Queer and Hip Hop: Frank Ocean Comes Out, Black Music Opens Up
It’s hard not to succumb to the temptation to overread the importance of firsts: Frank Ocean, the R&B singer who is best known to a wide audience for singing the hook on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild” and member of Odd Future collective, wrote a poignant story on tumblr about falling in love with a man. By virtue of his post, he accomplished a first for mainstream black music in openly discussing his relationship with a man. The actual story is powerful because in many ways because it is universal. Ocean recounts the longing, unrequited feelings, and finding closure from a transformative love. The posting is a pivotal one in his personal journey and feels like a great moment for black music writ large. The expression of Ocean’s group member, Tyler, the Creator sums up the exuberance of this moment by stating on Formspring, “yeah thats my n***a tho, shit is hard for him but he did that.”
The African American community has expanded immeasurably by the figure of Frank Ocean. Black music in general and hip hop in particular is supposed to reflect the vast expanse of human existence and the reality of life in urban America. It has often been summed up by shorthand to keep it real. Authenticity is a preoccupation of hip hop and its marching orders. It is a medium that possesses a youthful swagger that has become a dominant force in popular culture. Like all art, hip hop both transcends and remains frustratingly bound by material limitations of sexism and consumerism. In other words, it encompasses the contradictions, myopias, strivings and beauty of life. At this moment, black music also has the power to become more accepting of the range of human sexuality.
My most pointed observation is that many young people are coming of age where there is a Frank Ocean. The important figures in hip hop like Russell Simmons, Dream Hampton, and Busta Rhymes have leant their voices in support. At one point in the history of hip hop, this would have been unthinkable. My hope for the future is that it will be unremarkable. The struggle for true equality for the lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender communities continues. Everyone has the right to live openly and to express their sexuality as one of the most fundamental element of human existence. To that end, the conservatism of the black community is showing a greater degree of public support for gay marriage rights, which demonstrates growth in a positive direction.
Although I would like to echo Russell Simmon’s words and say this a game changer, it is actually more subtle. Change is slow, incremental, and contingent. Yet change does happen. As Nitsuh Abebe of New York Magazine puts it, Frank Ocean’s announcement feels different: it was not so much a coming out, but a letting us in. Frank Ocean opened up a space in hip hop. It is my most fervent wish that that space will grow and the community will become more accepting. He has challenged the rules of the game and will inspire others inside and outside of hip hop to achieve their quest for openness and truth.