“Who is Frank Ocean?” a million tweets asked. Google searches began.
In 2010, Frank Ocean, born Christopher Breaux in New Orleans, became a member of the alternative hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. His solo debut mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, was released the following year to critical acclaim. He released two singles, “Novacane,” and “Swim Good,” and both achieved chart success.
Ocean’s first full-length studio album, Channel Orange, was set to be released July 17, and a letter in which he declared his first love, for another man, was initially meant to be a part of the album’s liner notes. But following an early listening party, BBC Radio 1Xtra personality Max pointed out that the lyrics referred to “he” and “him” instead of “she” and “her,” which she took to be an indication that Ocean is gay or bisexual. Ocean took matters into his own hands, and on Independence Day he posted that letter on his Tumblr for the entire world to see.
His letter went viral and traveled worldwide in a matter of moments. Suddenly, everyone knew his name.
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.... It was my first love, it changed my life.
Instantly, it seemed those words changed the entertainment industry. The letter caused its own fireworks.
July 4, 2012, marked a declaration of freedom for 24-year-old R&B soul singer Ocean. It was his coming-out party, and we’d all been invited to the virtual parade. His image, that of a serious-looking, handsome young man with a strong jaw line, a short beard, and a short fade haircut, was circulating along with his letter. Those who hadn’t previously heard of Ocean quickly learned that his announcement was significant, and especially significant to watchers of hip-hop. But it wasn’t a shock to everyone.
“I was like, What’s the big deal? It’s not like we all don’t know homosexuality exists and has its place in hip-hop,” says Reggie Osse, entertainment attorney, author, former TV executive, and host of The Combat Jack Show. Osse has represented artists including Damon Dash, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Puffy, and DMX. He was instrumental in helping Jay-Z secure his first recording deal.
“I was really happy that Frank Ocean took his life and career into his own hands and made his proclamation,” says Osse. “It’s the first announcement of someone making a statement willingly. But let’s not act like this doesn’t exist.”
Frank ocean’s letter spoke of an unrequited love. More than simply coming out, Ocean was inviting the world into his emotional state at a vulnerable moment. In beautiful prose Ocean shared the raw intensity of wanting to fully experience love with the object of his affection and being met with an unwilling heart.
I sat there and told my friend how I felt. I wept as the words left my mouth. I grieved for them, knowing I could never take them back for myself. He patted my back. He said kind things. He did his best, but he wouldn’t admit the same. He had to go back inside soon. It was late and his girlfriend was waiting for him upstairs. He wouldn’t tell me the truth about his feelings for me for another 3 years. I felt like I’d only imagined reciprocity for years.
Tyler the Creator (left) and Ocean dance onstage during a performance at the 2012 Coachella music festival in April.
Before long music celebrities including Russell Simmons, Solange Knowles, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé began tweeting and posting messages of support for Ocean. Even Odd Future member Tyler the Creator, who’s well-known for his use of the word “faggot,” tweeted how proud he was of his brother and friend. It seemed as if the hip-hop industry, which has notoriously been a closed boys’ club that shuns and ostracizes gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, had experienced a change of heart. Hadn’t Jay-Z, a towering figure in hip-hop, just recently announced his support of marriage equality, following a message of support by President Obama? Jay-Z had seemingly just given Ocean a pass and ushered him into the boys’ club. And not from afar: Ocean had written and performed on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s hip-hop album Watch the Throne.
“I’m surprised that a lot of young gay people flocked to him, like he was doing something big,” says gay rapper Deadlee. “My first reaction was like he didn’t do anything. It didn’t seem to me like it was that big of a deal. But then I did research and discovered he was a part of Odd Future, and Tyler the Creator, who is always saying ‘faggot this’ and ‘faggot that.’ I was like, Whoa! This dude [Ocean] never checked him. Maybe they knew the whole time, and they were taking the word back and not tripping on it.”
The words “gay” and “faggot” have been a mainstay in hip-hop since its inception. In Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 song “The Message,” a portrayal of inner-city life, we are introduced to a down-low man hiding his secret:
Now you’re unemployed, all non-void Walking ’round like you’re Pretty Boy Floyd / Turned stickup kid, look what you’ve done did / Got sent upstate for an eight-year bid / Now your manhood is took and you’re a may tag / Spend the next two years as a undercover fag
The hyperbolic masculinity of rappers, lyrically slaying homosexuals and degrading LGBTs, continued as the culture of hip-hop evolved from party anthems to aggressive gangster thug styles by performers including 50 Cent, DMX, Busta Rhymes, and Eminem. As men boasted about their cars, bling, and hard lifestyle, women and LGBTs bore the brunt of hip-hop’s lashings.
Reggie Osse, describing homophobia in hip-hop, says, “I had a conversation with rapper Lil B last year. We were talking about the changing values thematically and what these new rappers are doing. However, the old-guard rappers are like Republicans and want things to stay the same. Whereas hip-hop is changing, and many who are born in this culture are taking it to another place. There are some old-school cats who want to keep rap conservative. Some of my friends who are in hip-hop are very adamant that there is no place for gays. They begin quoting the Bible, and they are coming from an antiquated way of thinking.”
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.
Jay-Z, one of the many artists to voice support for Ocean, performs onstage.
“I’m an advocate for those in my family and those who I am close to, and I am an advocate for the homosexual community,” says rapper Murs, a member of the hip-hop groups Living Legends, Felt, and the 3 Melancholy Gypsies. He is also part of a punk fusion band, the Invincibles, out of Jacksonville, Fla., and is prepping for the release of his new album, This Generation, with fellow rapper Fashawn.
Murs recently released a shocking music video for his single “Animal Style.” Both the single and video feature a young man as he struggles with his sexual orientation, and portray the conflict he feels as he begins to date another man. Murs plays his boyfriend. In the video, the two men share a kiss. He explains that he spoke with his wife prior to making the video, and she fully supported him and the concept.
Murs faced significant opposition in making the song. “I wanted to do this song for five years, and for five years producers did not want to touch the song,” he says. “They didn’t want to be associated with the subject matter. However, those same producers are now calling me and supporting me and saying they are proud of me.”
Murs says he did the video and song to let his gay friends, associates, and fellow rappers know that he was aware of their being closeted and that he still cared for them. “I wanted to give them their moment and let them know that the door is open and I am going to take a stance for them,” Murs says. “And I think with artists like Jay-Z, Frank Ocean, and myself, homophobia in hip-hop will disappear.
“Teenagers are killing themselves,” he continues. “We have to stop this because people are losing their lives and getting beat to death. It makes me extremely sad. I can’t watch children die.”
While gay men and lesbians in hip-hop have often been pressured to stay closeted so as not to invite public, family, and personal shame, for many artists being openly gay was considered career suicide. Many performers are still strongly encouraged by agents, managers, and label executives to not be out—or even identify as one of the letters in the LGBT acronym.
“No one will support you if they know you’re gay,” Tim’m West says. “The notion in the black community [is that] coming out is a social death, and you might as well die. For white artists, such as George Michael, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, and Elton John, their record sales did not plummet, nor did their careers suffer. It’s only within the black community.”
Ocean has largely refused to do interviews on this subject, and even in his interview in the British newspaper The Guardian, he doesn’t address the issue of labels.
“A lot of people were giving Frank Ocean props and saying that he was letting everyone come into his world, as opposed to coming out,” Deadlee says. “In his letter he never used the word ‘gay,’ and this guy is getting more props for not even using the word or even identifying in his letter. I’m gay and I’m not afraid to use the word. I hope that Frank Ocean comes to the point of not being afraid to use the ‘gay’ word.”
Though he doesn’t give his sexual orientation a label in the letter, Ocean does describe relationships with women. “Frank Ocean never said he was gay or bisexual, he just said he was in love with a man,” says Ebony Utley, an assistant professor in communication studies at California State University, Long Beach. “It was others who needed to identify and label him instead of him, and allowing him to do it for himself. Let’s let the man define himself… Besides, he was wise not to say anything beyond his letter, and that’s what he needed to sell his record.”
The kiss in Murs’s “Animal Style” video.
Though the declarations of support for Ocean by 50 Cent and Jay-Z were a milestone in hip-hop, Utley notes, “Frank Ocean is an R&B singer. Let’s be clear, hip-hop hasn’t had its first openly gay artist. No rapper has come out. Honestly, we don’t know what the support will be for an openly gay rapper because one has not come out.”
The distinction is quite significant for music industry watchers, including Utley, who feels R&B is a more open environment for LGBT musicians. R&B artists Rahsaan Patterson, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Donnie had already publicly acknowledged being LGBT, and each was with a major record label when they did so. Donnie was signed to Giant Step Records and Motown Records when he publicly disclosed that he was gay, in 2007, and he was the first male to do so. The velvet-voiced R&B singer-songwriter has worked with India.Arie and recorded and released two albums, The Colored Section and The Daily News.
“There was nothing said about my sexuality with Giant Step,” Donnie says. “When they signed me they already knew. They signed me because of my art and felt it could sell.” From Giant Step, Donnie was signed over to Motown Records, and the discussion of his sexuality wasn’t brought up there either. “I figured Motown already knew about my sexuality because when The Colored Section was released I wasn’t on television or in videos acting like I was in love with a woman or singing to women. It was nothing for me to say in an interview I was gay. It was just like I was saying I was black. Besides, if you got gaydar, you can see I was gay. So why hide?”
Donnie grew up in a very strict religious family, which practiced the Hebrew Pentecostal faith. He attended the same church as singer Marvin Gaye. Donnie says he struggled with his sexuality as a young boy because the pastor of his church would single him out and speak to him in code via the sermons. “My mother made me go into his office and tell him that if whoremongers can play the instruments, then sissies can sing.”
Rapper MC Lyte (left) performs onstage during VH1 Divas Salute the Troops in December 2010.
Donnie’s music is much more about social messaging, as he addresses ideas that have perplexed the black population and society as a whole. “The music I do is political. I will mention being gay and talk about homophobia, but my songs are not love songs,” Donnie says. “I didn’t want to play the pronoun game and say ‘she’ when I meant ‘he.’ When you’re a songwriter and you’re writing a song, you want people to be involved. I am going to say ‘you,’ ‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘they.’ I am not going to sit here and say ‘she’ because it blocks a lot of people out.”
Singer-rapper-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello wasn’t ashamed to speak about her bisexuality. She was one of the first artists to be signed to Madonna’s record label, Maverick Records, in 1992. Her latest album, Pour une Ame Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, is due out October 9.
“I was very lucky in that Maverick Records saw it as a benefit and not a hindrance,” Ndegeocello says. “They thought of it as a marketing angle. I totally understood that. I never had to deal with pressure from them.”
On Ndegeocello’s controversial single “Leviticus: Faggot,” she spoke candidly about a young man discovering his homosexuality and the rejection from his family.
Bisexual crooner Meshell Ndegeocello (left) performs during the Melbourne Festival finale concert at Sidney Myer Music Bowl in October 2010.
“I saw people like Ellen [DeGeneres] and what she had to go through for people to accept her and all that she achieved,” she says. “She is a ray of light. That is what I’m trying to bring to the LGBT community. We are exceptional people. Let’s share our gifts, and don’t shun my gifts because of who I have a personal relationship with. Especially the NAACP and the black pastors who quit and are upset over Obama and him supporting gay marriage. You embrace a religion that aided in slavery, but you judge me on my sexuality? Let’s be rational. I want to help people to rise above that.”
Though a few brave artists have come out, rising above homophobia will require significant effort from the R&B and hip-hop communities, both gay and straight. Ndegeocello acknowledges the difficulty: “I think it’s harder for men,” she says. “Men need a movement. It’s harder to be black, gay, and male. It makes me have the utmost respect for black gay men in an industry of hypermasculinity.”
For several years hip-hop has been described as being at a tipping point with regard to homophobia, yet the toppling of a pervasive attitude has yet to be achieved. Frank Ocean hasn’t yet said what it means to be Frank Ocean, but with each significant coming-out, the haters have less standing to insist that LGBTs have no place in hip-hop.
“The ones who are hiding are the main ones with the commentary, and want to beat you up,” Murs acknowledges. But he says there’s a greater purpose in coming out despite the difficulty. “You don’t have to be afraid. You can come out. All the directors, rappers, producers, and all your homeboys, why don’t you all come out together instead of partying in the hills and being secretive? You have to stop being selfish, and come out and help some other young person who is struggling.”