I wasn’t 100 percent sure what it was about, but I did notice the flood of activity on my timeline last week regarding Frank Ocean and something about a letter. I’ve become, over many years, very adept at filtering information; so, occasionally I’m out of the immediate loop. But this felt different, something was up. I couldn’t ignore it. Then the news. Ocean just revealed that his first love was a man.
The first thought was, “Wow, that’s an interesting move.” Probably unnecessary, too. Why now? Was he about to get outed by someone or did he just want to face the future free of whatever burden anyone who keeps a secret like that must harbor? A few people wondered aloud if it was related to creating a buzz in advance of his major label debut, Channel Orange. Not me – I refuse to be that much of a cynic. I have to allow some sunlight into my eyes every once in a while.
Over the last few days, there have been several articles dissecting what Frank Ocean’s revelation means for the future of Black America and, specifically, Black music. This is red meat for the intelligentsia, but the response for those of us who aren’t authors of sociological studies on modern behavior has seemed to be, well, more muted.
I have friends that have capital letters behind their last names and are most definitely about that upward mobility life. I also have friends who, frankly, do the jobs that make 21st Century life go smoothly. They go home after work, negotiate bill payments and wonder what’s so great about the other half. I didn’t have a conversation about Ocean with either group until Monday evening. And even that was just via text. (In this context, social media doesn’t count as much; because everything is electrified over Twitter and Facebook.)
It didn’t come up all weekend.
But, why? Ocean’s personal reveal is brave and interesting and certainly news-worthy. What’s up?
Some people say that mountains are being moved, while others see it as an obvious sea-change but not the be-all to end-all. Not knowing how to immediately decipher such an powerful moment isn’t a bad thing. Introspection is 100 percent needed here as we figure out what just happened. It seems people are reticent, because people need time to digest. Nobody wants to be told what to think and how to feel about this. Comprehension – not immediacy – is the issue.
One of my initial curiosities concerned how Ocean’s announcement was being processed in the LGBT community, at large.
So, I called Daryl Hannah, GLAAD’s Director of Media and Community Partnerships for an informative conversation. Here were some salient moments:
TSL: Has the positive response surprised you?
DH: I thought it was one of the most honest portrayals of love that I’ve seen in a long while. It is what we are all striving for, what we all want. Nobody should be denied love. That’s why I think it’s resonated with so many people regardless of sexual identity or orientation.
TSL: Do you believe the narrative that this is more significant because it’s a hip hop affiliated artist?
DH: I recognize that Hip-Hop is an expression of black identity and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In a lot of ways, it’s a mirror of black culture. I won’t deny that there are homo-phobic lyrics; but the culture of hip hop has always revered historic figures like James Baldwin and Langston Hughes and many other LGBT people, so I would never say that the hip-hop community is a problem. At the same time there is a lot of room for growth for how we talk about LGBT communities.
TSL: How do you personally see this turn out long-term?
DH: Best case scenario would be that homophobia would be eradicated in Hip-Hop, but that’s not realistic because there is homophobia in American society and hip hop is just an extension of that. What I will say is that it would be disheartening if we don’t seize this moment, that we don’t look at this as an extension of President Barack Obama’s support of same sex marriage, of the NAACP’s board passing a resolution to support LGBT members and the National Council of La Raza talking about equality in Latino communities. That we don’t see Frank Ocean’s coming out and talking about his love for another man as anything except a monumental shift in our culture.
Hannah’s viewpoint certainly articulated the gravity of the issue, but what’s missing is how to figure out if Ocean’s statement isn’t just a personal moment. How do we gauge if it matters to the rest of us?
“I see this as a big moment for Black music because it doesn’t look like his record sales are gonna suffer,” says writer Ivory Jones, who pens for the popular R&B website SoulBounce. “This goes a long way in taking the stigma off of it. There are still gonna be some men who won’t like it because he’s gay or bisexual, but I feel like this opens up the conversation. Suddenly you have to talk about it, because this is an artist that a lot of guys like. You couldn’t ignore it, it’s not like there are rumors to where some people can dismiss them or act like they didn’t know. ”
To this point, Ocean’s letter has received overwhelming support from his fans, a base that skews younger, racially diverse and more open-minded. It’s a demographic more apt to continue supporting him financially and artistically, no matter the gender of his love interests.
What would be telling is if, in the future, an artist such as Trey Songz, or even a Rick Ross, wrote a letter like Ocean’s and their fan bases didn’t flinch. Would Power or Hot Whatever (you know, your your local hip hop and R&B station) spin their songs 15 times a day? Perhaps that would be a true sign that Ocean’s impact has true far-reaching potential.
While he is far from a household name, Ocean has enough of a underground buzz to legitimize the attention he’s getting, but where does it go from here? As proof that this is a major moment, your aunts, uncles decidedly uncool co-workers will have to know his name. Otherwise it might end up a wasted moment or, at minimum, not the watershed moment we’ve already began to anticipate.
The one immediate aspect that works in Ocean’s favor is he’s not checking the boxes of gay stereotypes and that allows the people who “need more time” to just focus on the music and not the politics. Simply put, he passes the eye test as a regular looking dude and that absolutely matters even if it is an outdated attitude.
“When you’re hiding and there’s rumors, that hurts you but if you live your life and stop apologizing for it people will respect that,” says Tokes Osubu, Executive Director of the advocacy organization Gay Men of African Descent. “I live in Bed Stuy (Brooklyn), in the heart of the Black community and I’m very openly gay and I’ve been here since ’98. I’ve never had any problems. It’s really about showing strength and saying this is who I am – take it or leave it – and they might not like it but they will respect it.”
It’s already working. The initial question that some people had – namely how his revelation vibes with Odd Future (the group he’s associated with, whose brand of shock music is littered with anti-gay slander), is already being pushed to the side. Tyler the Creator, the groups maestro, has already come out and supported his revelation.
Mostly though, everyone is now focused on the album, which is getting great reviews and glowing write-ups. At this point it may not matter specifically what it means yet, only that it means something important. We won’t know for sure if the result of his disclosure actually had a transformative impact – if it was a tangible before and after that signals not only the maturation of a fan base but also the growth of an entire industry – until months or even years down the line.
For immediate purposes, however, I just wanna enjoy the music.