The story goes: A journalist attending a listening party for the new Frank Ocean album, Channel Orange, noted to Frank that several of the songs were composed to a male love interest. Frank then chose to turn to his own web page and issued two paragraphs. They begin with an assertion of compassion — “Whoever you are, whatever you are … I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike” — and we are then enlightened with the anguish of Frank’s first love; love of a male friend who ultimately refused Ocean’s decisive attempt to name their love. He ends with: “Some things never are. And we were. I won’t forget you. I won’t forget the summer. I’ll remember who I was when I met you.”
The details are painstaking, yet simply stated: “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…” It was a kind of coming out: it was a revelation that he’s experienced intimate feelings for both men and women. In the realm of hip hop, this is virtually unprecedented. Los Angeles Times music writer Gerrick D. Kennedy called it “the glass ceiling moment for music. Especially black music, which has long been in desperate need of a voice like Ocean’s to break the layers of homophobia.”
There is a brief ancestry of black artists who have presented us with a wider definition of sexuality through their public persona and music, as well, though homophobia in the black community has certainly hampered countless people from living their full and true lives. Choosing between the passion of one’s craft, and who is acceptable to love in their lifetime is tragic. There are a few who have brazenly faced the harsh judgments. The great disco and soul singer and drag artist Sylvester James was undoubtedly a key player in making a career like this a thinkable reality. Timeless lyricist Billy Strayhorn (Duke Ellington’s collaborator) helped shape classic songs like “Lush Life “ as an openly gay man in mid-century jazz. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith are among many early blues queens who sang of loving both women and men. Little Richard’s feminine eccentricity helped define early rock and roll. Me’Shell NdegeOcello is openly bisexual.
Ocean’s public statement certainly contributes to the cause of greater visibility for LGBTQ artists and people; but in his music, he’s not so much being revolutionary as he is finding his place in an ironic history. He actually fits effortlessly inside the evolution of popular music. Pop artists have long celebrated dynamic sexuality. From David Bowie, Prince, Rick James, and Annie Lennox’s deliberate androgyny; to Mick Jagger to Janis Joplin, all have manipulated the ever-expanding definition of love and sexuality.
There is an age-old debate about how sexuality develops: through identity- (perhaps biologically) – or through deed. Ocean has successfully shifted the two-sided discussion of sexuality in black America, and presented another layer where sexuality ascends fluidly within particular circumstances, defined by fluctuating desires and distinct encounters rather than hardening sexuality as an identity or deed. Loving and losing makes for the most expressive of music and art. And art, like love, is never easily defined.