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Hell is hot and Lil Nas X is free

Lil Nas X isn’t trying to brainwash your children. He is taking dangerous stigmas and setting them on fire.

Lil Nas X in his new video for "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)."Columbia via YouTube

At her mother’s house, they prayed over her. They put holy oil on her head in an attempt to exorcise her queerness.

Amber “SublimeLuv” Williams, in her mid-20s then, ran out of her mama’s home.

“My mother is Christian,” she said. “My father’s side is Muslim. He told me my love of women would send me to hell.”

So when Lil Nas X danced down a pole to hell and onto Satan’s lap, she knew it wasn’t about devil worship. The video for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” is him taking all that negativity he was fed and serving it hot, celebratory, and as his own.

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Viewed over 75 million times in the week since it debuted, the backlash over the images of hell and homosexuality were swift. But for many, the video is a welcome revelation.

“Him turning hell on its head is the ultimate way to tell the truth,” said Williams, 35. “You said I am going here. So I am here. I’m owning this. We are taking control over what we have lost. For a dark-skinned, gay, Black man to be so bold with his truth, it’s empowering. Other Black boys who are questioning their sexuality, or already know their identity, will also be empowered by this.”

As a spoken word artist, Williams knows what it means to use art as a tool of truth-telling, representation, and inspiration. She leads creative wellness workshops, including one on internalized oppression.

As a queer woman who grew up in Roxbury, she also knows what it means to have your identity policed.

“I was really well liked by cishet men and got praise from pro-Black men for my work,” said Williams, who recently released “Roar of a Lioness | Philosophy for the Queens.

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“I am known for talking about Blackness, for talking about mental illness, for talking about light-skin privilege. As an artist, our role is to tell the truth. By telling your truth as a person, you are telling the greater truth. The more vocal I was about my queer identity, I lost that fanbase. It’s like, how dare you want to do more with your identity?”

Amber "SublimeLuv" Williamshandout

The backlash surrounding Lil Nas X isn’t just about the demonic overtones. It’s also about him being a proud, gay Black man. Gay people have been told they are going to hell. So he went. And extended an invitation for us to walk in his shoes.

The custom Nike “Satan Shoes” Lil Nas X teamed up with MSCHF art collective to release were symbolic. Those same artists released “Jesus Shoes,” with holy water in each pair of Nikes just two years ago. Nike did not issue a restraining order against them back then, as they did against MSCHF this week.

Artists often buy shoes, customize them, and sell them as art. Just like artists use heaven, hell, and faith in their work.

Experimenting with art and faith is nothing new in popular music. We’ve had everything from bat-biting Ozzy Ozbourne to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” Before Lil Nas X, there was Nas being crucified in the video for “You Can Hate Me Now.” And artists like DMX, Three 6 Mafia, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony played with both religious and demonic overtones.

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Everyone who loved Lil Nas X for his breakout hit “Old Town Road” overlooked lyrics about drug use and sex. Now that his visuals openly celebrate his sexuality and use religion to break an old stigma, there’s a dramatic outcry for the children.

“The oppressor is never happy when you engage in your own types of liberation,” said Harold Steward, executive director and cultural strategist of The Theater Offensive, a space for art by, for, and about queer and trans folk of color meant to break boundaries, celebrate community, and upend supremacy.

“What’s the difference in you demonizing him and him manifesting demons? Where is the harm and where is the foul,” Steward said. “Confronting your own oppressors, especially from a position of power, will always be received in such a way. What Lil Nas has done is identity reclamation. This is about his freedom and liberation as a queer person.”

Earlier this year, The Theater Offensive launched the Queer (Re)public, a new aesthetic rooted in resistance and life-affirming practices for QTPOC artists. It’s art, community, healing, and reclaiming.

“As a theorist, I believe that identity reclamation is the process in which oppressed people reclaim agency over their identity through cultural production,” Steward said.

The video opens with Lil Nas X declaring the right to exist fully as oneself. Montero is his birth name.

“In life, we hide the parts of ourselves we don’t want the world to see,” he says. “We lock them away. We tell them no. We banish them. But here, we don’t. Welcome to Montero.”

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Lil Nas X is welcoming us to himself, to his journey, to his world. And one could argue he’s not referring to what we don’t want the world to see, he’s nodding to the way the world teaches us to hide ourselves and conform to its boxes of beliefs.

Terrence Johnsonhandout

Terrence Johnson grew up in the church. The 25-year-old Mississippi native sang in the choir until prejudice denied him the mic.

“Faith has been weaponized so much against gay people,” said Johnson, a Brookline writer. “Out of all the sins in the Bible, the church made sure you knew for a fact that if were gay, you were going to hell. Homosexuality is treated like a disease you can catch. It’s labeled as pedophilia. It’s surrounded in negative and false connotations.”

It’s not videos like “Montero” that will hurt the children. Parents can decide what their children watch. They can have conversations. It’s anti-trans legislation, like what we’ve seen recently in Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, and elsewhere across the nation that is hurting folk. It’s views that make children ashamed of who they are, and judgmental of who others are, that are dangerous.

“I don’t think Lil Nas X is using this video as a weapon,” Johnson said. “He’s using it as a mirror. I love this video. As someone who is going through an evolution themself in how I express myself and what queerness means to me, Lil Nas X is the pop star I need right now.”

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No one has to like or agree with Lil Nas X. But when he welcomed us to Montero, he welcomed us to his artistic vision of the hell we built around gay people, especially Black queer folk, in this country.

If you think you are so righteous that you can send someone to hell, do not dare to be mad when they find a way to burn your boxes and live their best life in the flames.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.