What Does Frank Ocean Coming Out Mean For Him And For Black Music?
Why the Odd Future singer's revelation is a historic moment for the hip-hop generation.
Frank Ocean heard the whispers. On Monday (July 2) the singer faced allegations of being gay after a UK journalist questioned Frank’s choice of pronouns on songs from his forthcoming debut album Channel Orange. Words like “him” were used in places where we’re used to hearing “her.”
Inquiries made to Ocean’s publicists for any sort of statement or clarification from the 24-year-old singer-songwriter went unanswered. The rumors could have been dismissed as just that, rumors. Then Frank spoke. Just after midnight, an hour into July 4—America’s day to celebrate independence—Ocean freed himself, finally.
In the first of two notes posted on his Tumblr page, Ocean starts out by saying that his full message—one that would confirm all the speculation—was originally supposed to be unveiled when Channel Orange drops on July 17.
Neither hip-hop nor R&B has ever boasted an openly gay star. Not to mention that this is the first time a Black male artist of his stature has sung on record to the same sex. If what’s been reported holds true upon album release, Ocean will be the author of gay love songs.
“This was intended to fill the Thank You’s section in my album credits,” he wrote. “But with all the rumors going ‘round… I figured it’d be good to clarify.”
What followed was a heavy, heartfelt open letter for all who care to know. Yes, Frank Ocean is bisexual, if not gay. He tells the story of meeting his first true love, a man, at 19. “It changed my life,” he says. He found that his thoughts would “wander to the women I had been with, the ones I cared for and thought I was in love with."
He writes that his relationship even affected the way he heard music: "I reminisced about the sentimental songs I enjoyed when I was a teenager… The ones I played when I experienced a girlfriend for the first time. I realized they were written in a language I did not yet speak.”
Ocean’s letter recounts the sadness felt sitting in his Nissan Maxima and revealing his feelings to his “friend,” only to find that those feelings were not returned. “He had to go back inside soon,” Frank explains, revealing that his partner was also hiding. “It was late and his girlfriend was waiting for him upstairs.” (It’s worth noting that Frank’s Orange album wraps with an outro with someone audibly leaving a car, splashing through the rain to their home, locking the door behind him and heading upstairs.)
“He wouldn’t tell me the truth about his feelings for me for another 3 years,” Ocean continues in his letter. “I felt like I’d only imagined reciprocity for years.“ He closes by thanking the people who have helped keep his spirits up as he wrestled with his sexuality and whether to reveal it. Today, he says, “I feel like a free man.”
Frank’s letter is miserable and empowering all at once—the stuff Oscar-winning dramas are made of. But this is real life. And Frank is a burgeoning star in a musical genre that is arguably the most immature when it comes to progressive thinking and acceptance of the gay and lesbian community. Neither hip-hop nor R&B has ever boasted an openly gay star. Not to mention that this is the first time a Black male artist of his stature has sung on record to the same sex. If what’s been reported holds true upon album release, Ocean will be the author of gay love songs.
It would be a cheap oversimplification to say Channel Orange is all about his male partner and their relationship from summers back. There are other stories featured on the set. But, as Frank said days ago, it certainly was inspired by him. “Orange reminds me of the summer I first fell in love,” he wrote. “Awww...”
Frank’s confession would be courageous even if he weren’t famous. Add to that the fact that the future of his career as an entertainer depends on how his audience perceives him, and this move is beyond bold. David Bowie came out in a 1972 Melody Maker interview, but later called it "the biggest mistake I ever made". Ellen DeGeneres’ popular sitcom took a ratings hit when she came out in 1997. It wasn’t until several years into their careers that pop icons like Queen’s Freddie Mercury, George Michael and Elton John were comfortable enough to come out of the closet. R&B’s Luther Vandross lived and died without addressing all the allegations that he was gay—and there have been others.
Sure, it’s 2012 now. President Barack Obama has come out in support of same-sex marriage, and Jay-Z even co-signed him. Our country is marching forward to the point where coming out of the closet should be no big deal. Coincidentally, CNN star Anderson Cooper came out on Tuesday.
Still, the stakes are higher for a young black singer, even one who was featured on Watch the Throne, the biggest hip-hop album of last year. Although Jay and Kanye West have both been progressive on the issue, the hip-hop community has always been a few steps slower on that front. Sadly, folks are still using phrases like “Pause” and “No homo” to distance themselves from any statement that could even be perceived as leaning toward homosexuality.
Though it definitely builds buzz around his debut album, Ocean’s revelation can’t be dismissed as a promotional move. Rather, it means that being cozy in his own skin is more important to Frank than record sales are.
And let’s not forget to mention that Frank is the lone singer in Odd Future, a collective of young walking contradictions. Though the crew also boasts Syd the Kid, an openly gay DJ and producer, it’s highlighted by breakout rapper Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. Thankfully, Tyler (whose music is replete with gay slurs like “faggot”) was one of the first on the team to express his support for Ocean.
“My Big Brother Finally Fucking Did That,” he tweeted. “Proud Of That Nigga Cause I Know That Shit Is Difficult Or Whatever.” Next came Earl, who hopped on Twitter to say, “Proud of Frank.” And there are at least a handful of rappers who we assume will be on Frank’s side when they are, inevitably, questioned about him.
"I am profoundly moved by the courage and honesty of Frank Ocean," said hip-hop mogul and Def Jam Record co-founder Russell Simmons. "Your decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear."
Though it definitely builds buzz around his debut album, Ocean’s revelation can’t be dismissed as a promotional move. Rather, it means that being cozy in his own skin is more important to Frank than record sales are. Only time will tell what his newfound freedom will cost him, but conventional wisdom says coming out isn’t a savvy business move for a Black singer selling love songs. Some will turn away. Others will embrace him. But one thing is for sure: Frank Ocean will go down in history as the first to put it all out there in Black music from the jump.
Certainly though, Frank is the same singer he was yesterday. His voice is still rich. His lyrics are still deeper than his surname. It doesn’t matter that he’s gay, bisexual, or whatever. What does matter is that he’s bravely taken that huge step out, removed that immense weight off of his shoulders, and (maybe unknowingly) moved the culture of Black music forward.
Written by Brad Wete (@BradWete)