Lil Nas X performs onstage at the BET Awards 2021 at Microsoft Theater on June 27, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. Photo credit: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for BET
When it comes to the BET Awards, nominations for Black queer artists — especially out queer men — have been far and few between.
Since the beginning of his career, Lil Nas X has mastered the art of controversy. The rapper has used his platform to create waves of discourse — and sometimes even dysfunction — with his wild antics. From videos with satanic imagery to even selling blood-infused sneakers, he not only agitates the system but continues to find new ways to propel himself forward in the process. However, his latest stunt differs a bit from the rest. This time he is using his platform to address something more serious — homophobia in the Black community.
Lil Nas X set social media ablaze earlier this month after slamming BET for not receiving any nominations for 2022 BET Awards, which will air from Los Angeles on Saturday, June 26. In a series of now since-deleted tweets, the rapper claimed that homophobia is why he received “zero nominations,” and that he was snubbed in categories like Artist of the Year, Best Collaboration, and Album of the Year.
Some sided with Lil Nas X, claiming that the network has a history of bigotry and homophobia, while others blamed the change in the hierarchy at the network. Others disagreed with the rapper, citing queer Black artists like Young M.A., Frank Ocean, and Janelle Monae who have all received their fair share of nominations. They also argued that Lil Nas X’s music extends outside of the realm of traditional “Black music” and leans more pop — an argument we’ve seen countless times with Black artists that veer more toward pop-sounding music — as well as questioned if X’s music being any good played a part, too.
X ended up addressing his online critics, tweeting: “this not over no bet award this is about the bigger problem of homophobia in the black community, y’all can sit and pretend all u want but imma risk it all for us.”
Not one for wasting a good opportunity, the rapper capped his frustrations with BET in the form of a diss track, “Late to Da Party,” featuring NBA YoungBoy, which included the hook “Fuck BET.”
As entertaining as Lil Nas X’s videos and tweets were, there’s validity to his grievances against the network. Black LGBTQ+ entertainers are more than props to engage audiences and deserve to be honored like their counterparts, especially those that are openly LGBTQ+.
Despite his career still being in its infancy, X has positioned himself as one of the world’s biggest pop stars, along with becoming, arguably, the most visible openly gay Black musician in the industry today. With all the accolades he has received as of late, one would think that when he came into a predominantly Black space, he would be celebrated. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Ernest Owens, a Black queer journalist and editor at large for Philadelphia Magazine, said Lil Nas X has every right to challenge BET’s decision to snub him at the awards show and argued that X (and artists like him) have been “told by the industry that they’re good enough for ratings, but not good enough to be honored.”
“At a time when marginalized artists are demanding more equity, respect, and recognition for their work, his current callout couldn’t have been more timely and necessary,” Owens said.
Lil Nas X hasn’t been nominated at the BET Awards since 2020, when he lost Best New Artist to Roddy Rich — despite his breakout hit, “Old Town Road,” spending 17 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. Even his latest singles “Industry Baby” and “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” received a combined five nominations at this year’s Grammys.
What makes the decision particularly egregious is that his collaborator on “Industry Baby,” white rapper Jack Harlow, was able to receive a nomination this year before he did. (Harlow has been nominated for Best Male Hip-Hop Artist.)
After getting called out by Lil Nas X, BET issued a response stating that he wasn’t nominated by the award show’s independent voting pool, “which is comprised of an esteemed group of nearly 500 entertainment professionals,” none of which include anyone from BET.
The network’s less than stellar response, along with the nomination snub, is just one example of the way BET devalues Black queer artists, Kenyon Farrow, a Black gay writer, and activist, said.
“Lil Nas X released one of last year’s most influential, critically acclaimed, and best-selling albums,” Farrow said. “…but he’s not good enough to be nominated?”
Farrow also noted how the network has a habit of benefitting from Black queer stylists, background dancers, hairstylists, and others who make the show happen, without giving them proper acknowledgment.
“So, if we’re good enough to use our labor and creative genius to support the entire event, we also should have our cultural work honored, respected, and showcased,” Farrow said.
BET’s contentious history with the LGBTQ+ community dates back most vividly to 2013 when TV personality and internet celebrity B. Scott (who identifies as trans and non-binary) filed a $2.5 million workplace discrimination lawsuit against BET and its parent company, Viacom. Scott alleged they were subjected to transphobia after being hired as a correspondent for the pre-show red carpet at the BET Awards.
In an open letter penned by Scott, they claimed the network attempted to force them to wear more masculine attire to ensure the show’s sponsors would be “comfortable,” and said they were eventually relieved of their duties over the conflict and replaced by singer and actress Adrienne Bailon.
Despite Scott settling out of court for an undisclosed amount, issues relating to LGBTQ+ people have continued to trouble the network. When it comes to the BET Awards, nominations for Black queer artists — especially out queer men — have been far and few between.
While the hierarchy at BET is different from its inception, it’s still very much geared toward a conservative idea of Black audiences and families. As a result, they continue to uphold the same bigotry — whether homophobia, transphobia, or misogyny — as white institutions like the Grammys, which have a notorious history of mistreating Black artists.
When considering how BET has awarded white artists like Sam Smith — Smith, who now identifies as non-binary, won Best New Artist at the 2015 BET Awards, a year after coming out as queer — it’s hard not to take into account how the network hasn’t really awarded the work of out queer Black people. For example, Frank Ocean received two nominations for his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra at the 2011 BET Hip Hop Awards (which is separate from the BET Awards), but it was before he opened up about his sexuality. Frank hasn’t received a nomination since, not even for his most acclaimed records, Channel Orange and Blonde.
In most instances, BET has only recognized queer Black folks when they were still closeted. Because of this, it would be disingenuous to praise the network for awarding diversity if queer Black artists aren’t able to be acknowledged while remaining in their truth. As for queer Black men in particular, they seem to only be tolerated and celebrated when they are more masculine-presenting, as is the case with Tyler, the Creator, who has received several nominations over the years, ever since coming out in 2017. (He has fared better with BET’s Hip Hop Awards, having won Album of the Year and the Cultural Influence award at last year’s ceremony.)
According to Johnathan Higgins, also known as Dr. Jon Paul, an entertainer and educator for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, Lil Nas X creates a disconnect in the marketplace with his very existence as an out Black queer man. Higgins also noted that it could be possible that those at the top are catering to what they think Black audiences will like while still wanting to remain respectable under the white gaze. Also, X’s openness with his sexuality may make execs at the top uncomfortable.
“To be blatant, the people at the top are homophobic,” Higgins said.
Higgins believes that to address the issue honestly, people have to start looking at how capitalism might have an effect on Black media and the Black consumer market as a whole and, more importantly, how in space created for and by Black people (which, initially, BET was), we do not have the power to uplift our own artists without possibly facing backlash from those at the top.
Higgins, Farrow, and other members of the Black queer community feel they are owed representation, and rightfully so. Snubs like what’s happening to Lil Nas X have not only exacerbated Black LGBTQIA erasure but prove that the network is more concerned with upholding “Black excellence” and undermining Black queer artists who grew up with the network (and by extension, Black queer people in general who grew up with the network). Black artists, particularly queer ones, should be able to find solace and be confident in the fact that they will be able to be recognized for their work in the spaces supposedly created for Black folks.
Alexis Oatman is a freelance culture writer and general assignment reporter. The Ohio native and Cleveland-based journalist covers arts and entertainment, beauty, fashion, health, and more. She has contributed to several major publications, including Teen Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, POPSUGAR, Paper Magazine, Essence, TheGrio, and more. Find her on Twitter @iamlexstylz