He was hailed as a hero, a glass-ceiling breaker, a paradigm shifter; he was lauded for his bravery and courage. It seemed that almost every pop star and media outlet was on his side.
On July 4 2012, up-and-coming hip-hop and R&B star Frank Ocean posted a note on his Tumblr. The note was originally intended to be in the liner notes of Ocean’s album Channel Orange, which was set to be released a week later. However, critics who had heard the album preemptively were beginning to wonder about pronoun usage—the use of he instead of she—and were raising questions that were filtering through the Internet rumor-mill. In an effort to dispel confusion Ocean posted:
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. […] By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love. It changed my life.
As The New York Times put it: “No other mainstream R&B artists have acknowledged having homosexual relationships. For decades, even the rumor of homosexuality had ruined artists in hip-hop circles.”
By and large, hip-hop has had a largely homophobic attitude since the early 90’s. Hip-hop often supposes that being gay is inherently emasculating, and in a culture of rap battles where dominance is key, being masculine—and more masculine than your opponent—is extremely important. Rappers of all levels of success have tossed around the slur “faggot” regularly and even suggested violence against gays. Eminem in particular is infamous for such lines as, “Whether you’re a fag or lez / Or the homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest / Pants or dress—hate fags? The answer’s ‘yes,’” in his song “Criminal”, released in 2000.
The aphorism “no homo” is similarly scattered through hip-hop rhetoric. The phrase gained popularity in the 2000s through the lyrics of Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, and Kanye West. The phrase is used to deny a homosexual double entendre that could be an opportunity for another rapper to attack one’s masculinity. “No homo” implies that being gay is exceedingly undesirable and emasculating, and emphasizes the importance of masculinity, defined as aggressive heterosexuality.
In light of this, it was certainly brave for Frank Ocean to release his statement. However, is Ocean really that much of an anomaly in 2013? Is he really the only mainstream hip-hop and R&B artist to have acknowledged having homosexual relationships? The answer is no. As early as the 1980s there were popular rap songs that were ambiguous as to whether the love discussed was hetero or homosexual. The song “I want your (hands on me)” released in 1988 by Sinéad O’Connor & M.C. Lyte consists of two women singing of romantic desire. It is unclear if the desire is between the two women or for a third male party.
In the 1990s many young black gay men both culturally identified with hip-hop and were being rejected by it due to their sexual orientation. The “homo-hop” movement was born in 1999 in an effort to counter this phenomenon. The best-known fruit of this movement was the group Deep Dickollective founded in early 2000 by Juba Kalamka, Tim’m T. West, and Phillip Atiba Goff. All three men were out and unashamed. The group put out four albums but still never reached commercial success outside of the homo-hop niche.
In recent years there have been other out artists. The female Israeli rapper from Detroit, Invincible, made waves with her 2008 album Shapeshifters, and is openly a lesbian. R&B artist Rahsaan Patterson has never been secretive about the fact that he is gay. In Odd Future, the rap group Ocean was formerly a part of, Syd da Kid has always been open about her lesbian orientation. In 2012 alone, there were a host of up-and-coming artists with more fluid definitions of sexuality and gender than is usually allowed by the hip-hop paradigm: Mykki Blanco, Le1f, Nicky Da B, House of Ladosha, Cakes Da Killa, and Big Dipper all identify as hip-hop artists who are queer.
Yet the unfortunate unifying characteristic of all these artists is that none of them is a hip-hop star. All may be loved and respected in some niches, but they also have each struggled to avoid becoming the “gay rapper.” Rapper Tim’m T. West of Deep Dickollective has often discussed how it is hard to get club spots and recording deals as an out artist. He explains that often people who don’t know he is gay love when he performs, but don’t support him when they find out. Music critic Dream Hampton wrote of aforementioned Patterson: “I know as a singer you love Rahsaan Patterson and bemoan the fact that homophobia prevented him from being the huge star his talent deserves.” Similarly, Cakes Da Killa said of his debut mixtape: “I felt people were gonna be like, ‘This is just some gay person.’ I had to prove I could lay my shit down.”
Only in the past decade have hip-hop attitudes regarding homosexuality begun to change. Media professor Joel Penney has written about the “queer aesthetics” coming into hip-hop, specifically in fashion, which is exemplified by tighter-fitting, flashier clothing. Kanye West is usually attired in clothes designed for him by Louis Vuitton head designer, Marc Jacobs, who is both openly gay and West’s close friend. West has said: “I wish I could hang out with Marc all the time, because he’s so cool. I want to be just like him.” Similarly, Diddy formed a business partnership with openly gay fashion mogul Zac Posen for a company called Outspoke. Rapper Lil’ B the Based God released his 2011 album I’m Gay (I’m Happy) to commercial success. Important artists such as Kanye West and Jay-Z, who previously spit homophobic slurs as part of their regular vernacular, are now denouncing their old ways. A$AP Rocky has stated that hip-hop needs to “stop being so close-minded because it will cause the genre to fail.”
The positive feedback from within the hip-hop community to Frank Ocean’s revelatory liner note seemed the culmination of these changing attitudes. Tyler the Creator, the abrasive star of Odd Future, said on his Twitter: “My big brother finally fucking did that. Proud of that nigga cause I know that shit is difficult.” Jay-Z, Beyonce, Joie Manda, Solange Knowles, and Rita Ora also each showed similar support. Furthermore, the media and general public expressed great excitement. Music critics lauded Ocean for shattering a glass ceiling. One critic even published a thank-you note on Jay-Z’s website.
What makes Frank Ocean’s coming out different is not the fact that he was an “out” hip-hop artist. What makes him different is that he is the first out artist to resist becoming marginalized due to his sexual orientation. He is more than simply the “gay rapper.” Ocean has resisted this stereotype partially due to his popularity before his announcement—the song Novacane, from his mixtape “Nostalgia, Ultra” released in 2011, reached the billboard top 100. Some music critics also posit he resisted the stereotype perhaps due to the fact that his definition of his own sexuality is more fluid. Ocean never said he was gay; he merely stated he had been attracted to men. But possibly the most deciding reason for Ocean’s continued popularity and resistance to marginalization is the fact that he came out in 2012. The times have changed, and Frank Ocean is an indicator of just how much.