Frank Ocean’s steps to "come out" as a gay man are significant, precisely because they’re so unremarkable. There's no need to be a "gay rapper", but to redefine what keeping it real in hip hop is all about...
It’s been quite a year for Frank Ocean. As well as releasing one of the best R&B albums in recent memory, he’s now celebrated as the first openly gay man in mainstream hip hop. Except, he’s not. But what he’s doing for hip hop -and for gay rights – is much more exciting.
Something is rotten in the state of gay rights. The mainstream assimilation of a cohesive gay identity has ushered in an era of equality, but it has also blunted the teeth of a once radical movement. Gay individuals in subcultural or minority communities still face
virulent homophobia, so when the struggle for rights in the USA amounts to getting married and joining the army, we’re in trouble.
For sure, the political power of “normal gayness” has helped opened eyes, and minds. There is a danger, though, that coming out as a normal gay is a requirement for acceptance. As mainstream culture gets more and more gay, being gay becomes more of an apparently static position. This is as true of hip hop as anywhere else – the biggest crime for a rapper is ‘covering up’ his gayness, failing to keep it real. So wasn’t it a shock after all for the cohesive gay identity to dissolve all over hip hop, the least likely and yet
most appropriate place for it?
Yes, behold Frank Ocean, the proverbial “Gay Rapper” (who isn’t really “gay” and doesn’t rap that often). Once a songwriter for Justin Bieber, Ocean graduated to Los Angeles hip hop collective OFWGKTA, and in July he posted a Tumblr confessional revealing that he
has loved at least one man. It was a simple, beautiful and appropriate act that may well prove to be a game-changer. And if Ocean engineered the timing to sell more copies of his sophomore album Channel Orange, well – hip hop is the art of hustle, and pop that of
As mainstream culture gets more and more gay, being gay becomes more of an apparently static position. This is as true of hip hop as anywhere else.
Channel Orange has rightly received universal acclaim, inviting comparisons with Stevie Wonder and Bilal. The success of Ocean as an artist might even suggest the radical notion that, unlike many straight artists, his sexuality is not the most interesting thing about him. So why did it happen now, and why did it come out of OFWGKTA?
Odd Future are what happens when hip hop lingers in hipster territory for a decade: trickster punks intent on doing something entertaining for a world with a short attention span. Their blend of suburban boredom and youthful audacity is met with enthusiasm by Tumblr scenesters and bafflement by the BBC. The anarchic, clownish rampage goes against that fundamental tenet of hip hop, to keep it real.
Of course, that ‘realness’ is paradoxically played out through strictly proscribed performances of sexuality and gender. So, Odd Future have in their ridicule created an environment where a visible gay identity can escape its “normal” constraints (much less
commented on is the fact that the group already features an openly gay woman, Syd).
Leading the dance is Tyler, The Creator, the gravel-voiced Heyoka whose unhinged insouciance upturns everything around him. Frank Ocean is yin to Tyler’s yang – delivering soul over spite, he’s the romantic truth-teller who dares to lay himself bare in earnest
falsetto. Many commentators have noted the existing gayness of rap culture: it’s a bodily, homosocial affair that often excludes women.
Ocean and Tyler, though, construct an intriguing masculinity together as man and boy. They long for women with such passionate angst that they look more like nervous teenagers than bragging alpha males. If they sometimes do embody conventional hip hop masculinity, it’s with an apparent degree of reluctance.
Odd Future have in their ridicule created an environment where a visible gay identity can escape its “normal” constraints
Gay and hip hop masculinities have been making bogeymen out of each other for a while now, and those who walk the line have struggled to reconcile those two stereotype-ridden worlds. One notable exception is California’s Deep Dickollective (D/DC), now
defunct, who brilliantly described themselves as ‘bourgeois, boho, post-post-modern, African-American, homiesexual counter-hegemonic anti-Imperialist Renaissance negroes stalling your cypher.’
Led by Tim’m T. West and Juba Kalamka, D/DC wrestled fiercely with the contradictions of being ‘homiesexual.’ Dropping defences, they performed what West has called ‘dis/ease’ – a way to articulate the struggle a homosexual rapper has with the hip hop identity he needs to survive. And articulating minority struggle is surely hip hop’s number-one mandate. Thus D/DC cut a path through the jungle for others to follow.
The historically inimical relationship between gay and black communities has produced the ‘down-low,’ the world of covert sex between black men (which has undoubtedly permeated hip hop for decades). Although its purpose is to mask homosexuality, the down-low does potentially offer empowerment in that it doesn’t attach sexual identities to sexual acts. Nor, of course, has Frank Ocean. Nothing about Ocean’s persona is “normal gay”, unless we can include in the gay roster R Kelly, Kanye
West and Usher (and, well…).
The brilliance of Ocean’s ‘coming out’ was that it was nothing of the sort. The ‘reveal’ was obscure and abstract, more a poem than a statement of fact. True to his era, Ocean blogged his pain. Addressing a community obsessed with the visibility of homosexuality, Ocean actually made everyone squint to read his words. He resisted any static sexual identity by reverting to the poetic, which is, after all, where hip hop (and sexuality?) belongs.
Coming out is a declaration of self, an act of becoming: Here I am! This is also what hip hop is about: turning struggle into flow, as well as the importance of roots and belonging. Frank Ocean has dared to do the very opposite: he has declared his fallibility. What he speaks is confusion, hesitation, frustration, and most of all longing. He is empowered, but also exposed. In a tender open letter to Ocean, Tim’m West suggests that the term ‘coming out’ should be replaced with ‘letting others in’ – a substitute that seems much more appropriate for Ocean’s vulnerable lyrical persona.
Responses have been positive, though it can’t hurt that Channel Orange is a blistering sensational album. Along with class, drugs, and sex, Ocean tackles general frustration at California rich kids (presumably the ones buying all that OFWGKTA merchandise) and vulnerability, the album’s thematic core. A classic might be made in the opener ‘Thinkin Bout You,’ an ethereal hymn to ‘that’ lover (possibly – Ocean makes hungry listeners as uncertain as he is).
Frank Ocean has dared to do the very opposite: he has declared his fallibility. What he speaks is confusion, hesitation, frustration, and most of all longing.
In fact, Ocean’s revelation inflects every lyric with ambiguity where there was none before. He must take pleasure in watching critics scramble backwards over a previously innocent colloquialism (“oh, boy”). This isn’t a gay album any more than it is a straight
album. It is a unique album, containing, amongst other things, a love letter to Forrest Gump. It is also the perfect step forward (or sideways, or wherever) for pop music.
There might even be, dare I suggest, a queer slogan in the refrain of ‘Pink Matter’: “Pleasure over matter!” Oh, we have a long way to go, but Ocean’s steps are significant, precisely because they’re so unremarkable. Leading dignitaries of hip hop simply respect Ocean’s
keeping it real (‘realness’ being another preoccupation of the album).
We can’t be sure yet exactly how it’s happened, but nowadays a rapper slamming gays is beginning to look hopelessly out of date. Ocean’s dis/ease is bound up in his own catharsis, and through it he has admirably carved out a space where a black man can love
another man without secrecy or shame. Thanks to those that have come before, he doesn’t have to be ‘the gay rapper.’ There’s no need to conform to or deviate from what it means to be in hip hop, or to be out, or normal, or queer. He’s simply let us in, and in
doing so he may have asked just the right kinds of questions about love and sexuality for us all.
Joel Blackledge’s blog can be found at thegreatdamfino.tumblr.com
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