News Column

Frank Ocean's Sparks Conversation About Hip-Hop Homophobia

July 11, 2012

Audra D.S. Burch

Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean, contemplative voice of the collective Odd Future, gifted new solo artist, Watch the Throne collaborator, fell in love with a man four summers ago.

He wrote authentically and tenderly about the power of loving for the first time, an open love letter meant to be added to the liner notes of his debut album, Channel Orange, due out next week.

But facing the relentless urgency of social media, the long simmering speculation about his sexuality, his own honest lyrics and a moment that simply felt right, Ocean, 24, posted the letter on Tumblr last week, releasing his intimate admission into the ether and an urban music world still thick with homophobia, misogyny and materialism.

On a flight from his native New Orleans to Los Angeles in December, the avant-garde artist -- whose music lives somewhere between hip hop and R&B, wrote "4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Every day almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide."

With that, Ocean -- who landed on the broader public radar last year with the single Novacane -- became the first major hip-hop or R&B artist to publicly acknowledge a same-sex relationship, done so with a beautifully uncomplicated much-ado-about-nothing air.

And in the week since, he has been praised as a pioneer, a poignant reflection of his generation. With his simple letter, he presented himself as an alternative to the archetype, emotionally challenged b-boy.

"It wasn't a coming-out story as much as a love story. He writes about unrequited love, like Adele and Mary J Blige did so painfully, so soulfully on 21, and My Life," says Terrance Dean, author of the memoir Hiding In Hip Hop: On The Down Low in the Entertainment Industry From Music to Hollywood. "He showed remarkable courage and bravery, and the letter showed his humanity. It is historic because there is no major rapper or R&B singer who is openly gay or bisexual."

Los Angeles Times music writer Gerrick D. Kennedy spoke to the power of the letter, calling it a "glass ceiling moment for music. Especially black music, which has long been in desperate need of a voice like Ocean's to break the layers of homophobia."

Almost immediately, celebrities from Jay-Z and Beyonce. to Busta Rhymes and Boy George voiced support for Ocean, his music, his choices, his right to love. With each public statement, Tweet or Facebook posting, artists collectively challenged the historic intolerance within hip-hop and signaled, perhaps, social change.

"Today is a big day for hip-hop," Russell Simmons, seminal founder of Def Jam Records, wrote on the Global Grind website. "It is a day that will define who we really are. How compassionate will we be? How loving can we be? How inclusive are we? I am profoundly moved by the courage and honest of Frank Ocean. Your decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many people still living in fear."

Miami rapper Trina told TMZ: "I don't think [Frank's] music sales or the level of support his music obtains should be judged based on his sexual preference," she said, "If he's happy and comfortable with his sexuality then so be it. I feel his decision to come forward was bold and honest. It's his life. Let him enjoy and live it. I wish him much success and happiness."

And on Saturday, Beyonce was so moved by Ocean's confession that she posted handwritten words over a picture of him online. She wrote: " Be fearless. Be honest. Be generous. Be brave. Be poetic. Be open. Be free. Be yourself. Be in love. Be happy. Be inspiration."

After Hurricane Katrina, Ocean, whose real name is Frank Breaux, migrated to Los Angeles with not much more than gas and food money to launch his music career. Before long, he had become one of the pens behind Justin Bieber, John Legend and Beyonce. In 2009, he joined Odd Future, the outlandish, progressive collective whose own front man Tyler the Creator has been strongly criticized for anti-gay lyrics.

In 2011, Ocean released the critically acclaimed mix tape, Nostalgia, Ultra,v , a refreshing, nuanced study of personal relationships and social commentary. He wrote I Miss You on current album, Beyonce. 4, and he also offers the riveting hook on Made in America from Jay-Z and Kanye West's Throne album.

Ocean's self-identity revelation -- more an aside than announcement -- two days after CNN's Anderson Cooper came out. Over the past year, the Don't Ask Don't Tell military policy was repealed and President Barack Obama announced his support of gay marriage.

Related story:"Have You Listened to Frank Ocean's 'Channel Orange?' Listen Here"

"The climate was right. The LBGT community has shown an assertiveness and an ownership that has created a space like never before," says Kevin Powell, activist and author of Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King. "This would not have happened 20 years ago."

Powell, who added his voice to the story in a Monday post to his personal blog, said his hope is that Ocean's "very simple gesture, openly applauded by pop culture royalty like Russell Simmons, Jay-Z and Beyonce., 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 who we choose to love."

More than anything, Ocean was reflecting on loving someone who didn't quite love him back -- or at least not in the way he wanted. His letter is poetry, and the fact that he used the male pronoun is almost beside the point, "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.

And then, he says, "I sat there and told my friend how I felt. I wept as the words left my mouth. I grieved for them, knowing I could never take them back for myself. He patted my back. He said kind things. He did his best. But he wouldn't admit the same. He had to go back inside soon, it was late and his girlfriend was waiting for him upstairs. He wouldn't tell me the truth about his feelings for me for another three years."

In the end, his words, his truth liberated his soul.

"I don't have any secrets I need to keep anymore. ... I feel like a free man," he wrote. "If I listen closely. I can hear the sky falling, too."

Source: (c)2012 The Miami Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services

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