I wanted to supplement a mostly unread diary by RVKU yesterday, because this issue is too important not to give it its due. On Tuesday night a young singer named Frank Ocean posted a story about the first time he fell in love - with another man - effectively coming out of the closet, at the very least as someone with same-sex attraction. It seems like small peas compared to everything else going on in LGBT news, but I wanted to highlight it again for people who missed it the first time. This may be the biggest LGBT story of the year. Frank Ocean made history.
There's a lot of ground to cover, but first, if you haven't read Ocean's soul-baring letter yet, I'd urge you to start there. Read all of it. Everything I'm about to say is predicated on that letter and the effect that it's had in the last 48 hours.
After that, follow me below for some discussion about what this letter did, and why it may have a bigger impact than you may think.
1. The Person
A pretty common reaction in the comments of some blogs was... "Who's Frank Ocean?", and given the demographics at dailykos, I'm sure that's the case here, too. The quick version is that he was, until this week, well on his way to superstar status as a singer with one foot in the world of hip-hop. Ocean first achieved notoriety as part of the hip-hop collective Odd Future (OFWGKTA) and as a songwriter for a few superstar pop singers, like Justin Bieber and Beyoncé. His mixtape was very warmly received, especially the stand-out single "Novacane", a despairing song about being unable to reciprocate his girl's love (heh). He recently became the protégé of Jay-Z and Kanye West, dominating the opening track of their recent joint album, and all but assuring his rapid ascent to stardom. He's about to explode. This is the last person anyone expected to be making an announcement like this.
He's also by far the biggest name in hip-hop to have come out. LGBT people in the industry are no new thing (check out this amazing article, for example), and certain Big Names are all but open secrets, but hip-hop has its own glass ceiling that has contained much smaller careers than Ocean's. Heck, it was a pretty big deal when Jay-Z announced his support for same-sex marriage.
It's hard to overstate this guy's trajectory, but PopDust does a pretty good job of putting his coming out and his career in the right perspective (emphasis mine):
This is a big deal, obviously, for a number of reasons.... admitting ever having romantic and sexual feelings for another guy is something that’s fairly unprecedented for a guy in Frank Ocean’s spot. This isn’t some fringe-y artiste or past-his-prime relic, this is a dude who was well on his way to being the next big thing in hip-hop, a mix of classic ’70s soul cool with modern rap edge and even some burgeoning indie rock sensibilities. He was one of the only guests invited to appear on [Jay-Z and Kanye's] Watch the Throne, and the only one to appear on multiple tracks. He got namechecked by 50 Cent. He got covered by Justin Bieber. Commercials for his Channel Orange aired during the BET Awards. The dude was having a moment.I'd take it even further than that. He's not only the protégé of the biggest names in hip-hop, but his debut album Channel Orange has been getting ridiculously positive word of mouth after a set of listening parties last week. Prickly old Pitchfork has already slapped its first single with their "Best New Track" designation. All Ocean had to do was shut his mouth, and he was guaranteed a ride to the top. He had nothing to gain, in terms of record sales, from opening up like this. He did it because he felt like it.
2. The Message
It's also important to note how this process began, because it's pretty astounding. For his upcoming album Ocean penned two or three love songs to another man. Early responses were confused: was he adopting another persona for his music? Was he writing from a woman's perspective? Did we mishear the lyrics? Ocean's letter went public because, he dryly notes, "i figured it’d be good to clarify.." And that was that.
Prior to this year, most celebrity comings-out were usually one of two types: 1. the carefully prepared media blitz, often assisted by PR guy Howard Bragman, who specializes in this kind of thing, or 2. the unwitting outing by spurned exes or angry policemen (...quite a few Republicans in the latter category). This year a few celebrity outings have shifted to a different strategy with casual, and somewhat coy, dropped references: see for example Matt Bomer, who mentioned his partner in a speech, and Jim Parsons, whose partner was mentioned in a newspaper profile.
There's a reason for the careful management of timing and circumstances. At the risk of overstating things, audiences tend to fall in one of three broad categories: the fully accepting, the fully homophobic, and the "I don't care who they do in private, I just feel weird when they discuss their private stuff in public." Coming Out announcements are usually pitched to this squishy middle, and you can hear this in the very language of outing, which tends to focus on identity alone - "I am lesbian/gay/bisexual" - with maybe a reference to a significant other if one exists, and otherwise no other discussion about the actuality of love or sex or private life. The rule, if you want to maintain your celebrity status, is straightforward enough: don't make people feel uncomfortable.
This is where I get giddy: Ocean completely flipped the script. He makes no statements about identity - at no point does he say he is gay, or bi, or questioning - but he discusses in frank terms his unrequited love for another male his age. When everyone else is running from the private stuff, Ocean made the private stuff the crux of his story. In the words of JasFly at VIBE Vixen:
While reading Frank’s blog, I realized that while it makes an amazing statement about homosexuality in our culture, it made an even bigger statement about individuality in our culture. Frank declared quite simply: This is who I am, and that is going to have to be good enough. [...]Frank Ocean did everything "wrong". He didn't make his coming out an "event"; he didn't declare his identity; and he spoke directly about falling in love at the risk of making his fans squirm. He penned an aching, personal letter about his attraction to another man.
Now I know what some of you are going to say “who cares?” But let’s be honest, nobody wants to be the butt of a joke. That’s why you see even the most popular celebs spazzing out on random people they feel are harassing them. At the end of the day, we’re all human. And on some level, we all want to be accepted.
And sweet Jesus, did it work:
3. The Support
The reaction to Ocean's letter has been phenomenally good, but I think the most significant thing about it is the kind of support he's been getting. We're used to celebrities exchanging well-meaning platitudes to support each other, and there's no doubt that Ocean would have scored a few supporters either way. But look at how effusive Russell Simmons is:
His gifts are undeniable. His talent, enormous. His bravery, incredible. His actions this morning will uplift our consciousness and allow us to become better people.There is a qualitative difference both in Simmons' comments and in the general tenor of industry responses, and I'd chalk it up to a few things: Ocean's age (he's only 24), the high level of respect people in the industry already have for him, and the aching vulnerability of his letter. People in the industry aren't just supporting him, they're protecting him. I don't think it's any exaggeration to say that the old guard is supporting him like a younger sibling, with love and pride and a dash of concern.
Look for example at what radio host Charlamagne tha God said when callers wanted him to publicly mock Ocean on his show:
I saw some people posting negative things about Frank on his Facebook page, posting gay slurs and whatnot. And I want to say that all you idiots are clowns... I'm not giving that young man "Donkey of the Day" for living his truth, for being real. What Frank Ocean has done is the epitome of being real... He should be applauded for that.You'll see a lot of that going around, this sense of protectiveness in part because of his youth. But I think it's also because of the vulnerability he expresses in his letter: Ocean didn't just come out, he opened himself up without artifice and without calculation. JasFly got it exactly right. If Ocean had made a cleanly choreographed announcement, I don't think it'd have had the effect it did. You wouldn't have the president of DefJam saying things like
The courage he displayed in his beautiful and eloquent letter was touching on many levels. Frank broke down a wall that should never have been built.You'd expect the label to ask him to walk things back a bit, release an ambivalent statement, try to win back fans, or whatever. But Ocean spoke directly to the hearts of people who want the best for him, and those people are responding in kind.
If you read no other response to Ocean's letter, read this letter by dream hampton, which Jay-Z posted on his website. It makes frequent reference both to Ocean's youth and to the acute intimacy of his writing. It opens with this knockout realization:
You shared one of the most intimate things that ever happened to you – falling in love with someone who wasn’t brave enough to love you back. Your relieving yourself of your “secret” is as much about wanting to honestly connect as it is about exhibition. We are all made better by your decision to share publicly.We are all made better, a sentiment that's been echoed all over twitter. Ocean didn't stand up and make an announcement: he made people feel his world, and that has made the world a better place. It's not going to net as many articles as Anderson Cooper or the latest DOMA challenges, but in his own quiet way, it's possible that Ocean just changed the game for good. Ta-Nehisi Coates has called it "a revolution." I think he's right.
Frank Ocean did it all on his own terms. In the words of PopDust's Andrew Unterberger, "Frank Ocean is the fucking man, and fuck anyone who says otherwise."
Two closing notes:
First, all this support is great, but his success isn't a sure thing. Dimas S.'s article on Global Grind is a bit of a downer but asks some important questions about how the public is going to react once the initial shine has worn off:
When I read Frank's letter yesterday I had questions, for Frank, for hip-hop and for myself: Will rap artists still want to do songs with Frank? Will urban radio play a song where Frank is clearly talking about another man? Will we be comfortable if Frank makes a song about making love to another man? Will we let Frank be himself? Will we let Frank be great?Dimas also questions how historic this announcement is with a fair challenge: "If Frank Ocean, who is an amazing songwriter and performer, blows on urban and commercial radio, despite his revelation, then that would be historic." This is probably the case. It's one thing to vocalize support, and quite another to be seen buying his album in a music store, or singing along to his songs in the club. The love songs addressed to other men have a snowball's chance in hell of becoming chart hits, whether they're radio-friendly or not. Dimas is also right that a few heavy-hitters in hip-hop haven't weighed in, and we hope their silence isn't itself indicative of their discomfort.
Second, and in relation to those questions, I'd encourage people who aren't familiar with Ocean's work to check him out. A lot of what happens next depends on how successful his album is - whether he'll draw in a new legion of supporters, or whether the ick factor of same-sex love will turn people off. I want the answers to all of Dimas' questions to be an emphatic yes despite whatever odds may be stacked against Ocean.
The first single "Pyramids", the one reviewed by Pitchfork, is already available online. It's not one of the same-sex songs, but it's a good measure of Ocean's considerable talents. Consider showing the young man some love when Channel Orange debuts next week:
If for no one else, do it for his mother. Here's what she had to say:
Thank you to all who have shown love and support. My son is the most incredible human I know. Honest, true and loving. We appreciate you!With due respect, we appreciate you. Your son is a goddamned hero.