"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 revealed a past love affair with 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 résumé, writing or ghostwriting 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 he 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.
They're controversial because of lyrical content that not only uses the word "nigga" relentlessly and unapologetically but dives brain first into sexism, violence, and, yes, homophobia. In fact, their homophobic lyrics caused them to be dropped from Australia's "Big Day Out" festival in November 2011, and they have faced calls for protests outside their shows from anti-domestic-violence organizations. In other words, as different as Odd Future may be, the group's lyrical output is also very typical 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, just as, for example, N.W.A (led by a teenaged Ice Cube) did in its day.
But Frank Ocean's coming-out party, written as an open letter on his Tumblr blog, is major because music stars who are men, be they pop, rock, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, or country-western music stars, simply "do not do that." Like the wider American social order, the entertainment world is one where hypermasculinity 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's not a coincidence, then, that Ocean was asked to work on the Jay-Z/Kanye West album. Kanye West is by far 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 that 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.
Then there were the cases of Boy George and George Michael, British music superstars, who had to deal with a range of issues (our issues, not theirs) tied to their sexual orientations. Boy George flaunted his in style and dress, with bravado, and truly was a pioneer in doing so, but he was marginalized by the homophobic masses, and the effects of superstardom (his rambling personal relationships coupled with substance abuse) took their toll, and he is quite lucky to have a life and a career as a bona fide and in-demand DJ in the 21st century. Indeed, in my work as an activist and writer, and just as a human being who cares, I have been struck by the number of conversations I've had with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender sisters and brothers who've battled depression, thoughts of suicide, alienation from families and friends, and alcohol and substance abuse, as well as abusive relationships, because of the emotional hardships tied to who they are.
In George Michael's case, not only did he cross over to America with his rhythmic pop, but I remember how beloved he had become with African-American audiences in the late 1980s, the latest example of blue-eyed crooning to touch the souls of black folks. But a series of very embarrassing incidents that revealed George Michael's sexuality damaged his career severely, and few young people in the United States today know who he is. How heartbreaking, given how gifted Michael is as a vocalist.
This is why Frank Ocean's revelation in that open letter is so darn profound, so darn courageous. In the world of black music since the 1980s, whether you are a rapper, an R&B singer, or a reggae singer, there has been zero tolerance for discussing homosexuality except in often vicious, disrespectful, and destructive ways. In fact, the explosion of hip-hop into the mainstream in that decade was at least partially a response to what many of us in urban America perceived as the far too "soft" images of the biggest R&B singers of the day: the hair filled with jheri curls and other chemicals that gave the appearance of women's or white folks' hair; the voices that danced effortlessly between that of a man and a woman; the make-up and eyeliner (even Dr. Dre has been lambasted for this, due to his membership in his first group, the World Class Wrecking Crew, and their physical appearance in that vein); the positioning of manhood in a way that some felt was too sensitive, too artsy, and, well, too much like a woman (as the sexist thinking goes).
Thus, from KRS-One or Chuck D of Public Enemy to Cypress Hill or Eminem, to practically every well-known or respected hip-hop artist of the past two decades, words dissin' gay people have flown out of our collective hip-hop mouths. Of course I know, as a product of the ghetto and black America myself, that outsiders do not understand the language game of our America, even if they think they do. There have certainly been occasions, in our very insulated communities, where I have heard hurtful terms like "faggot" and "homo" used to describe other males, not as an attack on their sexuality but to suggest, in our limited worldview, that these males needed to be men by the standards set by us, whatever that is supposed to mean. Thus, not only could you not be openly gay or bisexual, but you also could not cry, vent, or speak about love in any form that is affirming and joyful, nor say what may be hurting or traumatizing you. And if we males accidentally touch each other on the basketball court, we are quick to say "no homo!" after that accidental action, to draw a line between our basketball aggression and our sexual orientation.
As a heterosexual black man, I overstand every part of this, as we say in the 'hood. Many of us feel that we are already constantly under siege, by the powers that be that we cannot quite pinpoint (hence we say "the man" or "the white man"); by the local police; by the failing public school system; by the criminal justice system and the prison-industrial complex that dominates so many of our lives; by our families; by the employment and life opportunities that simply do not exist for most of us; by the males around us who seem to police any and all our actions as men, as boys. Thus, the last thing you want to be called is a name that is associated with being gay, to be told to "man-up," as if who you are simply is of no value otherwise. And if your definition of manhood is not rooted in conquering and dominating women and being violent to self and others in multiple ways, and if it is not about being sexually powerful in a straight and heterosexual sense, then, according to our logic, you are not a man. Not a real man.
So for Frank Ocean, with his brand name recognition, to come out and say in that open letter that at age 19 he fell in love with another male, also 19, is really remarkable to me, and not something I thought would happen from someone on his level. And to do it so matter-of-factly, with that kind of emotion, and with detailed attention to what love means to him, is beyond fearless. It not only frees Frank Ocean to be who he is, on his terms, but it frees, indirectly, all the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender young people (and many older ones, too) to be who they are, without shame or apology. And perhaps it will even free some of us straight dudes to comprehend, at long last, that there is nothing wrong with expressing who we are fully.
For sure, Frank Ocean's declaration reminds me of another genius writer of another era, by the name of James Baldwin -- both black males, both same-gender-loving black males, both doggedly determined to be in and speak of their America, on their terms, through the lens of their eyes, their experiences, their souls. When I first heard Frank Ocean sing the deeply pensive hook to Jay-Z and Kanye West's hauntingly beautiful track "Made in America," I certainly thought of how Jimmy Baldwin sang of his America in "The Fire This Time," even as Baldwin dodged the outrageous fortune of racism, classism, and homophobia in his lifetime. We in America will have fallen backwards in time, from the liberation of Frank Ocean to the agony and angst James Baldwin had to carry like a heavy load, if Ocean is dissed and discarded in the manner Baldwin often was. And we will undermine what we say about our loving God, our spiritual and religious love, and human and civil rights, if Frank Ocean is not allowed to be a free man, and however he chooses to define that term, "man."
Finally, it is my hope, in this year of President Barack Obama becoming the first American president ever to bravely support gay marriage, in spite of the intense scrutiny from many circles, that Frank Ocean's very simple gesture, openly applauded by pop-culture royalty like Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé, is the beginning of a much-needed conversation, in entertainment, in hip-hop, in America, on this planet, about the humanity and equality of us all, no matter who we are, no matter where we come from, and no matter whom we choose to love.
Kevin Powell, a writer, activist, and public speaker, is the author or editor of 11 books, including his latest, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and the Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays, which can be purchased on lulu.com, iTunes, or Amazon/Amazon Kindle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell.