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Frank Ocean: Not the first and hopefully not the last

I’m a white, lower-middle class guy who likes hip hop a lot. I also like Frank Ocean’s music a lot. None of these facts qualify me to stroke my chin and ruminate on the ‘revelation’ that the singer has said his first love was a man. Still, it hasn’t stopped large chunks of the media from whipping themselves into a frenzy about the FIRST GAY RAPPER. There are so many things wrong with that three word statement it’s shocking.

Firstly, Ocean hasn’t ‘come out’ at all. Sure he’s said he was in love with a man and that they had what seems like a very intense relationship but he hasn’t said he doesn’t like women too. It’s perfectly possible that Ocean is bi-sexual or that he had one intense same sex experience. It doesn’t really matter when it comes to his music or our relationship to it.

Ocean makes brilliant tunes. He will, hopefully, continue to make brilliant tunes. To measure my interest in what arrangement of genitals he favours in a sexual partner you’d need to hijack the Large Hadron Collider, so microscopic is the toss I give. The only reason I agreed to write this piece is to unpick just how awful the press coverage of Ocean’s quietly done blog post has been.

Almost every article I have read has been subtly judgemental and wildly presumptuous. Two honourable exceptions are this blog post by Eve Barlow and this article by Luke Turner of The Quietus. Outside of those nuanced and interesting responses, most of the commentary has been of the OMG! A BLACK GUY IS GAY variety. Just as gay men in football have a hard time because of the culture around them, it is certainly true that gay men in hip hop have had a hard time. So too, for that matter, have lesbian rappers.

But Ocean has not defined himself really and it is not our place to do so either. While it is certainly interesting to unpick why gay and bi-sexual lifestyles are not always as easily accepted in the hip hop community, it is totally untrue to suggest that Ocean, if he is indeed gay, is the first gay rapper. There are plenty of out gay men and women rhyming. Just because they may not have become mainstream stars does not mean they are unworthy of attention or credit.

One of the least enjoyable elements of hip hop is the culture of shouting NO HOMO and dropping rhymes that wish violence on gay people. It’s also common for gay to be dropped as an insult in hip hop so often that it resembles the worst corner of a primary school playground. Witness Nas and Jay-Z’s infamous beef where the former repeatedly pulled out rhymes with references to “dick-sucking lips” and puns on Jigga’s record label name (“I rock hoes, y’all rock fellas…”).

Hip hop has had an uncomfortable and often violently antagonistic relationship with homosexuality ever since its inception and it is striking that no openly gay rapper has reached huge star status yet. That said many other genres have yet to promote openly gay megastars.

It’s commendable that Frank Ocean felt able to discuss his sexuality in an open way but he is not an emblem of anything but himself and he has not placed a label on himself. It is ultimately quite sad that his attraction to a man is such a huge story. Eazy-E died of AIDS and many in the hip hop community automatically assumed he was gay and operating on the down low. Why? Because the rap establishment bought heavily into the myth that AIDS was “the gay plague”.

I’m happy if Frank Ocean is happy. That’s the end of the matter. I do hope that his choice to discuss his experience with a man will encourage his sometime-colleagues in Odd Future to ditch some of their incredibly homophobic rhymes but it doesn’t seem likely as the group’s DJ, Syd The Kid, has been out about her lesbianism for a hell of a long time. Odd Future like to rattle cages and it’s always hard to know what they think deep down. What I know for sure is that, ultimately, Frank Ocean’s sex life is his business and no one else’s. It’s a shame I had to use 719 words before this sentence to make that point.

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