The Phenom and the Trump Troll: A Tale of Two Country Rappers, Forged by Social Media
Just weeks after Lil Nas X went viral for critiquing alleged racism in country music, Adam Calhoun drew protests for appearing to stoke it.
The music video for country rapper Adam “ACal” Calhoun’s song “Racism” opens with panning shots of two groups of young men. In the first, five white guys clad in camo and baseball caps pose around a pickup truck. The second follows a line of mostly black teens wearing windbreakers and hoodies. When Calhoun starts rapping about discrimination and poverty, a casual listener could almost mistake the splice as a gesture of class-struggle solidarity—until he starts listing racist stereotypes and using the N-word: “Baby mama bitchin, you ain’t taking care of business... You can’t keep a job, cause you’re in and out of prison... Guess it must be Trump’s fault, cause you’re making bad decisions.”
Calhoun, whose over-enunciated delivery recalls a teenage Eminem fan, interprets the track title fairly literally.
The video, which has 4.1 million views, came out in November, but it got renewed life last week, when Calhoun became the subject of protests and conflict in California.
For the past three months, Calhoun and another well-known hick-hop artist, Demun Jones, have embarked on a cross-country run of concerts they dubbed the “Crazy White Boy Tour.” They were scheduled to play two nearly sold-out shows at a Sacramento country bar called the Goldfield Trading Post when activists and local politicians began circulating some of Calhoun’s lyrics, first reported in the Sacramento Bee.
The complaints concerned not only Calhoun’s track record of racist statements but also his history of railing against trans and gay people, from mocking a trans man’s pregnancy to denouncing an Iwo Jima Pride flag photo and ridiculing a 10-year-old boy online for wearing makeup. It didn’t help that the Goldfield, now a Western-themed venue dotted with taxidermy and old saloon ads, had once housed a popular gay-friendly burger joint, or that the shows overlapped with Pride.
Condemnation came swiftly. Steve Hansen, a Sacramento city council member, heard about the protests on social media and called for Goldfield to cancel the shows. “When I saw this, I was like—this is not good,” Hansen said.
He’d followed in a charge led by local businesses, customers, musicians, burlesque dancers, and activist groups. “The situation just escalated very quickly,” Victoria Quezaba, a bartender at the Goldfield, told The Daily Beast. “The first time I ever heard about these people [Calhoun and Jones] was when the protests started happening. A lot of people were coming in—and mainly a lot of people that don’t come to Goldfield.”
Quezaba, who identified herself as bisexual, emphasized that the views of Calhoun did not reflect those of the venue. Eventually, the Goldfield did cancel the show, issuing an apology on Facebook. But the tension didn’t end: It seemed only to inflame Calhoun’s fan base, who clamored to defend him. After activist groups scheduled protests and a counter-event called Drinks Against Racism, Calhoun insisted in a video that he would still show up in Sacramento. “I’m still going and I’ll be rocking my American flag next to your gay pride flag,” Calhoun said. “’Cause I can, in America.”
The ordeal arrived on the heels of another country-rap controversy: the meteoric rise of Lil Nas X, an Atlanta rapper born Montero Lamar Hill. The rapper’s TikTok meme-turned-viral single, “Old Town Road,” sparked controversy when it was removed from the country music charts in March, where it had been sitting without attracting much notice for the past week. The removal prompted calls of racism in chart listings, sending the song to the top of the Billboard 100, where it has spent nine weeks at No. 1, and stirring debate over the capaciousness of country music.
But the Calhoun conflict and its parallels to Lil Nas X’s underscore that the racial and political fault lines many perceived in country music are alive and well—perhaps even more so in the subgenre to which both artists belong.
Within the world of country rap, the two musicians came up in seemingly distinct scenes. Lil Nas X emerged from an extremely online, predominantly black strain of country trap, a style almost as much meme as music, riffing on recent hits like Lil Tracy’s single “Like a Farmer” and Young Thug’s crossover album, Beautiful Thugger Girls.
“Old Town Road,” which features instrumentals from Nine Inch Nails, a remix with Billy Ray Cyrus, and a music video set to clips from Red Dead Redemption 2, samples from a wide range of pop-cultural influences.
Calhoun’s relatively homogenous music more closely resembles the hick-hop and bro-country movements of the late 2010s, where acoustic and hard rock sounds are foregrounded, and suggestions of hip-hop appear primarily in the artist’s spoken delivery. Calhoun’s style follows in the vein of Kid Rock, the Lacs (short for “Loud Ass Crackers”), and “Crazy White Boy” tourmate Demun Jones (Jones, whose lyrics are far less inflammatory, used to work with Average Joes Entertainment, one of the most influential labels in the genre, credited, to some extent, with its genesis).
Yet the two make for interesting foils: both extreme outliers mixing the ostensibly black signifiers of hip-hop with the perceived-white vernacular of country, into music that scandalized listeners, got both artists banned (one from the charts, one from a state capital), and prompted backlashes that mostly served to invigorate their fan bases. It’s hard to conjure two figures who have followed such similar trajectories to wildly different effect.
The echoes between the two artists go beyond scandal. Shortly after Lil Nas X rose to fame, New York magazine’s Brian Feldman wrote an article about how the rapper’s music career had been born from his extensive online history. Long before “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X had run a successful—if spammy and eventually suspended—Twitter account. He had been involved in “tweetdecking”: a kind of aggressive online marketing, where networks of major accounts retweet and promote each other’s work in order to gain traction online.
Lil Nas X, whom Feldman compellingly links to former Nicki Minaj stan account @nasmaraj, had trafficked in Minaj fan posts. (Her defenders, known as “barbz,” became controversial for erring on the more aggressive side of online fandoms, occasionally doxxing or sending death threats to the rapper’s detractors, though it’s unclear if Nas Maraj’s account ever went this far.) Between promoting popular memes, clickbait, and viral tweet threads, Lil Nas X built a massive online following, which later laid the foundation for his music debut. Feldman described the approach as “forced, gamed virality.”
Calhoun, whose music career began in 2017 on a Hosier album called Made in America before he released his debut record, The Throne, late last year, also entered country rap from a place of social media stardom.
In the mid-2010s, Calhoun found fame on YouTube and Facebook, where he posted videos with titles like “Quit Cryin... Build the Wall,” “BLM = Being Lazy Matters,” “Men at work, women at home,” and “I don’t hate gays but WTF.” These videos were virtually engineered both to appeal to a Trumpist, anti-identity politics crowd and to anger liberals. His oldest existing video, titled “Words Hurt?” uploaded in 2015, mocks what he calls “safe zones,” by misgendering Caitlyn Jenner, telling victims to beat up their bullies with a sock of coins, and ridiculing black affinity spaces (“You already have those,” he says. “It’s called prison”).
Calhoun, whose myriad tattoos include an American flag, a bald eagle, and the Statue of Liberty, created a brand that so acutely mimics a kind of online “patriot” personality that he’s drawn accusations of “stealing valor,” a term for suggesting military experience despite having none. (The YouTuber has clarified that he has never served in the military, citing a troubled youth, including a 2009 charge for attacking a law-enforcement officer.) Still, Calhoun’s strategic fight-picking has earned him attacks from progressive outlets like The Young Turks and a massive online fan base: his videos regularly garner between 500,000 and 17 million views.
But perhaps what most unites Calhoun and Lil Nas X is a shared understanding of the viral potential in combining two musical traditions often understood to be diametrically opposed, and a palpable sense of irony in doing it. Former country-rap giants, like the early 2000s star Bubba Sparxxx, have approached the hybrid tradition with total sincerity. But early critics of Lil Nas X, like the website Saving Country Music, complained that the artist treated the genre as “a joke.”
They weren’t entirely wrong. The rapper, whose Twitter past trafficked in comedy, was tapping into the Yeehaw Agenda meme trend, where teens riffed on country themes, black cowboy aesthetics, and an imagined elixir called YeeYee Juice. In an interview with Time, Lil Nas X recalled promoting the song first as a meme, before moving to the media platform TikTok, where he knew videos were always “ironically hilarious.”
It’s an impulse that Calhoun appears to understand. The YouTuber also conceives of himself as a comedian—although his idea of “humor” mostly involves calling people gay, dropping the N-word, and forcing his son into sexual situations (as in this odd video, where the son LARPs as a kid courting Calhoun’s imagined daughter—i.e., his sister?—gets threatened with a gun, and winds up digging his own grave). Having so closely aligned himself with a particular brand of conservative, often racist white humor, Calhoun’s emergence into rap reads as comically unlikely, a fact he frequently nods to in his songs. In the opening of “Racism,” Calhoun asks what listeners are likely thinking: “What the fuck you rappin’ for?”
In their humor, both Calhoun and Lil Nas X have adopted what Southern studies scholar Adam Gussow described in a 2010 article on the genre as “playful, wildly self-dramatizing transgression.” It’s a transgression that pays—marketing tracks across genres can make it easier for them to stand out. It’s likely why, on iTunes, Lil Nas X listed his single as Country and Calhoun marked his album as Hip-Hop. “There’s a way to manipulate the algorithm to push your track to the top,” country music manager Danny Kang told Rolling Stone.
Transgression gave both artists what they were looking for. Lil Nas X sits happily atop the charts; Calhoun revels in getting canceled. His response to Sacramento said as much. He named the video: “We Made the News and I’ve Been Boycotted in California.”