Frank Ocean’s new Channel Orange album hit number one on iTunes July 10, right after it went on sale a week earlier than its original release date. But in these TMZ times, no one this past week seemed to care too much about the fact that his release might sound fantastic enough to warrant the top spot. It’s what transpired on July 4 that captured the collective imagination of both hip-hoppers and non-rap fans alike. The fact is, Ocean is bi-sexual! Or, at least, that’s what he wrote on his tumblr page explaining how, when he was 19 in 2007, his “first love” was a man, and that by coming out, he now feels “like a free man” and is still eternally grateful to this unnamed “first love.”
This shouldn’t have been such a big deal because, in the non-hip-hop world, a musician coming out is like, meh. In indie rock there’s Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, in country music there’s k.d. lang, in pop Elton John, George Michael or Lance Bass from ’N Sync; the list goes on. Ocean’s tumblr post shouldn’t have elicited such a large reaction in 2012, given that the leader of the free world, President Barack Obama, recently endorsed gay marriage, and the fact that (or “the fact is,” rather), that Anderson Cooper is now officially gay!
But Ocean’s coming out party has proved me wrong. Despite Ocean getting vocal support from big hip-hop kahunas like Jay-Z and Russell Simmons, one need only troll Twitter and the blogosphere to witness the rampant hate and homophobia towards the mere idea of there even being an out, gay rapper.
Whether it’s become more mainstream-y to come out now in popular culture, versus, say, in the 1980s, is arguable, but there’s always been something odd about mainstream rap music that says it’s OK to spit misogynistic rhymes, or craft pro-murder anthems that celebrate illicit lifestyles, but when it comes to debates around sexuality the feeling is “Oh no, we can’t go there.”
The unspoken, dirty little secret in hip-hop has always been that declaring one’s non-heterosexual identity, especially as a black rapper, might not be the wisest career move.
The irony here is that rap, moreso than most genres, prides itself on being the world’s leading protest music, an art form that lends a voice to the voiceless. But when it comes to the idea of a gay rapper, I’m not sure what happened there.
Frank(ly) speaking, there’s a whole host of curious oddities and contradictions that come with Ocean’s declarations. Firstly, not to sound somewhat jaded, but was there a reason he came out now, to coincide with the release of Channel Orange? Could he not have come out in March 2012 or something? Likewise, the fact that he comes out of the Odd Future camp, led by alleged homophobe MC Tyler, the Creator is quite odd – the same Tyler who’s been taken to task by many, including gay Canadian indie pop twins Tegan & Sara, for his onslaught of homophobic lyrics. It’s no secret that Tyler’s been using the word “faggot” in his lyrics, and on Twitter from the jump. His defence? “I'm not homophobic. I just say ‘faggot’ and use ‘gay’ as an adjective to describe stupid shit,” he told The Guardian.
The fact is, despite the hype and hoopla surrounding the Frank Ocean coming out party, Ocean is not the first rapper to come out, at all. Forget the silly age-old witch hunt for The Gay Rapper that has plagued hip-hop for decades, which has, for example, led some to believe that Queen Latifah or fellow femcee MC Lyte are gay. Ocean might have to get in line and take number 20,972 in any gay rapper count. Ever heard of Detroit’s Invincible? Or how about Deep Dick Collective? Or Yo Majesty, even?
What the distinction between Ocean and the 20,971 others here is that in the long, storied history of hip-hop, no successful mainstream act has ever come out of the closet. Not one. And the large homo hop rap subgenre that celebrates the musical output from LGBT performers largely plays to insider audiences of LGBT fans, and has experienced limited career options outside of the LGBT community. Simply put, the world of the gay rapper is still below water, but it’s been influential nevertheless, pre-Ocean. The LGBT rap community’s work is so profound that it took up a whole chapter in my last book, Hip Hop World. It’s also the reason a homo hop primer is in there, listing resources like the Pick Up the Mic documentary, or the book Hiding in Hip Hop, so that heterosexual ignorance on the subject of gay rappers might not be so disturbing.
Does the sexuality of our favourite performers matter? If it did, raging homophobes might have to effectively wipe out a large chunk of music royalty from their collections, from Queen’s Freddie Mercury to Rufus Wainwright. And given that this is the music business, the focus around Ocean needs to shift back to music, his brilliant lyrical concoctions (check out “Bad Religion,” which reminds one of a young Prince, and in a good way). With Ocean’s recent declarations, one can only hope that mainstream hip-hop culture will no longer be considered the last bastion of heterosexuality.
Frank Ocean's Channel Orange is available on physical formats this Tuesday, July 17.
Frank Ocean performs 'Bad Religion' on Jimmy Fallon
Beyoncé, Rick Ross and Run-DMC make Rap N.E.W.S. 09/07/2012
Frank Ocean, Amy Winehouse, Buck 65 make Rap N.E.W.S. 04/07/2012
Divine Brown shares her shuffle playlist
on Jul 16, 2012