In the second installment of his AnOther column, Believe, Ruqaiya Haris unpacks the controversy surrounding blasphemy, religion-inspired pop music and lil’s provocative visuals. Nas X
Believe: A new column by Ruqaiya Haris exploring the intersection of faith, fashion and culture.
Religious symbols and references have always been present in music, speaking to the universal ideals of faith as well as the complex and individualized relationships between artists and spirituality. With themes on religion and sexuality on his debut pop-rap album, platinum record Montero (in reference to his real name Montero Lamar Hill), Lil Nas X follows in the tradition of other popular musicians who have been accused of blasphemy for controversially depicting religion through art.
Religious symbols and iconography in music are neither new nor rare: a 1995 study of music videos broadcast on MTV found that 38% of them featured religious images. This phenomenon has been observed across decades and genres, since Madonna’s pop song in 1989 Like a prayer whose video showed the singer referring to her Catholic upbringing in front of burning crosses, pushing the Vatican to call for a boycott of her music, to Kanye West’s Christian-inspired rap albums Yeezus, Jesus is king and more recently Donda.
West is often accused of having a God complex, something he isn’t really afraid of with lyrics like “I am a God / Even though I am a man of God.“. Blasphemous connotations are sometimes reconciled through his characterization of âeccentricâ by the press, amid his struggles with bipolar disorder. West’s attempts to negotiate the humility of esotericism with the materialism of being a rap icon in his weekly Gospel-inspired âSunday Serviceâ and live listening events for Donda – the latter elicited mixed reactions, with striking visuals of church buildings and lyrics recounting the saving grace of faith in his life.
This revival of popular music inspired by religion also includes Justin Bieber’s album Justice, released earlier this year. He tackles themes of faith and redemption after reconnecting with his Christianity through the Hillsong Pentecostal mega-church, after well-known battles with drug addiction and mental health issues. Bieber’s arc of redemption – from troubled reveler to married man of God – has generally been adopted, with religious communities portraying him as a shining example of the transformative power of faith.
But the stakes are different for Lil Nas X; an openly gay 22-year-old black American from the South who was raised in Christianity and catapulted to viral success more or less overnight while still a teenager. He revealed himself publicly as gay after his first country-rap single Old town road broke industry records and then defied gender norms through fashion, making him the subject of controversy and condemnation long before he began to portray religion in his music.
When he released the music video for Montero, loaded with unmistakable biblical symbolism (and most notably that scene giving the devil a lap dance), it was perhaps not surprising that it received many reactions and criticisms from conservative religious communities. By now, Lil Nas X had shown the world that he was both self-aware and deeply intentional, often using social media to generate interest and hype around his art rather than allowing himself to become a passive subject in the sphere of digital gossip.
The Montero the video was designed to shock and push the boundaries, and it demonstrably succeeded in both purposes. Yet under surface-level shock value, the video presented medieval Christian and ancient Greek iconography in sufficient detail to arouse the interest of classical historians. The first scene depicts an account of the well-known biblical story of âoriginal sin,â which takes place in an ethereal Garden of Eden. Lil Nas X plays a character representing Adam and Eve, or maybe Lilith; The first demonic wife of Adam who appears in Judaic mythology, as well as the serpent who is said to have tempted humans into sin. While this story is often interpreted as misogynistic due to the blame placed on Eve for original sin, Lil Nas X subverts these gender norms, and by being both the fearful and passive recipient and instigator of temptation, he play with the idea of ââwhat it means to be a sinner.
A Greek inscription on the Tree of Knowledge appears, translated as “after the division of the two parts of man, each desiring his other half“ extract from Plato’s Banquet. It alludes to the Greek mythological creation story that humans were initially two conjoined bodies, then separated and left wanting their other half. It’s a clear reference to early ideas about normative homosexuality that depart from Abrahamic religious rules on homosexuality, and an exploration of self-acceptance.
As Lil Nas X, dressed as a renaissance-style cherub drenched in sequins, is chained and brought before an amphitheater of people judging him and pounding him with stones like a martyr, the persecution of homosexuality in this scene is evident. As his rise to heaven is interrupted by a stripper pole leading him to hell, Lil Nas X has made it clear that gay people are rejected and excluded from religious acceptance. Rather than abandon religiosity, he was forced to move away from it. When he descends into the fires of hell in latex stiletto heel thigh boots, it’s the only option available after being denied entry into heaven. Approaching the devil’s throne, we read a phrase in Latin which says “They condemn what they do not understand”. As he turns in Satan’s own lap, Lil Nas X holds up a mirror on how gay people are portrayed and condemned in many religious communities.
The themes of queer exclusion and heteronormativity are explored in depth in the That’s what I want video. It shows a bizarre love affair between two black athletes played by Lil Nas X and her ex-boyfriend Yai Ariza, and features a steamy locker room date, with a momentary Durex product placement demonstrating the straightforward attitude of the artist towards sexuality. While sex is a visual tool commonly used in video clips, contraception is rarely (if ever) mentioned. It seems ironic that while Lil Nas X receives heavy criticism for âcorruptingâ young people through his representations of queer sexuality, he also promotes safe sex; something her straight contemporaries failed to do, with unsafe sex glorified in many chart-topping songs dating back decades.
Patriarchal family structures are visited again, with Lil Nas X finding out that her lover has a wife and child waiting at home for him, and subsequently falls into despair. While same-sex marriage is still inaccessible to many around the world, the video ends with him walking alone down the aisle of a church in a white wedding dress, to a jubilant congregation, where Billy Porter stands in the place of a priest and hands him a black electric guitar.
While the satanic visuals in Montero’s video have sparked outrage in religious communities, condemned even by the governor of South Dakota, it may be interesting for clerics to examine why many gay people have traumatic experiences with the faith. The album shows a deep reflection on the navigation between homosexual desires and queer identity in a way that many young people from religious communities will be able to identify with. Lyrics of the song The sun sets talk about suicidal feelings and inner turmoil regarding sexuality: “these cheerful thoughts would always haunt me / I prayed that God would take it away from me.
For people of faith, it is vital that we engage with those who feel excluded by religious communities and that we listen to their life experiences. Thanks to the success of his debut album, Lil Nas X has provided valuable insight into his upbringing and life as a young black queer of Christian descent. As religious and queer people are often presented as disagreeing, it is crucial to remember that many people stand at the intersection of these communities or have complex experiences with both. A revival of religiously inspired music should open our minds to new perspectives.