On Frank Ocean, Sexuality and The Slow Shift Forward
We are having a conversation about Frank Ocean's sexuality. We are living in a time and space where a talented, mainstream R&B singer admits to same-gendered romance. It's news. Or a Twitter sensation. Or a Tumblr-wave. Or whatever entertainment news is referred to as these days.
Late Tuesday evening, Ocean revealed on his personal Tumblr a letter intended for the liner notes of his upcoming album, Channel Orange. The letter details his relationship with a man, his "first love," Ocean would later call him. His tale also serves as springboard for public comment on sexuality, homophobia in hip-hop and R&B culture and Ocean's life, which is not a privilege shared by most of our diaries.
Reactions online were thoughtful to cringe-worthy. Ocean says, "My hope is that the babies born these days will inherit less of the bullshit than we did." The hip-hop and R&B culture isn't one known for its acceptance in this particular sphere. Even out artists like Big Freedia must deal with feminine tweaks to their genre, sissy bounce. Freedia embraces it but lesser-known originators like Katey Red insist that it's just bounce.
Those are the subtle tweaks that hint at why Ocean's choice was so brave, with no less than Def Jam founder Russell Simmons releasing a very utopian statement, saying, "Your decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear." It's an important stamp of approval; one of the genre's most important pioneers is speaking to a shift in culture, but he also had the opportunity to point the finger in a less peaceful way.
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We can't just leave it up to the babies to inherit less of the bullshit; we have to set our own bullshit on fire. It is not the responsibility of a future generation to end a prejudice we already know is wrong. Frank Ocean is one artist willing to let the language of his music more closely resemble the language of his life, but how many current artists will never lead a public life of truth? And whose fault is that?
Frank Ocean's sexuality isn't any of our business. The most disappointing thing about his coming out is that it's necessary to make a change. That Ocean's Odd Future cohort and out lesbian Syd the Kyd's sexuality matters less in the media is partly because she is regarded as less mainstream, but also points to a misogyny that should maybe be confronted next.
Channel Orange reportedly addresses Ocean's personal life in way that won't feel surprising now. This positions critics and fans to talk about the work, and so far Ocean's work has been conversation-generating enough. Simmons says Frank Ocean "changed the game." If Channel Orange, which comes out July 17, turns out to be equally progressive, this conversation will only become more important. Some have already called out Def Jam for the timing, sensationalizing his letter for record sales. Frankly, it seems like the most productive use of "controversy" I've seen from a mainstream label, and as a fan I'm down.
Ocean concludes in his letter: "To my first love, I'm grateful for you...To my mother. You raised me strong. I know I'm only brave because you were first."
Push for bravery in your life, in the art you consume and the art you make. It's up to us to make sure there is room on this planet for bravery to be rewarded, instead of feared. Or worse, news-generating.
Frank Ocean's July 20 show at Southside Music Hall is sold out.
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