Lil Nas X Says Children Are His Core Audience Right Now, And That's OK

Jan 5, 2021
Originally published on January 6, 2021 9:02 am

A little boy decked out in a pink rhinestone cowboy outfit travels around a farm and points out things that bring him joy. "A is for adventure. Every day is a brand new start. B is for boots — whether they're big or small, short or tall. C is for country," the story goes.

This is the basic premise of the new kids book C Is for Country written by Lil Nas X, the Grammy-winning, chart-dominating rapper behind "Old Town Road." As a storybook version of Lil Nas X shows readers around the farm, he gets to F, which is for fringe, feathers and fake fur. "I love that for me," the illustrated rapper says.

C Is For Country, by Lil Nas X. Illustrated by Theodore Taylor III.
Penguin Random House

This type of "be yourself" messaging is common in children's books. The real Lil Nas X ran into it all the time growing up — except, he says, it never felt totally genuine to him. "It was never truly enforced," he says. "It was kind of like 'do what you want, be who you want, but be who I want you to be.'"

Reaching kids on their level has been a big part of the public persona of Lil Nas X in the past year. Last spring he did an appearance on The Not-Too-Late Show, singing the theme along with its host, Elmo. Leading into the holidays, he did a virtual performance on the online video game platform Roblox, reminiscent of the Travis Scott Fortnite concert in April. But Roblox has a huge younger audience — the company says over half its users are under 13 — and the Lil Nas X concert alone drew in over 30 million visits.

Lil Nas X says his nieces and nephews, to whom his new book is dedicated, guide his thought process when he's thinking about relating to children. When Roblox approached him to do the virtual concert, he wasn't fully on board until he went to his sister's house and his nephew coincidentally asked him about the game. "And then, boom, I just decide to do it," the rapper says.

YouTube

Marketing to kids directly makes perfect sense when you look at exactly how huge "Old Town Road" was with the elementary school set. "Lil Nas X catered to and resonated with that younger demographic," says Dan Runcie, the founder of Trapital, a media company and newsletter focused on business and hip-hop.

Runcie points to a surprise show Lil Nas X did at Lander Elementary school in Ohio in 2019. In footage from that day, the rapper enters a gym full of children who start screaming at the top of their lungs. Some grasp their heads in disbelief. Others just jump up and down. Some are so overwhelmed they just stand there slack-jawed.

And while it is rare to see one of the biggest hip hop/pop/country crossover acts perform in an elementary school gym, Runcie says going after kids is a way towards longevity — especially if you're the only one in your lane who's doing it. "Because if no one is necessarily your main competition that's also competing for that from a hip-hop perspective, you stand a better chance," Runcie says.

Lil Nas X says he isn't particularly self-conscious about his extremely young fan base. "I'm well aware that life and careers and everything goes in chapters," the rapper says. "That's the chapter I'm in right now and I'm OK with that."

Or, as he put it on his recent track "Holiday," "Man, I snuck into the game, came in on a horse/ I pulled a gimmick, I admit it, I got no remorse."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A new children's book features a young boy out in the country taking into account things that bring him joy - things like boots, naps and swag. The book is called "C Is For Country," and it's written by Lil Nas X, the Grammy-winning, chart-topping musician behind "Old Town Road."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TIME ROAD")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) I got the horses in the back, horse tack is attached. Hat is matte black. Got the boots that's black to match. Riding on a horse...

CHANG: And he spoke to NPR's Andrew Limbong about the importance of reaching out to kids.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: The book follows a basic premise. A is for adventure. Every day is a brand new start. B is for boots, whether they're big or small, short or tall. C is for country. And then you get to F is for fringe and feathers and fake fur. I love that for me, says the Lil Nas X character in the book. The real Lil Nas X says he got similar messages of be yourself growing up, except it wasn't super genuine.

LIL NAS X: I think we all got that message growing up, but it was never, like, truly enforced. It was kind of like do what you want, be who you want, but be who I want you to be.

LIMBONG: He says his entire public persona has been trying to communicate an honest version of this message to kids, including his nieces and nephews, to whom the book is dedicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE NOT-TOO-LATE SHOW WITH ELMO”)

RYAN DILLON: (As Elmo) Welcome to the show, Nas.

LIL NAS X: I'm happy to be here.

LIMBONG: He spent a lot of 2020 getting himself in front of children. In the spring, he did an appearance on the "Not-Too-Late Show," singing along with its host, Elmo.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NOT-TOO-LATE SHOW WITH ELMO")

LIL NAS X AND RYAN DILLON: (Singing) This is the song - la la la la - Elmo's song.

LIMBONG: And then heading into Thanksgiving...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIL NAS X: Uh oh. It looks like we're stuck in this bubble. I'm going to need your help.

LIMBONG: ...A giant Lil Nas X appeared on Roblox, the online gaming platform, where he performed a cleaned-up version of his song "HOLIDAY."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Ayy, it's a holiday. I got fours on fours, and they out of control, yo. Ayy...

LIMBONG: Roblox is huge for kids. The company says over half of its users are under the age of 13, and this appearance alone drew in more than 30 million visits. Nas says when Roblox approach them to do this, he sat on it for a bit.

LIL NAS X: But then I went to my sister's house. And coincidentally, my nephew just randomly asked me - he was like, hey, have you played this game? And then - boom - I just - I decided to do it.

LIMBONG: Marketing to kids directly makes perfect sense when you look at exactly how huge "Old Town Road" was with the elementary school demographic, says Dan Runcie. He's the founder of Trapital, a media company and newsletter focusing on the business of hip-hop.

DAN RUNCIE: Lil Nas X catered and really resonated with that younger demographic. And we saw that with this surprise concert that he did when he went to this elementary school in Ohio.

LIMBONG: What Runcie is referring to here is a video of Nas going to Lander Elementary in Ohio in 2019 - showing up to a gym full of kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SCREAMING)

RUNCIE: And the kids went wild in a way that you normally don't see kids going wild for a 20-year-old rapper that is doing his thing.

LIMBONG: And of course, they knew all the words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIL NAS X AND STUDENTS OF LANDER ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: (Singing) I'm going to take my horse to the old town road. I'm going to ride 'til I can't no more.

LIMBONG: Runcie says, sure, it's unusual for rappers to perform for kids this young, but that's one path for longevity.

RUNCIE: Because if no one is necessarily your main competition that's also competing for that from a hip-hop perspective, then you stand a better chance.

LIL NAS X: We all know, like, kids determine the future.

LIMBONG: For Lil Nas X, that is both true in the big picture societal way, but also for his career.

LIL NAS X: These are the people that grow with you, learn from you and emulate you and feel like the most loyal fans, you know, you could ever have, honestly.

LIMBONG: Or as he put it on his song "HOLIDAY"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLIDAY")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Man, I snuck into the game, came in on a horse. I pulled a gimmick, I admit it. I got no remorse. Nobody tried...

LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLIDAY")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Dun, dun dun. They tried to Next me, ayy, but I'm blessed, see. Ayy, no flex, but... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.