Frank Ocean Comes Out and Changes Hip-Hop — At Least for Today
News usually disappears into a black hole on July 4th, with few people to report it and even fewer interested in reading it. But some stories not even barbecues, cheap beer, and fireworks can kill. Frank Ocean coming out, and what it might mean for hip-hop, is one of those.
Late Tuesday night, the singer posted a simple note to his Tumblr saying that there were rumors he felt needed to be addressed. Moments later he posted a couple hundred words originally intended for the thank-you section of his upcoming album “Channel Orange.” Ocean wrote that he once fell in love with another man:
4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide. 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.
Though vague — Ocean doesn’t say whether he’s bisexual or gay (not that it really matters) — the note was surprising and courageous. The hip-hop and R&B worlds aren’t known for their openness to homosexuality (far from it). He’s also an integral member of Odd Future, a rap collective derided for its homophobia and misogyny — even though OF’s DJ Syd the Kyd is a lesbian. No one saw this announcement coming (the rumors that Ocean mentioned only started swirling after last week’s “Channel Orange” listening party), even if Ocean has built his career on deeply honest and vulnerable love songs.
The note — which, like all of his news, Ocean released on Tumblr — spread quickly, outside of the traditional (and traditionally holiday-slowed) news cycle. Blogs and Twitter quickly lit up, mostly with support for the singer (as well as some hurtful idiocy). Russell Simmons wrote, “I am profoundly moved by the courage and honesty of Frank Ocean. Your decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear.” The New York Times’ John Carmanica, who profiles Ocean in next weekend’s edition of the paper’s magazine, wrote: “It shouldn’t be an issue, Mr. Ocean’s announcement about his sexual orientation. He knows from broken hearts. That’s enough. Let’s learn from him.” And Bethlehem Shoals, who wrote about homosexuality and rap for XXL last year, applauded Ocean for coming out on his own terms: “It’s the personal touch elevated to a form of defiance: You might as well know this about me. It’s another part of the picture.”
Though by no means a household name, Ocean is one of the hip-hop and R&B’s most promising young voices (he was featured — twice — on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne”), and this all comes just a couple weeks before the release of his first full length studio album. Some will say that the note is for attention, an attempt to make “Channel Orange” the summer’s most talked-about album. But, healthy-sized fan base aside, Ocean is far from established, and this is the sort of thing that can derail a developing mainstream career.
The musing about how hip-hop and R&B would deal with a high-profile gay voice has always centered around when that voice would finally announce itself. Where do things go from here? Ocean’s existing community seems likely to accept him. Maybe more rappers and singers will come out — or more likely, future rappers and singers will feel more comfortable trying to launch careers while being open about their sexuality. What does this mean for Odd Future, who’ve always said they don’t mean half the horrible things that they say, and that the hateful stuff they were spewing wasn’t actually hateful? Tyler, The Creator, has already shown support for his friend on Twitter. “My Big Brother Finally Fucking Did That. Proud Of That Nigga Cause I Know That Shit Is Difficult Or Whatever,” he tweeted yesterday. (And then added, “Im a toilet.”) Their narrative — like Ocean’s, and like hip-hop’s — has been changed. We can view those earlier songs in a different light. Today, at least, it feels like things really have changed.