Bryce Harper was born on October 16, 1992, which means he was in first grade when Nelly’s breakthrough debut single “Country Grammar” was released. Speaking from my own experiences, I didn’t really know the popular songs released when I was in first grade at the time. I do remember “Macarena”-mania arriving the next summer and “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls came around in second grade (having a younger sister meant it was impossible to avoid it) but anything from first grade was immersed in pop culture as I learned pop culture existed. For me, Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” might as well be a disco song.
It makes perfect sense that Bryce Harper would revere Nelly as a cultural institution. He arrived in pop culture at the perfect time for a small child to embrace him—it was when hip-hop went from a big part of pop music to the overwhelming driving force in pop culture. And unlike the previous decade’s gangsta rap or more overtly violent and/or vulgar contemporary rappers like Eminem, 50 Cent, or Jay-Z, Nelly was close enough to clean (he rapped about smoking pot and adult situations, but compared to hard drugs or murder, it was child’s play) that a kid could conceivably convince his only moderately strict parents to let him buy the latest Nelly album (for anyone of a generation younger than Harper or I—people used to buy albums). But he wasn’t Will Smith—overtly parent-approved rap. Nelly was still considered cool.
Most of the world stopped caring much about Nelly a decade or so ago. He had a relatively long shelf life, but hip-hop doesn’t have legacy acts in the way rock music does. This is absolutely not the case, however, in St. Louis, Nelly’s hometown (technically Nelly was born in Texas and grew up in nearby University City, but that’s semantics). Grantland’s Andrew Sharp in 2013 referred to Nelly as “the closest thing St. Louis has to Li’l Sebastian”, referring to the beloved horse from Parks and Recreation whose unanimous popularity among the residents of Pawnee befuddles the outsider Ben Wyatt.
Admittedly, I’m more of a Wyatt than a Pawneeite when it comes to Nelly—I’ve never understood his music’s appeal. I consider his blend of simplistic rhythms and ruralisms and mindless decadence to be a forebearer to the excruciating musical sub genre of bro-country, the 21st century equivalent of hair metal. And I think if you’re going to cape for an early-aughts St. Louis rapper, J-Kwon’s “Tipsy” holds up far better. But even if I don’t quite understand Nelly’s appeal, I certainly understand the appeal of the idea of Nelly.
His music is vernacular for St. Louisans, and his public persona goes far beyond his discography. Many towns have civic pride, but in St. Louis, it is such an integral part of our regional identity that we take pride in having so much civic pride. And while Nelly isn’t the only famous person from St. Louis, no other famous person from St. Louis is as from St. Louis as he is. Jon Hamm may vouch for Imo’s Pizza and Ted Drewes Frozen Custard on Jimmy Kimmel, but he’s still mostly just the guy from Mad Men. Nelly is the guy who declared “I’m from the Lou and I’m proud!” and shoehorned Extremely Early 2000s St. Louis athletes Fernando Vina and Fred Brathwaite into music videos. I may not personally feel excited when “Hot in Herre” comes on at every wedding reception held within 15 miles of St. Louis, as required by law, but I get excited when others get excited.
And Bryce Harper, evidently, remains a true Nelly believer–a Vegas-born St. Lunatic, as it were. USA Today’s Ted Berg was the latest to note that Harper follows 134 accounts on Instagram, one of which belongs to Nelly (most of his follows are other athletes and various sports-related brands–the only other musicians whose names I quickly recognized after a quick browsing were country artists Sam Hunt and Jake Owen). But the most significant Instagram-related Nelly/Bryce Harper story came in early December, when Nelly posted a video of himself with Bryce Harper (fellow Las Vegas native Kris Bryant was also present, though not in the video itself), imploring St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill Dewitt Jr. to offer Harper a contract and claiming that he was “doing the negotiations”.
The video itself was harmless enough. Obviously, Bryce Harper isn’t going to sign with the Cardinals because Nelly told him to do so, and Nelly’s advice isn’t going to sway anybody in the front office to increase the amount they’re willing to spend on Harper. And Bryce Harper, who has spent the last 8 1/2 years with the organization which drafted him first overall as a 17 year-old, is getting the chance to enjoy being specifically sought. But there is also something unsettling about the profuse fan reaction to Nelly, and the insinuation, even if half-jokingly, that Nelly is some sort of local messiah.
In October 2017, Nelly was arrested in Washington and was booked on the charge of second-degree rape. A few months later, Nelly was against accused of sexual assault, this time in Essex, UK. A few weeks later, two more women came forward to accuse Nelly of making unwanted sexual advances. Nelly had never had a spotless public image–in 2015, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug charge, and he once owed millions in back taxes to the IRS–but multiple credible accusations of sexual misconduct went far beyond blemishes and ventured into potentially reputation-destroying territory.
I didn’t mention my apathy to Nelly’s music as some sort of I-told-you-so regarding Nelly. I mentioned it to establish how easy of a time I had reconciling Nelly’s new public black eye. By the same token, I was never especially fond of The Cosby Show, so it was easy for me to stop watching a show I wasn’t really watching too much in the first place once it became apparent that its star was a creep. But I also will freely admit that I’ve been willing to look the other way on, say, John Lennon’s spousal abuse, or Kanye West’s misogyny, or Morrissey’s racism. Most people draw the line somewhere somewhat arbitrarily and make some exceptions wherever they see fit.
But the problem here is less that people are still listening to Nelly’s music and more the promotion of Nelly as a regional identity. Perhaps I should stop listening to artists whose worldviews are so vile, but in the meantime, I do wish they would just shut up and sing. I don’t expect nor want Ye or Moz to be thought leaders. But Nelly is still, despite these accusations coming at the height of the Me Too movement, teflon. His Cardinals fandom can still be celebrated by the team itself. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch can still giddily run columns begging others to follow Nelly’s lead. At this point in history, maybe you can praise Annie Hall, but you could never get away with praising Woody Allen the individual. Nelly breaks these rules.
Bryce Harper probably isn’t going to sign with the Cardinals, and no amount of Nelly coercing is going to close the likely multi-multi-million dollar gap between the team that wins the bidding war and whatever the Cardinals are willing to spend. But even if it did, this is all going to happen independently of the fans and the media. And for the sake of basic decency, St. Louis needs to stop treating Nelly as its savior.