Give Lil Nas X His Due

Rapper Lil Nas X has sparked controversy with his new brand of sneakers, the Satan Shoes. Only 666 pairs of such shoes were manufactured­—and sold within minutes. They feature an inverted pentagram and a reference to Luke 10:8 (where Jesus proclaims that he saw Satan fall like lightning). The marketing campaign also claims that each pair of shoes contains one drop of human blood.

Anybody familiar with the history of Satanism will recognize that this is not exactly groundbreaking. The origins of the concept of Satan are not completely clear, but most likely, they can be traced to ancient Persian religious dualism. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam embraced the Satan concept and found a much-needed antagonist to God, just as any entertaining story needs a villain.

As it is frequently the case with villains, Satan became the anti-hero everyone loves to hate; hence, the obsession of inquisitors and demonologists with Lucifer for many centuries. But it is also true that the villain that everyone loves to hate can himself become a hero­—admittedly, of a contrarian nature. John Milton’s Paradise Lost portrayed Satan in such a light, and Romantic poets in the 19th Century followed suit­—poking the eye of religious conservatives with gusto.

By the mid-20th century, Lucifer was big business. The horned guy was not so much making countercultural philosophical points, but rather was selling merchandise. Unconventional entrepreneurs wanted a slice of the Satanic pie. Anton LaVey launched his Church of Satan, and although he aspired to convey a philosophical message of social Darwinism and libertarianism, that movement was much more about making money through publicity stunts.

It is not hard to see that Lil Nas X is made of the same cloth. He knows that Satan in the 21st century is a good salesman, so why not use him to sell shoes? Some commentators see in Lil Nas X’s display of Satanic imagery (and his music video Montero) some form of LGBT activism. I think these pundits read too much into it. Lil Nas X is just another guy who embraces eccentricity to make money, and not much else.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. Quite the opposite—there is a nice honesty in Lil Nas X that is unfortunately lacking in other sellers of shoes. Colin Kaepernick also sells shoes, but instead of displaying amusing Satanic imagery, he opts for an annoying holier-than-thou attitude in his promotion of sneakers. His brand of shoes market social justice activism for Western consumers­­—conveniently ignoring that such shoes are manufactured in horrible working conditions in some Third World country. I would take Lil Nas X’s puerile eccentricity over Kaepernick’s obnoxious hypocrisy any day.

Satan has become a salesman because we live in a largely secularized world. But we also need to be reminded that we are not completely secular, and some of the burn-the-witch mentality persists. For that very reason, some of conservatism’s usual suspects have immediately condemned Lil Nas X’s act. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem has expressed concern, tweeting “Our kids are being told that this kind of product is, not only okay, it’s ‘exclusive.’ But do you know what’s more exclusive? Their God-given eternal soul”; likewise, Candace Owens tweeted “We are promoting Satan shoes to wear on our feet… How stupid can we be?”

There are calls to boycott Nike (even though the company is actually suing Lil Nas X for manufacturing the shoes without authorization). In a democracy, boycotts are fine, but since there are always theocrats lurking around the political scene in the United States, there ought to be concern about attempts to forcibly ban the Satan Shoes or to censor Lil Nas X, as religious conservatives often attempted to do with heavy metal musicians during the Satanic panic of the 1980s.

In an ideal world, universities would be the last place on Earth to censor music or merchandise with countercultural symbols. Sadly, we now know that cancel culture has taken over campuses, with speakers routinely deplatformed, so freedom of speech is far from being protected in colleges. But, since this time conservatives are the ones being annoyed, one may presume that cancel culture warriors in universities would not be in the business of deplatforming a flamboyant gay rapper who sells Satanic shoes­.

Think again. When cancel culture was only beginning to boom in 2014, a group of Satanists—the Satanic Temple—organized a black mass at Harvard University. There was no outright ban on the event, but there was immense pressure on the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club to pull its support. Ultimately, the black mass had to be relocated to another venue, and religious conservative pundits expressed opinions such as this one: “The Black Mass was constitutional, but it wasn’t appropriate at or near a private institution of higher learning. Private institutions should not hesitate to ban practices that deeply offend others.”

Today, cancel culture is rampant on the Left. But its origins are on the Right. After all, the ultimate goal of cancel culture is to enforce blasphemy laws—a hallmark of theocratic conservatism. Blasphemy laws are never a good idea, regardless of what religion they seek to defend. Whether it is wokeism or Christianity, no religious authority should ever have the power to censor speech merely because it is offensive.

For that reason, although Lil Nas X’s shoes and music videos are mostly a lame publicity stunt, and are nowhere near the aesthetic quality or philosophical profundity of, say, Baudelaire’s The Litanies of Satan, sensible intellectuals should come to the rapper’s defense in the face of those who are trying to censor him. This time, religious conservatives are on the side of censorship. But once the censorship ball starts rolling, it will not stop, and other speakers—more likely, conservatives—will be deplatformed. At least for this one time, give the Devil his due.


Image: Meg Jerrard, Public Domain

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Gabriel Andrade

Gabriel Andrade is assistant professor of medicine at Ajman University.

2 thoughts on “Give Lil Nas X His Due

  1. Good survey of what’s really going on except for one thing. . . the claim that cancel culture has origins “on the right.” It seems to me that the source of cancel culture totalitarianism valorizes the left as being a victim of a rightwing concept. I think the labels of left and right probably don’t operate on the level of cancel culture exclusion. It’s an artifact of human nature to resort to tribalism, exclusion, and bigotry inherent in today’s cancel culture.. I’m pretty sure that the worldviews, ideas, and behaviors underneath contemporary cancel culture are evenly spread across time, place, and politics.

  2. Umm, Tipper Gore’s issue with rock music lyrics involved sex and drugs, not Satanism. Things like AC/DC’s Sink the Pink although AC/DC wasn’t exactly innocent in any of their songs. Yes, there were people like Marilyn Manson and Ozzy Osborne, but even that wasn’t really what I would call “satanism” as much as “bizarre.”

    As to the sneakers, it is fraud if each of those 1332 sneakers don’t contain a drop of human blood (as advertised) and it’s a bio-hazard if they do. Ever since the AIDS crisis of 30+ years ago, we’ve had medical protocols on human body fluids, including blood.

    Even if it is just “one drop”, for 1332 sneakers that’s three ounces of human blood, containing heaven only knows what pathogens, being distributed nationally. No, I am not overly worried about this, but then I also don’t think that mask do a damn thing to prevent the spread of COVID, either.

    And as to the Satanists being censored — in light of everything else that’s happening in this society right now, including the cancel culture, I’m not really worried about it. When Ann Coulter is able to speak in Cambridge — let alone at Harvard — then I’ll be worried about Black Masses being canceled.

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