Last weekend, while helping a couple of our friends move apartments, my friend asked me if I’d seen Lil Nas X’s new music video — the one with hell and the devil and all that. At the time, I hadn’t. I’d heard vague details, and I’d seen the notes app letter that Lil Nas X had left for a 14-year-old version of himself about the song. The note itself was enough to make me emotional. Inside, he wrote, “I know we promised to never come out publicly, I know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist.”
Lil Nas X was writing to his past self who wasn’t out as gay. Likely, people hadn’t told him at that point, “YOU specifically, Lil Nas X, are going to hell.” More likely, the church community surrounding him for most of his life had iterated, over and over, that LGBTQ+ people were going to hell. And even if churchgoing people are not pointing directly at you and saying you deserve to go to hell, if they’re implying that if you are even close to something they disagree with there’s no hope for you, that is damaging.
But again, at this point I hadn’t seen the video, I’d just heard the murmurings around it and the controversy it inspired on social media, specifically Twitter. A couple days ago, when I did watch the video, I thought it was fun — the effort put into production was commendable in itself. While the candy hued, theatrical video portrays scenes that are symbolically familiar, they convey a message clearly so personal to Lil Nas X that the video gains a special kind of animation you can only reach by truly accepting yourself.
I grew up Christian, attending a United Methodist church in an extremely wealthy part of Kansas’s wealthiest county, just a handful of blocks away from the Country Club Plaza. I never felt like the church was dictating to me how I should live my life, to be honest. In all, the leadership at that particular church is overwhelmingly impressive in their progressiveness.
Notably, the United Methodist church hardly ever talks about hell in the fire and brimstone way that a Southern Baptist or many other iterations of denominations might. Hell was spoken about in a vague way, the most it was ever mentioned being that if you didn’t repent and accept Jesus at death you weren’t going to go to heaven.
As I got into high school and made friends with people who weren’t Christian but were agnostic or atheist, the idea of Hell started to get to me. I knew those people didn’t believe what I believed in, but I also didn’t think they deserved to go to hell. When I got to college and started meeting people of completely different faiths like Islam and Judaism, this feeling became stronger. Those people had fully formed faiths that meant as much to them as Christianity meant to Christians. That couldn’t be a reason to condemn someone to hell.
In the past couple years, what’s become important to me is less my relationship inside what we might call the “Church” and more my own relationship with my faith.
Nobody at that church has ever told me that LGBTQ+ people are going to hell. The only place I ever heard anything like that from was talking heads in the media. That sentiment has never been part of my belief.
For all the good things about my church, many members still played the game lots of white people, especially Christians, do: respectability politics. The kind that say, “I don’t care if you’re gay, I don’t care if you’re Black, I don’t care if you’re different — just don’t let me see it. And if you can’t help but show it, you better try to be as similar to me as possible.”
Only in the past year has that church really started these discussions. Until recently, a picture of a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus hung in our church. Because anyone as good as him had to be white like us, right?
Christians love to paint themselves as victims when we’re the ones literally saying that everyone different than us is going to burn in hell. Christians aren’t the victims, and have never been the victims. They have always been the conquestors.
Author Brandon Taylor wrote in his blog about Lil Nas X and the uproar surrounding his video. In the post, he talks about his own loss of faith. In one striking paragraph, he writes, “I used to hear this thing a lot when I was still in the Church: God will love you unconditionally if you just change. It always struck me as silly, doublespeak. Just change and you will be loved unconditionally. Just be someone else, and you’ll have God’s eternal love. Anyway. I got out.”
I’m almost jealous that someone could so easily put into words what I’ve been trying to say. But then again, it is Brandon Taylor. I would suggest you go read his whole post.
Lil Nas X’s video depicts him descending to hell, twerking on the devil and then stealing his crown, taking the place that religious people throughout his life always sent him. And it made those Christians mad that instead of changing his entire self he would rather end up where they always said he would. They said his video was Satanic when really it was just symbolic.
By accepting his place in hell, Lil Nas X was accepting himself and taking control of his own identity. There is really nothing Satanic about that.
And it’s not like Lil Nas X hasn’t been up against controversy like this before. His breakout hit “Old Town Road” was pulled from country stations for being hip-hop when white men had been rapping in country songs for years. Why would the stations object to his music if not for the fact that he wasn’t even attempting to be white?
In a Genius video where Lil Nas X breaks down the lyrics of the song, it’s clear that he put lots of thought into the song, knowing what it would mean to so many people who have been condemned by their churches as well. With a directing credit on the video, there’s no doubt that he put the same amount of thought into what those images would mean as well.
As Lil Nas X said in that letter to himself, “People will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. but the truth is, I am. The agenda to make people stay [. . .] out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”
There’s so much more I could say about Lil Nas X and what his songs and this video mean to me personally, but I’ll spare us both. And for all those kids like fourteen year old Lil Nas X who have been told to make a choice between being themselves and the Church, he may have never asked to be a role model, but he sure as hell is a good one.