The first thing that strikes you about R&B artist Frank Ocean‘s coming out statement is that it doesn’t read much like a coming out statement. Over the course of a few hundred words posted on his Tumblr blog, the 24-year-old singer never says anything along the lines of “I have something to tell you all … I’m gay.” Instead, he writes movingly of a summer spent falling hopelessly in love with someone and the excitement, confusion and turmoil this caused: “I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together … And on the days we were together, time would glide. Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence.”
Anyone who has ever experienced the all-consuming force of falling for someone they feel like they shouldn’t will instantly relate to Ocean’s words – the declarations of love through tears, the assurances that everything will be OK, the other partner waiting upstairs. That both people in this tale are men doesn’t seem important.
The second thing that strikes you is that, actually, we still live in a world in which it really is important that Ocean is talking about another man. The worlds of rap and R&B which he frequents are not known for their tolerance of homosexuality, from Eminem rapping “Hate fags? The answer’s yes!” to Chris Brown’s recent use of the #homothug hashtag during a Twitter spat. Then there’s the matter of Ocean’s bandmates in the hip-hop collective Odd Future, who have become notorious for misogynistic and homophobic lyrics (Ass Milk’s “Come take a stab at it faggot … I pre-ordered your casket” is one particularly charming example). Pop and dance music have seen plenty of artists stepping out of the closet but in the macho-oriented world of rap and R&B it’s unheard of for a star to come out.
Matthew Todd, editor of gay magazine Attitude, says Ocean’s Tumblr post caused ripples of excitement in their office. “For anyone to come out this early in their career is unusual,” he says; that Ocean is one of the most hotly tipped new names in music only amplifies the effect. “There’s still a lot of homophobic abuse around, as you can see by some of the responses on Twitter. But it’s an interesting time in the US with Obama supporting gay marriage and Jay-Z supporting it also.”
Born Christopher Breaux in New Orleans in 1987, Ocean was raised by his mother after his father left them. Although still only in his early 20s, his CV proves he is not easily pigeonholed – he has written songs for Justin Bieber and Beyoncé as well as starred on the Watch the Throne album, a collaboration between Jay-Z and Kanye West. He seems at home in the highly controversial Odd Future, yet later this year he will open for Coldplay.
Clearly, Ocean is an artist who follows his own path. He was signed up by Def Jam to release his debut solo album, but when Def Jam seemed to get cold feet, Ocean posted the album Nostalgia, Ultra online. It quickly gained a following – not only for its pop melodies and indie R&B production, but also for its ability to tackle issues not often discussed in pop with such boldness. There Will Be Tears talked of the sadness caused by his absent father and the peer pressure to put on a brave face (“My friends said it weren’t so bad./ You can’t miss what you ain’t had./ Well I can, I’m sad”), whereas Swim Good confronted suicidal tendencies. Ocean opened up further on We All Try, airing his thoughts on both abortion (“I believe a woman’s temple gives her the right to choose”) and, significantly, gay marriage: “I believe that marriage isn’t between a man and woman, but between love and love.”
Guardian critics voted it their third favourite album of 2011 while the BBC had him down second in its Sound of 2012 poll. Later this month Ocean will release Channel Orange, rumoured to contain several love songs addressed to another man.
“Hip-hop and R&B are so overtly masculine, so obstinately heterosexual that I can appreciate how singing about having loved, or being in love with, a man might have been something [Ocean] had to consider before he pressed record,” says urban music writer Hattie Collins. “It is an issue. But it’s the same with most pop music; look at how long it took poor old Stephen Gately to come out, and he was in one of the most gay-friendly genres ever.”
It is fitting that Ocean was invited to work with Kanye West on Watch the Throne as it is West who has done so much to change attitudes in hip-hop and shake off the lyrical straitjackets imposed by gangster rap during the 90s. He has spoken out against discrimination against gay people and has constantly pushed his lyrics towards more reflective areas. Where once even right-on artists such as Public Enemy sang lyrics such as “Man to man, I don’t know if they can/ From what I know the parts don’t fit”, the new generation of rappers is moving away from such homophobia. West Coast rapper Lil’ B called his 2011 album I’m Gay (I’m Happy), while hotly tipped Harlem MC A$AP Rocky renounced his own early homophobia as “stupid” – in February this year he said hip-hop needed to “stop being so close-minded because it will cause the genre to fail”. Another member of Odd Future, DJ Syd Da Kid, recently unveiled her side project The Internet with a video that saw her snogging another girl at a fairground.
All of which makes Odd Future’s apparent homophobia more puzzling. Their lyrics caused them to be dropped from the bill of Australian festival Big Day Out last November and they have faced calls for protests outside shows from anti-domestic violence groups. How can gay people feel comfortable sharing a stage with a man shouting about “faggots”? As offensive as some of Tyler and co’s statements might appear, they are clearly not laced with the same venom as those made by, say, Cypress Hill’s Sen Dog, who once told NME journalist Sylvia Patterson that they “don’t get fags … how can you not love pussy?”
They may use the language of hate speak but, for Odd Future, these words are designed to upset and provoke an older generation but little more – the lyrical equivalent of Sid Vicious’s swastika shirt. In fact, Odd Future’s attitude towards their fellow bandmates – Tyler the Creator, the collective’s figurehead, tweeted to say “My big brother finally fucking did that. Proud of that nigga cause I know that shit is difficult” – reveals their true feelings towards gay people, one in which it really doesn’t matter who you fall in love with.
The music world might be full of people making outrageous and provocative declarations for the hell of it – but Ocean has shown pop how to really make a statement.
source: Guardian News and Media Limited