Frank Ocean, one of hiphop and R&B’s biggest breakout successes of the year, came out as gay – not on national television, but in a shyly poetic, sideways post on his Tumblr. ‘Four summers ago, I met somebody,’ Ocean wrote. ‘I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. 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 [...] until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love, it changed my life.’
Ocean is a fan – and in some ways, an inheritor – of Prince’s gender-bending approach to songwriting. But he is the first mainstream R&B star to come out of the closet instead of remaining a question mark, continually playing with an ‘is he or isn’t he’ edifice.
The choice to make his grand coming-out statement via Tumblr made cosmic sense somehow; many of music’s biggest stories this year were mediated almost entirely via the Internet. South Korean pop sensation Psy’s viral ‘Gangnam Style’ video is racking up hundreds of millions of hits on YouTube – the most-liked video in YouTube history. The jailed Russian feminist punk icons Pussy Riot amassed a vast global fan base online, without most supporters ever hearing a note of the group’s music. Instead, the Pussy Riot saga played out via eloquent closing statements translated and posted on blogs, photos of their stoic court appearances, and hazy YouTube clips of their 40-second ‘punk prayer’ in Moscow’s Church of Jesus Christ the Saviour.
Numerous think-pieces written over the past year argue that Ocean’s coming out represents a sea change in mainstream hiphop and R&B’s tendencies towards homophobia. The Los Angeles Times went so far as to declare it ‘a glass ceiling moment for music’. But for every step forward, there seemed to be a half-step back. The rapper Lil Wayne retorted ‘No Frank Ocean, I’m straight’ on a recent remix. Some celebrities, like Stevie Wonder, offered wildly conflicting statements to the press. ‘Honestly, some people who think they’re gay, are confused,’ said Wonder to the Guardian, before quickly recanting his statement: ‘I’m sorry that my words about feeling confused about their love were misunderstood. No one has been a greater advocate for the power of love than I; both in my life and in my music.’ Add to this the fact that Ocean is a member of the Los Angeles-based Odd Future collective, led by Tyler, The Creator – a rapper and producer who has often come under fire himself for homophobic lyrics in the past. The title of rapper Lil B’s 2011 mixtape was I’m Gay – a seemingly goofy gag in keeping with his persona, more than any kind of sincere statement.
No one else at Ocean’s level of mainstream success in hiphop and R&B has come out, but other chart-topping stars, including Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks – the rapper-singer who recently rose to stardom – have said in interviews that they are bisexual. ‘I just embrace all people of all lifestyles and I don’t tell them they are bad people,’ Minaj said in an interview with Vibe. ‘But I feel like people always wanna define me and I don’t wanna be defined.’ Banks was more direct, in a recent conversation with Rolling Stone: ‘Definitely, I mean, I’m bisexual [...] I have people say to me, “Oh wow, my friend is gay, too,” and I’m like, “Yeah, so?”’
Ocean and Banks came of age in the Internet era, after hiphop’s so-called golden era. Ocean was born in 1987; Banks was born in 1991. In a way, their music has more to do with the tropes of dance music – which had its original roots in gay discos and clubs – than it does with hip-hop. Banks’s uptempo hit ‘1991’ is aptly titled; it bears the trappings of a house music track made 20 years ago. Her rapid-fire vocals roll nimbly over the four-to-the-floor beat and diva samples, but there’s something strangely dated about the whole thing. (Even Banks’s fashion sense in the video is a throwback – to Madonna circa ‘Vogue’, released in 1990, right down to the black suit and corset.) Ocean’s recent ten-minute opus ‘Pyramids’ connects the slow throb of R&B with synth stabs that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early 1990s rave tune.
Ocean is gaining a growing base of support from the stars of mainstream hiphop. Snoop Dogg, who recently renamed himself Snoop Lion after a spiritual encounter with Rastafarian priests in Jamaica, lent strong words of support for Ocean – as did 50 Cent and Nas. Russell Simmons, hiphop’s philosopher king, came out in strong support of Ocean, but it’s unclear if that had much of an impact. ‘A catalyst with courage like Frank Ocean making public statements like that can flourish,’ Simmons said to the press. Meanwhile, Ice-T, who stepped into the Ocean debate in an interview with the Associated Press, dismissed the music as ‘pop-rap’: ‘At this moment right now, we’re in the world of pop-rap and it doesn’t really matter right now,’ Ice-T said. ‘These guys are singing, it’s pop music and being in pop and gay is OK,’ he said. ‘It would be difficult to listen to a gay gangster rapper [...] If you’re a gangster rapper like myself and Ice Cube [...] if one of us came out and said something, that would be a big thing. That would be like, “Whoa! What?”’
If nothing else, Ocean has initiated an honest discussion, but there is clearly still some distance to go.
First published in Issue 151