Western style, mythologized with the help of the prolific midcentury film genre, has long been associated with ideals of white masculinity and social rebellion. The cowboy is simultaneously an authority figure and an outsider, embodying the dream of Manifest Destiny and the American spirit of taking what you want through any means necessary. The outfit associated with this image, the wide-brim hat, the blue jeans, and hefty belt buckle, has long been a source of inspiration for the fashion world. Saint Laurent Men’s Spring 2020 collection places a boho twist to the western figure, evoking both the Texan plains and the farther coasts of California. Ciara is the most recent celebrity to espouse yeehaw-ness, sporting a sleek black cowgirl hat at Cannes, complete with bell-bottom leather pants.
In the music world, the cowboy has recently been retooled in several different iterations, most noticeably by Black men and women. In reclaiming the cowboy, and western roots in general, under a new umbrella, people of color can break the ceiling on a slice of American culture that had previously blocked them out.
Outside of the movies, the American cowboy has historically been poor, isolated Black and indigenous men living on the outskirts of colonial posts, a far cry from the rugged machismo of John Wayne. In reality, the cowboy is an upstart and a testament to the grueling hard work that often accompanies personal freedom. No one embodies this ringer quality quite like Lil Nas X, an artist whose country single “Old Town Road” has skyrocketed in popularity, to the point of absolute ubiquity. “Old Town Road” plays in frat houses and elementary schools alike, and Lil Nas X, a Black teenager from Atlanta, is poised to ride his fame as far as it will take him. “Old Town Road” stemmed from controversial origins, with the single originally being taken out of the country charts for its trap influences. The country genre, a mainstay for the cowboy aesthetic, has long been absent of prominent Black artists or audiences, as Nashville-based rock artist Jessy Wilson has attested. Lil Nas X, in true cowboy spirit, returned to the charts after Billy Ray Cyrus jumped on the remix, using his country star power (and white privilege) to add legitimacy to the track. The up-and-coming artist can almost always be seen in a cowboy hat or pair of boots, both a campy costume and a genuine homage to the genre that got him his start. Lil Nas X has also distinguished himself for his sense of humor, frequently trolling his fans and detractors alike; instead of anxiously prolonging his fame, Lil Nas X is eager to revel in it while he has it. In a response to insinuations that his PR team pushes him into the cowboy garb, X replied, “nobody forcing me to wear cowboy hats. if u had a yee-haw ass song go number 1 for weeks you would be wearing the shit too.”
On the last day of Pride month 2019, Lil Nas X came out as gay, further defying expectations conventional to both the country and hip-hop genres. There are still very few queer artists in either genre, in part due to the machismo posturing on both sides. Lil Nas X continues to prove that he doesn’t belong in a box and will define himself however he chooses. Very cowboy indeed.
Lil Nas X’s cavalier attitude to the “yeehaw aesthetic” is just one of the ways artists have been turning the cowboy hat on its head, and in turn, dismantling traditional concepts of masculinity in the process. Some could argue that the Cowboy Renaissance began with Mitski, whose album Be The Cowboy released last year referred to Mitski’s own experience as an Asian American woman looking to co-opt the strength and resilience typically afforded to white men.
“I was thinking more of the Marlboro commercial cowboy, that incredibly exaggerated myth of the western cowboy,” Mitski explained in an interview with The Outline. “The album title kind of came from the fact that I would always kind of jokingly say to myself, “Be the cowboy you wish to see the world,” whenever I was in a situation where maybe I was acting too much like my identity, which is wanting everyone to be happy, not thinking I’m worthy, being submissive, and not asking for more. Every time I would find myself doing exactly what the world expects of me as an Asian woman, I would turn around and tell myself ‘Well, what would a cowboy do?’”
Since Be The Cowboy’s release, artists of nearly every music genre have paid homage to western wear. Texas native Solange incorporated her Southern heritage into her latest album When I Get Home. For Black women especially, the myth of the Wild West has provided a limited scope of western life, one that whitewashes the region and strips women of color of their role in shaping American culture. When I Get Home is a love letter to Solange’s hometown of Houston, Texas, and her association with the city doesn’t stop with redefining the past.
Megan Thee Stallion, rising Houston rapper and mastermind behind “hot girl summer,” is also among the new generation of Southern artists proudly repping their home turf, cowboy hat and boots accentuating her already foreboding 5’10 frame. As her fans will point out, she isn’t called Megan Thee Pony. Meg’s deft flow, unapologetic sexuality, and hot girl style could be considered its own form of liberation, and her emphasis on body positivity and environmentalism (Hottie Beach Cleanup, anyone?) challenges the assumption that cowgirls don’t have a social conscience.
For non-Southerners, the South often seems like a homogenous, primarily conservative, and even backwards place. Major headlines and recent legislation have done little to refute this stereotype, but the image contributes to the same problems as the white-washed cowboys of yesterday: that people of color don’t exist in the South, and if they do, they are silenced, driven out to the margins. While this may be true in parts, it’s also a convenient excuse to ignore the many people of color making waves in the South, forming their own cultural footprint and advocating for their own seat at the table. Pop culture is just one of the avenues through which Black and brown folks are changing our perception of Southern culture. Demographics are changing, districts are flipping, and the Black cowboy reminds us that not only has the South always been diverse, but it’s continued to cultivate strong Black communities and booming immigrant and refugee populations. The idea that the South is full of white hicks with uneducated opinions who “deserve what they get,” in terms of oppressive conservative legislation is dangerous erasure to the communities of color who are disenfranchised or otherwise discouraged from shaping the South into what it could and should be.
The cowboy is the most enduring great myth of Southern white hegemony, and of Americana in general. Henry Ford actually pushed for square-dancing to be taught in public schools specifically because he looked down on Black and Jewish music genres like jazz, and the western shuffle seemed more appropriate for white America. Redefining what Southern culture looks like takes a reversal of these tropes by the very people originally excluded from them.
Lil Nas X probably isn’t thinking about these things when he dons a bejeweled cowboy hat, but he still offers unique visibility onto these kinds of issues. By playing with genre and not being afraid to be where he doesn’t belong, he diversifies what people think of when they think of country music, and of that world in general. Solange and Beyoncé, too, vocally represent Texan culture so you think of more than just Ted Cruz and horse girls. Western wear will always have a place in the past, but its recent update puts the South back on the cultural map, with artists of color at the helm of changing what it means to be an All-American cowboy. So put some respect on that “yeehaw.”