AKRON, Ohio — A few weeks ago, Frank Ocean, an up-and-coming R&B star and member of popular/controversial SoCal hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (or OFWGKTA for short), revealed through an open letter on Tumblr that his first true love was a man, and described the turmoil those feelings and the pain of his unrequited love caused 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 wrote.
Ocean, like many R&B singers of his generation, can be fairly explicit in his lyrics when writing about love and relationships, most of which are clearly about women. But he’s also more introspective than many of his peers on his recently released and highly acclaimed album “Channel Orange.” A few confessional songs about unrequited love, “Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump” for example, reference a “him,” drawing questions from journalists and inspiring Ocean’s very open letter to the world.
The reaction from his Internet-addicted fan base was relatively and surprisingly muted. Sure, there are always a few schmucks ready to rain down their homophobia, and through the magic of the social media they have a public voice. Fellow famous folk such as Russell Simmons and 50 Cent (yeah, he’s still around) voiced their support of not just Ocean’s confession, but also of the concept of an R&B/ hip-hop star simply being honest about a subject that is generally swathed in the mythos of uber-masculinity and the hump-‘em-and-dump-‘em mindset. Current rap heartthrob Drake often sings about his feelings in his song’s choruses, and plenty of self-proclaimed hardcore hip-hop fans hate him for being willing to show any vulnerability, even if it’s just to get chicks.
For anyone who grew up with N.W.A. and other “gangsta rap” that helped set the blueprint for the still prevalent and casual misogyny (unless you find odes to strippers empowering) and homophobia associated with hip-hop culture, Ocean’s admission of his thoughts and feelings, and his (increasingly crossover) audience’s acceptance and support, may represent a slow and quiet sea change.
Some skeptics claimed Ocean did it to help market the album, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. But even if that were the case, announcing “I was once in love with a dude” probably isn’t that high on the marketing department’s list of surefire promotional opportunities.
(By contrast, another rap star turned pop star has gone the opposite way. When Nicki Minaj was still just the Queen of the Mixtapes and a hungry female emcee — yes, we apparently still must add the gender qualifier; I said slow sea change — she used lyrics about her bisexuality to even the playing field with her male counterparts. So, not only was she hot-looking and hot on the mike, she could take your girl, too. But the minute Minaj and her team began to sniff crossover success, that extra bit of lyrical titillation and backstory suddenly receded, though she has never wavered in her support of the LGBT community.)
For Ocean, his open letter may have been a longstanding weight lifted off of his soul, but for his fans and the rest of the world it’ll just become another notable paragraph in his biography, rather than the career-killer it might have been in the past.
Make no mistake, homophobia is still common in the genre and the culture, evidenced by the ridiculous and immature “no homo” trend of a few years back: Anytime a man says something complimentary about another man, he must immediately follow it with “no homo” (i.e., “Hey man, nice shirt. It makes your biceps look bigger … no homo.”) Why? Because, somewhere along the line, we became so obsessed with being “hard” and “street” and “guttah,” and not showing any vulnerability, that simply complimenting another man is taken as a sign of weakness, aka being a “homo.”
It’s sad and shameful that it’s come to this, and though there are tangible environmental factors in the shaping of this attitude in (euphemism alert!) urban areas, where survival often dictates the need for a tough exterior, it’s still just dumb.
The current hip-hop landscape is peppered with out LGBT folks such as Le1f, emcee/ fashionista Azealia Banks, and Ocean’s fellow Odd Future member Syd Tha Kyd, to name a few who are willing to suffer the (so far only verbal) slings and arrows of haters and homophobes with Twitter accounts in order to be true to themselves and their music.
Ocean’s revelation generated plenty of headlines and editorials (umm, like this one), but it didn’t turn him into “Hip-Hop’s First Gay/ Out Artist Frank Ocean.” Ultimately, “Channel Orange” has been judged on the fact that it’s just a damn good record that will have its moment in pop culture, and likely make many year-end best-of lists.
I’ll take that as progress.