How Frank Ocean's Same-Sex Love Revelation Liberates Us All
Frank Ocean shot by Nabil Elderkin
Photo Credit: Life or Death PR
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“Frank Ocean Say He Gay….”
That is what I heard a group of teenagers say the other day, here on the streets of Brooklyn, New York, when it came out that Frank Ocean had confessed that his first love was a man. There was no judgment in that remark, no gay bashing, not even the slightest hint of hatred or disgust hovering about them. It just is…
For the uninformed, Frank Ocean is an American singer and songwriter, one who fled his native New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina tragedy of 2005, at the age of 18. Now only 24, Ocean has built an impressive and prolific resume since, writing or ghost writing songs for the likes of Justin Bieber, John Legend and Beyoncé. Ocean’s voice is also prominently featured on the 2011 Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration album Watch The Throne, and also happens to belong to a wildly talented but also wildly controversial alternative hip-hop collective called Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, often abbreviated to OFWGKTA or simply shortened to Odd Future.
Controversial because of lyrical content that not only uses the word “nigga” relentlessly and unapologetically, but also dives brain first into sexism, violence and, yes, homophobia. In fact their homophobic lyrics led to Odd Future being dropped from New Zealand’s “Big Day Out” festival in November 2011, and they have faced calls for protests outside shows from anti-domestic violence organizations. In other words, as different as Odd Future may be, the group is also very stereotypical of the lyrical output of hip-hop and R&B of the past 15 years or so, even if much of what Odd Future does is purely for shock value and attention the way, for example, N.W.A (led by a teenaged Ice Cube) did so in its day.
But Frank Ocean’s coming out party, written as an open letter on his Tumblr blog, is major because musical stars who are men (especially), be they pop, rock, jazz, hiphop, R&B, or Country & Western, simply do not do that. Like the wider American social order, the entertainment world is one where hyper-masculinity is the order of the day. Real men are with women only. Real men do not express emotions. Real men are hard, are tough, are gangsters, are thugs, are cowboys, are bad boys, are rude boys, and are anything but gay. Maybe it was not a coincidence, then, that Ocean was asked to work on the Jay-Z and Kanye West album. Kanye West, by far, is the most famous rapper ever to denounce homophobia in hip-hop, in pop music, in the world. So in spite of whatever other issues West may have (or those in the media are quick to point out) clearly he is about creating safe spaces for gay or bisexual men like Frank Ocean.
I think about this when I reflect on 1980s pop and how artists like Prince and Michael Jackson were encouraged to be “harder” in certain ways, to diffuse rampant questions about who they were. Michael, for example, was given that famous red jacket with black stripes to wear in his “Thriller” video, as it was thought he would appear more “manly.” And by the time Jackson got to his Bad album, you could hear that so-called rougher manliness in his lyrics. Likewise, Prince, I feel, sought to balance the sexual rumors about him (some purposely created in his own music) by parading around some of the most beautiful women in the universe and presumably sexing and turning out each one of those ladies. Yet, rather than deal with issues of sex and sexuality in real time and in real terms, what we often do in entertainment is manufacture image (a code word for fantasy, to me). And what is fact or fiction with MJ or Prince (and God only knows how many others) is left in the muddy waters of our imaginations.