Lil Nas X Just Leveled Up Hip-Hop’s Rich Western History

The Yeehaw Agenda has reached its zenith. On July 29, Lil Nas X, the young, openly gay rapper who further encouraged the world to giddy up, beat out Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men for the longest running No. 1 song in Billboard history. His journey down the “Old Town Road” was initially filled with racism and rejection, but after a Tik Tok takeover, a phrase to encapsulate his style, and several high-profile remixes, he rose to the top of the music industry in custom KRONE outfits.

It’s been amazing to witness, and has all but forced the culture to finally recognize that not only is the classic cowboy is a bonafide style icon, but a number of those cowboys were Black people and People of Color. This occasion has given me an excuse to indulge in the joy of enumerating on the cowboy bread crumbs R&B and Hip-Hop artists have dropped over the past few decades.

It’s a history that is often not recognized: On July 16, Vogue came under fire for claiming Madonna was the “first to subvert country music style.” The fashion outlet credited her with the true rise of The Yeehaw Agenda—even though it’s a movement focused on highlighting the intersection of Black pop culture and cowboy clothing. The mere implication of Madonna (who has been accused of stylistic cultural appropriation and racism a number of times) being behind a celebration of Blackness was too much to process. Black women let that be known, before Vogue’s tweet was deleted. Many felt that it white washed the history of popular artists being inspired by Westerns, and overlooked artists like Diana Ross and Busta Rhymes.

So who else should we be talking about? One of the first examples that comes to mind is Missy Elliott’s Hype Williams-directed video for “She’s A Bitch.” When Elliott raps “yippie yi yo, yippie yi yi yay,” she and a team of spray-painted dancers twirl imaginary lassos, while wearing black, straw cowboy hats. I personally appreciated the rhinestone eyebrows (courtesy of makeup artist Billy B.) and the all-black everything approach to the primary scenes. The artist literally made Missy a rhinestone cowgirl.

In a behind-the-scenes clip, the video’s costume designer, June Ambrose, said that the video had a dark feel when she read the treatment, but she wanted the costuming to also be sexy and new. Missy’s protege, Nicole Wray, was also decked out in western gear for the cover of her platinum-selling 1998 debut album, Make It Hot.

Yeehaw Agenda archivist Bri Malandro let me know that Destiny’s Child stepped out in cowboy hats more than once—Beyoncé wore a burgundy pair for the in 1999 video for “Bug-A-Boo” and the whole gang joined in on the fun for the remix. Bey’s golden outfit from the “Bug-A-Boo” remix video, which was equal parts cowgirl- and majorette-inspired, is actually on display at the Hard Rock Cafe in San Francisco, California. The group also wore cowboy hats for a performance at the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards that same year, and for their Annie Oakley-inspired TRL appearance the day their Survivor album was released.

This was during the era when Mrs. Tina was heavily involved in their video, stage, and press costumes, and she would often put the group in matching outfits. Beyoncé, and her sister Solange, have continued to rock cowboy apparel over the years, with Beyonce hitting the stage in shimmering Mugler chaps, and the visuals for Solange’s When I Get Home album being a full on ode to Black cowboys and country living. I appreciate the continuity and their dedication to representing the dirty south.

Then there’s the October 1999 issue of Interview Magazine,  when David LaChapelle shot soul singer and songwriter Mary J. Blige against a fuschia brick wall, while she donned a magenta cowboy hat with electric blue trimming. It’s one of my favorite Mary shoots of all time. The colors complement each other well, veteran makeup artist Nzingha handled her face, and the shots look peaceful yet fierce. Blige is one of the biggest presences in The Yeehaw Agenda timeline, as she has repped the style continuously over the past twenty years. W Magazine pointed out her late 90s blue ensemble for her Party In the Park European concert, and who can forget her bubblegum pink, leather two piece, topped off with a white, feathery cowboy hat?

Style- and beauty-wise, SWV is probably best known for the extra-long, natural nails lead singer Coko had. But they were also forward thinking fashionistas—they wore animal-printed hats, leather pants, and boots on the cover of their 1997 album, Release Some Tension. Their video for “Someone,” featuring Diddy, pre-name change, looks like it was shot at an apocalyptic night club where grinding while wearing cowboy hats and lingerie was the norm. A few years later, another R&B group, Honeyz, flexed on stage in western looks and one of their biggest hits, “End Of the Line”, has a distinctly country feel to it.

Though he’s continuing a legacy, Lil Nas X’s fashion choices differ from his predecessors. Westernwear is his brand completely, and I look forward to seeing how he’ll push the style forward for performances and magazine covers. At this point, it’s almost as if fringe, custom Off-White boots, and cowboy hats are his baseline uniform, and his stylist works with designers to keep coming up with ways to reinvent it.

The Yeehaw Agenda isn’t just about cute clothes though, it’s about the erasure of Black people from this history of farming and cowboy life. It is a reclamation, and a reminder that the history of fashion will always be intertwined with Black history. Lil Nas X is the latest Black star to show off his southern influences, with his seemingly inescapable fringed vests, cow-print garments, and bandanas. But if history repeats itself, as it tends to (going-out tops, anyone?), he certainly won’t be the last.

Feature photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images.

More from Archive