that do not fit -- where ‘nobody knows what to do with it’ -- and recordings that are not receiving wider commercial support are deprioritized or simply ignored.”
But no one is going to ignore the gay black country rapper and Hannah Montana’s dad teaming up to destroy racism in the music industry. No one is going to ignore their insouciant deconstruction of country music’s hold on white identity. That Western tale is too good to be true; too heroic even for Hollywood. These two are out loud and proud, riding on white steeds with six guns a-blazing, crooning lullabies to all the little buckaroos and buckarettes. They’ll all be waking into a brand new day come sun up.