Fear was the air we breathed. There was talk of joy, too, of course: There was music, and dance, and "getting happy." But there was also fear, always the fear. And I didn't know I didn't have to be afraid.
There was the time a preacher, a white evangelist visiting our Black church in northern New Jersey, prophesied to a teenager not more than a year my younger. There were words about hanging with the wrong crowd, about how he, this teenager, needed to be delivered. We were asked to pray with him, to point hands toward him, while the preacher enunciated words of rebuke for the devil. In the language of Pentecostalism, the devil had to be rebuked, cast out, lest the demon overtake this young person, lest hell be his ultimate eternal.
We all knew the subtext, the context. This boy wore his flamboyance only a little more than I did. And I was afraid.
Then there was the preacher, around the same time, whom I met through my music teacher. We went to see him together, this charismatic visitor from South Carolina, because he was not only a pastor but a well-known singer. And during his sermonizing, while his accompanist played the Hammond organ, he discussed how "fornication and the spirit of homosexuality was beginning to take over" his church. Thankfully, he assured us, his members had collectively fasted, prayed together. His "young folks" had been delivered from the demonic, from spiritual warfare.
After the service, I was introduced to this preacher. And during that introduction, he said to me, with a smile and a bit of a gleam in his eye, "I can tell you're a bad boy." Confused, I replied with politesse, "No, I'm not." But he repeated the claim: "No, I can tell you're a bad boy." He smiled again, and ever so briefly, barely there, he giggled. He had to have been at least 30 years older than me.
I am sure I wept alone. I am certain I could not listen to this man's music after that, not for years. Had God told him who and what I was, what I was contending with, what I was trying to pray away? And if God had, why did he use this opportunity to giggle and show teeth? Why didn't anyone around me defend me from what was apparent? Or was I making it all up? I was confused about what he knew, and how he knew, about me. And I was afraid.
I, too, had a crowd I longed to hang with. I was the one at school belting Whitney Houston's "I'm Every Woman" through the hallways. I directed my choir, loved lush colors, and on the phone I was often called by my mother's name. In junior high, my homeroom teacher called me a "faggot" in front of the entire class more than once. About my singing, a band teacher told me I sounded like I didn't have balls. And by the time fear began to visit me at church in the mid-'90s, I was making daily visits on our Gateway 2000 computer — clandestinely, I hoped — to AOL chat rooms titled "m4m," where I would type and hope and desire. I had invited someone to my parents' house. I'd visited another someone's apartment when I should have been in school.
So if a preacher could publicly call out a boy he deemed in need of saving, if a grown-up could overtly and incautiously flirt with a child without comment from the adults in the room, I felt that my time to be exposed was soon to come. Somehow, my desires would be found out and made an object of shame. Some evening, my parents would come home early and find me chatting in a sinful corner of the early Internet. And some Sunday when I least expected it, maybe during the offering or right before the benediction, I, too, would be called to the front of the sanctuary and told to repent.
The capacity to invoke fear, whether of gods or humans, is all about power: who can act coercively, who can control thoughts and behaviors. It is not only children who experience this fear, but it is children who are most vulnerable to this power, especially when wielded by adults who would presume to know the shape and direction of a life, or an afterlife. I felt fear that sooner or later, I would be the one marked for eternal torment. But I didn't know, not yet, that I didn't have to be afraid.
Like many folks I know, for the past few weeks I have been watching and rewatching a music video in which a young Black man rides a stripper pole to hell to give the devil a lap dance. "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" by Lil Nas X, whose government name is Montero Lamar Hill, has made its mark as a media event — the latest trick from a pop artist uncannily gifted at pulling charts and debate in his direction. But it has also has made me remember these scenes from my past, moments I hadn't necessarily forgotten but had stopped thinking about with intention.
I never had a strong sense for the devil, for Satan; the concept was always blurry to me. I could never conjure an image of what hell would look like, beyond the barest impressions of color and sound: deep reds, darkness, cries and hollers, loud. But I did have a sense for eternal torment, because I felt tormented daily. I never bothered to think precisely about the structure of eternal damnation, because I sensed damnation and turmoil as a daily weight.
What is so striking about the song, the video and the running commentary he has offered through social media is how Lil Nas X works with, really metabolizes and thinks with, fear. Fear that is the theologically produced and doctrinally maintained practice of power, authority, control. The fear of being outed. The fear of rejection by the gods. The fear of erotic joy leading to premature death. The fear of eternal torment.
He had challenged this fear in public at least once before. In June 2019, on the last day of Pride Month, the artist tweeted that he had tucked a clue to his identity into the last track of his just-released EP:
"some of y'all already know, some of y'all don't care, some of y'all not gone fwm no more. but before this month ends i want y'all to listen closely to c7osure."
This was his official public declaration of queerness, delivered on his own terms. In using social media to amplify his story, he amplified another fear — the fear of being outed by someone else, thus allowing them to control your narrative — and took away its power. This time, it seems, fear of the devil is due for the same.
The new video opens in the clouds, shaded in hues of blue and purple. The artist enters first in voice-over: "In life, we hide the parts of ourselves we don't want the world to see. We lock them away, we tell them no. We banish them. But here, we don't. Welcome to Montero." The double-speak that runs throughout the song begins here, with Montero framed not as a person but a place, in which fear of being bashed and excluded and violated for engaging and enjoying pleasures of the flesh is not possible. Secret sexualities are certainly among the parts of ourselves that we hide in life. But "ourselves" is also humanity, and don't we also lock people away, banish them, tell them no, because of what they practice? We do, but not here. Montero, a return to his birth name, is offered as refuge for the boy he was, a place to experience butterflies and safety.
We meet our hero in an Edenic garden, where he is holding and being held by an enormous serpent with a human face; both are played by Lil Nas X, as is every character to come. After a moment of caressive and gentle erotic touch, viewers are transported to its aftermath: a scene of the hero being sentenced to death for enjoying things forbidden. It seems he is being punished not just for what he's done, but for doing it with a smile, shy and coy and yet delighted. When laying under the serpent, he delicately, but with conviction, pulls its head towards his own. You can feel the heavy breath between them, the flutter in the hero's chest and heart as the creature straddles him, licks his stomach.
The enjoyment is not benign or inconsequential — it is part of the mythology, the narrative, of his hopes for life. Fun is neither frivolous nor foolish here: Play and enjoyment are urgent, and we must choose them, even in the face of a possible tormenting eternal. In the same way, it is crucial that his sentencing and death are public, that he is literally stoned by an angry crowd (though look close and you'll see they're hurling sex toys in place of rocks). The public nature of his trial is supposed to produce embarrassment and shame — the same weapons of that preacher, those preachers, who call out teenagers for prophecy, who call out teenagers for being bad boys.
What will the consequences be after such enjoyment, such rapt and raptured delight? The artist's answer is outside the eschatological binary. He briefly glimpses heaven, swiftly turns around and pole-dances his way down to hell. When he arrives, he grinds on Satan's lap in a replay of his own earthly transgression before, abruptly, snapping the beast's neck and taking his place. Instead of fearing his own descent or ascent, instead of fearing the devil or the unfallen angels, he uses his fear to reject them all — to challenge the very ideas of both fallenness and resurrection.
"Montero" is a critique of theology grounded in pleasure and fun, in color and joy. There is play with gender presentation and identity, there are gyrations of flesh, there is kissing and licking and humping. It's not some celebration of death as an idyllic place, be it heaven or hell, in which to find pleasure. It's a celebration of the fleshly world, the world of bodies that feel and register pain, and are the material through which theology is lived or resisted. It is the material world from which he was forcefully ejected.
In depicting himself in scenes of sensuous contact, Lil Nas X claims proximity and closeness and intimacy, a thing often refused queer folks because of doctrines and theologies. In playing every role onscreen — the serpent, the handlers during his trial, the crowd that condemns him and the devil too — he dramatizes how those doctrines made him his own worst judge and critic, how hard it is to work against internalizing their messaging. And in abruptly ending the devil's reign, he shows that he can free himself from fear, without heaven's help.
Of course, fear does not materialize only in abstractions of heavens or hells. There is the fear of the loss of family, of friends — very real, because it happens to so many. The fear of the loss of spiritual community. The fear that pleasure may never be delightful, that pleasure will always be torment. The fear that you will never find love. The fear that you will never find care or touch or caress or tenderness or joy. Those fears felt more urgent for me, feel more urgent, because they have happened.
I think about the '80s and '90s, the days of my youthful terror, and how the church communities of which I was a part relinquished the joy found in Blackqueerness to participate in America's normative ideas of masculinity and manhood — indeed, to ward off the rumors that they could be a refuge, even a tenuous one, for people like me. And I think in particular about the singers and musicians during that time who lived with HIV, who died from AIDS complications, and how often these havens of joy and care met them with shame, or silence.
In the present, there has been a vocal and energetic response. Many have decried the images of "Montero" as sinful, too raunchy for the children who may be watching, the Blackness and queerness too unmooring. Yet it seems to me that the visceral nature of these responses emerges, too, from fear. And that fear may have less to do with sexuality itself than with choice — with the consequences of making active decisions about what to imagine as possible, and then how to live as a result. In theologies grounded in fear, many seem to avoid even imagining a world of queer thriving, because seeing it as possible necessarily means choosing what to do about it, and whom and what to accept or reject or believe even exists. That avoidance prompts in them a desire to coerce others to fear, and for those others to avoid choosing.
For his part, Lil Nas X has made a choice. After the video's release, he tweeted,
"i spent my entire teenage years hating myself because of the s*** y'all preached would happen to me because i was gay. so i hope u are mad, stay mad, feel the same anger you teach us to have towards ourselves."
In other words: You say we're going straight to hell. What if we've already been there? Because what is more terrifying than living and loving a queer Black life in an anti-queer, anti-Black world? What do you have, in terms of power to control, when the thing you try to wield against us ain't a thing we're afraid of? You got outrage, anger, Twitter fingers, gullible Facebook posts. But you don't have the truth, and you don't have peace, and you don't have joy.
In the end, he slays the devil, refuses to live with the myth. In so doing, he overcomes the power others receive by attempting to coerce him to fear. And he reminds me that fear does not have to determine your possibilities — that fear might, in fact, show you how to love yourself.
A teenaged Ashon could have used that message. But even as an adult, I am grateful for the audiovisual troubling of fear "Montero" provides. It compels me to remain aware when fear creeps in, when it causes me to slip into self-doubt or undue self-criticism. It compels me to understand that nothing is more titillating and arousing than prompting the imagination. And it compels me to remember that joy and pleasure are serious, necessary work.
Ashon Crawley is an associate professor of Religious Studies and African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia, and the author of The Lonely Letters and Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. He is currently at work on a book about the Hammond B3 organ, the Black church and sexuality.