The Meaning of Frank Ocean

When the up-and-coming musician came out, he drew praise from celebrities and his hip-hop collaborators, and revived the question of whether gays have a place in the industry.

BY Terrance Dean

September 14 2012 4:20 AM ET


Left: Gay hip-hop artist Deadlee
 

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has called on record labels and hip-hop artists to end the name-calling and anti-LGBT behavior, and protests have been lodged over lyrics by Eminem and Jamaican dancehall/hip-hop artists Beenie Man, T.O.K., and Buju Banton, among others. From the birth of the musical genre, gay acceptance and hip-hop seemed incongruous. But Eminem performed with Elton John and later announced support of marriage equality, and Beenie Man, in the face of canceled shows, recently made a public apology for his history of antigay lyrics and public remarks. But Frank Ocean’s coming-out is a marker of a different kind, and it revived the question of whether the treatment of LGBT people is truly better than it was just a decade ago. Or are the changes for the better just cosmetic, on the surface?

“I think there is more of an acknowledgment that LGBT people are part of hip-hop culture,” says Tim’m West, a scholar, youth advocate, and gay-identified rapper who founded the groundbreaking rap collective Deep Dickollective. “Hip-hop is one of the last territories and spaces where gays cannot be part of the culture, instead of being the stylists, choreographers, and hairdressers. We can be behind the scenes, but not in front of the mike. The climate has changed around homosexuality, and it’s one of the civil rights issues of today. Hip-hop previously didn’t think we were in the room. We were not visible, out, and present. Now we are.”

Many LGBT figures view hip-hop’s historically homophobic attitude as tied to the black church’s deep-rooted issues with sex and sexuality. Condemnation of gays by an institution central to many black communities has the effect of deeply entrenching antigay hostility.
“Some people are not inherently homophobic,” says West. “It’s cultural, and a lot of homophobia is not from a deep-seated hatred of gay people but more by what is socially acceptable and what they see others doing.”

“I believe in…one’s right to be free,” says legendary rapper MC Lyte. “When we as a community, be it African American, the entertainment industry, or just the block, allow someone’s sexual, political, or religious preference to cloud our ability to see their true spirit, we lose. We lose the opportunity to fully embrace another one of God’s children. Truthfully, no matter how much an individual would love to point out the differences between themselves and another, we are all one.”

Ocean may have received support by some influential hip-hop figures. But the list of artists who were not willing to discuss him for this article is revealing. B.o.B., Lupe Fiasco, Trey Songz, Jaheim, and Wiz Khalifa declined to discuss the subject. The representatives for Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott, and Nicki Minaj said their clients were busy and unavailable for comment.

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