Singer/songwriter Frank Ocean is one of the most curious stars to impact pop music in recent years. The 24-year-old quickly went from ghostwriting for acts like Justin Bieber and John Legend to very publicly working with Beyonce and being featured on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne . Ocean’s ballads are interestingly cross-pollinated by soft rock (see: his “American Wedding,” which featured an interpolation of the Eagles’ “Hotel California”) and traditional R&B. Like the other members of his Odd Future crew (the most famous among them being rapper/producer Tyler the Creator), the drug references in his music aren’t thinly veiled (and I’m talking about more than just weed here); though Ocean himself doesn’t go there, the group has been criticized for their use of the word “faggot,” which Tyler says on his Goblin album more than 200 times.
After a music reviewer allegedly heard references to both women and men on Ocean’s upcoming Channel Orange album, rumors began to fly across the internet about the singer’s orientation. This lead Ocean to post a letter on his Tumblr page that was originally intended to be published in the record’s liner notes. Prefacing his open letter with the “hope is that the babies born these days will inherit less of the bulls**t than we did,” Ocean opted to speak at length about the first love of his life rather than making a simple statement about his sexual orientation:
“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…Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating to the women I had been with, the ones I cared for and thought I was in love with…
I sat there and told my friend how I felt. I wept as the words left my mouth. I grieved for then. 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 the truth about his feelings for me for another 3 years…I kept up a peculiar friendship with him because I couldn’t imagine keeping up my life without him. I struggled to master myself and my emotions. I wasn’t always successful…
I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore. There’s probably some small s**t still, but you know what I mean. I was never alone, as much as it felt like it. As much as I still do sometimes. I never was. I don’t think I ever could be. Thanks. To my first love, I’m grateful for you…To my mother. You raised me strong. I know I’m only brave because you were first. So thank you. All of you. For everything good. I feel like a free man. If I listen closely, I can hear the sky falling too.”
If that doesn’t tug at your heart, I have pity for your soul.
My mind went briefly to the dozens of male singers and rappers who have been dogged by gay rumors over the years. How hard it must be for some of them to sing songs to and about women and if they feel, as Ocean did, that their own lyrics were “written in a language [they] didn’t speak yet.” I then thought about the many brothers I have known from high school and beyond who were also the subject of constant speculation (some of which was confirmed) about their sexuality. Rumor mongers love to focus on who may have put a hand, a mouth, a body part on whom…but what about love? What about the fact that these men were managing the complications of deception, fear and confusion as their hearts and bodies defied what they thought was to be their identities and still having to cope with the beauty and trauma that accompanies young love?
It should be noted that Ocean is not the only openly gay Odd Future member; the amazingly talented Syd the Kid (who makes up for what she lacks as a vocalist with production skills that rival and draw heavily from early Neptunes work) is a lesbian. However, she seems to have the same issues with women and misogyny as Tyler. As one half of the group The Internet with Matt Martian, Syd can be heard crooning about women like most rappers do: as objects of desire to be dismissed and used. For example, the video for “Cocaine,” where she can be seen pushing her date out of the car in annoyance. While Syd and Frank’s place in a crew of heterosexual male artists may be progressive, there is still much work to do in the house of Odd Future.
There are few people in the industry who could really shock me if they announced that they were gay or bisexual. While Ocean isn’t one of the guys who seemed to exist in a “closet with a glass door” as one of my best friends calls them, the fact that he actually had the courage to speak about his sexuality is more surprising than what he actually had to say.
I hope that Frank Ocean doesn’t become “the gay singer,” for it would be criminally unfair for him to wear that label as so many of his musical peers and elders are sleeping with and loving same gendered persons, while selling images of hyper-heterosexuality. And I truly hope that people who were fans before don’t lose their appetite for his music. Regardless of one’s feelings on Frank Ocean the artist, I hope that this very raw look at Frank Ocean the man forces people to look beyond their fear over two penises in one bed. People must come to recognize that gay and bisexual people also have hearts, emotions, relationships that are just as significant as anyone else’s. I hate that we still have to fight to get folks to see that in 2012, but perhaps the singer’s wish will come true and “the babies” won’t have these problems in the years to come.
Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for EBONY.com. She tweets: @jamilahlemieux