What Does Frank Ocean's Confessional Message Mean?
By Jerry Portwood
Since Tuesday night, when Frank Ocean posted a deeply personal message on Tumblr that explained that his first love was a man and the impact it had on his life, the blogs and social media have exploded with speculation, support, and the multitude of ways of interpreting it. (Did he come out? Is he gay? Bi? A pioneer? A hip-hop or R&B artist?). The Advocate reported that Ocean came out, and many others said he was the "first gay rapper in history." Which of course isn't true. We even spoke to a black Jewish hip-hop artist who decided to come out this year. Maybe it's not the same, but he clearly said, "I'm gay."
So far, my take is to treat Ocean's message as a bold statement of truth about one's romantic life and past that can be seen as profound for a generation of listeners. I was interviewed for MTV News this morning and said as much. I find it more significant that Ocean's using popular music to sing about love for another man, than to label him as gay or not. The most eloquent analysis I've read on the subject is by Ann Powers on NPR's blog. As she writes:
"There is another reason why Ocean can't be saddled with an easy label, and it points to an interesting aspect of his newly minted self-conception. In his note, instead of embracing an identity, Ocean shared a set of memories and explored complex feelings, just as he does in his songs. Unlike the standard coming out gesture – newsman Anderson Cooper's public email to his friend Andrew Sullivan, "The fact is, I'm gay" — Ocean's presented sexuality as something that arises within particular circumstances, defined by shifting desire and individual encounters rather than solidifying as an identity. In the age-old debate about whether sexuality emerges as something we are or through something we want or do, Ocean carefully rested on the side of feeling and deed.
She also mentions some music history: Let's remember that Bessie Smith, Little Richard, even David Bowie, all sang of love for both sexes. Powers also makes it clear that "Ocean's statement is a kind of performance; certainly it's a creative work." His co-conspirator in many ways is his Odd Future bandmate, Tyler the Creator. Tyler loves to create a persona and act out, whether in interviews or online. He was enmeshed in a public spat with the openly lesbian duo Tegan and Sara and defended himself (as have many others), stating that he's not homophobic. When we interviewed people about for our profile of bandmate Syd the Kyd, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, who’s traveled with the band, says, “They’re not just saying words that people find offensive; they do it because people find it offensive. Their vocabulary pushes the limit, and they like to get a rise out of people. I think they are going to mature out of it. I don’t think they, as a crew, are actively homophobic.”
Matt Martians, an Odd Future member who plays with Syd in The Internet, backs that statement up. “The energy going on isn’t hate. If you’re around us, we’re probably the least homophobic group you could make,” he says. “Syd’s gay, but nobody makes fun of her, and nothing is ever a problem.”
Tyler's response to Ocean's news has been all macho swagger and cool dude chill.
This seems to be another point where Tyler claims his non-homophobe bona fides. As NME reports, Tyler was chatting to a fan on social media website Formspring, he wrote: "hahaha yeah, ive know for a while, he told me a long time ago. it was just funny cause i was getting bashed as a homophobe or whatever and i kept saying dude how am i one? i have gay friends like what the fuck leave me alone haha. yeah thats my nigga tho, shit is hard for him but he did that."
In reality, the reception by most in the hip-hop and R&B community seems to be one of dull acceptance and positive accolades. Could it be everyone is in on the joke? Or is it really a nonsubject that the media has blown out of proportion. At least we can be assured a whole new audience—those who never heard of Frank Ocean or Odd Future—are going to be ready to listen to Channel Orange when it's released his month. And a generation will hear songs about love, frustration, and personal pain. That's why people listen to pop music. And Frank Ocean is delivering what they want—no matter the gender pronoun.