Queering Hip Hop: Frank Ocean and Homophobia
Gerald R. Butters, Jr. / Aurora University
In a large urban area with real traffic problems like my native Chicago the easiest way to get from one part of the city to the other is by elevated train. I take the “L” most places in the city because it is convenient but also because the train is a microcosm of the latest fashion, music, technology and social pathology operating in the culture. Within the past week I have witnessed two extreme violently homophobic rants against passengers on the train. In both cases the perpetrators were working class African American men. Similarly, in both cases the victims were working class African American men. I blame wunderkind musician Frank Ocean.
“Blame” is perhaps the incorrect word choice. While bloggers have written reams of prose about the significance of Ocean coming out of the closet, I found their rhetoric often superficial and written from a suburban perspective. The problem with Frank Ocean, and why he is so threatening and intimidating to these two African American perpetrators on the train, is that he is so much like them. In popular culture and the media at-large black gay men come in two varieties: Down Low men who keep their sexual lives with men behind closed doors and have no intention of hitting on straight black men – and “queeny” effeminate black gay men who are easy to spot a mile away (True Blood, RuPaul’s Drag Race and Glee). The DL men are of course a threat because they have potentially infected women with HIV for years, but the fact that they are not in the face of straight black men eases the tension. The effeminate gay black men, be it in real life or in the media, can be considered a joke, a good laugh, and if a problem, easily beaten down. They reinforce a stereotype that homophobes are comfortable with.
Frank Ocean presents an entirely different paradigm and one that could easily have led to these two hate attacks on the L. One may criticize me for reaching here but I believe it is important to consider this before similar actions take place. Within the past year, a number of male celebrities come out including newscasters Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper knocking down barriers for gay men in entertainment. But enormous brick walls of heterosexuality still tower over the fields of professional team sports and the hip hop/rap communities. Coming out as gay in both of these professions, while still active in the field or “relevant,” is considered career suicide. Those professional athletes who have come out as gay, such as Esera Tualo and Roy Simmons, have done so long after their career was over. No male hip hop or rap star has ever come out as gay.
Frank Ocean first came to notoriety in 2010 with two singles, ”Novacane” and “Swim Good.” Ocean joined the alternative hip hop collective OFWGKTA and his mix tape Nostalgia, Ultra gained notice from prominent performers such as Jay Z, Kanye West and Beyonce Knowles. Ocean’s debut album channel ORANGE was one of the most highly anticipated of 2012. Like Kanye West, Ocean was known for his lyricism and unique writing ability. On July 4, 2012, Ocean announced in his Tumblr blog that he had unrequited feelings for another man when he was younger. Rumors had swirled regarding Ocean’s sexuality prior to this announcement due to his pronoun choices in some of the songs on the channel ORANGE cd.
Ocean’s perceived heterosexuality suddenly became transmorphed into a gay or bisexual personae. The artist was able to sing strongly heterosexual lyrics such as “I blame it on the model broad with the Hollywood smile. Awww. Stripper booty and a rack like wow” in the hit single “Novacane.” Although the single was a strong indictment of a hedonistic lifestyle, one that was based on drug use and a “bed full of women,” those listeners who perhaps were not quite as enlightened could listen to the lyrics “fuck me good, fuck me long, fuck me numb” and conceive of a real heterosexual “playa.” This was reinforced by female imagery and the tiger metaphor of Ocean’s sexuality in the video.
Ocean overturns this personae in channel ORANGE. In his blisteringly emotional “Bad Religion” he sings of unrequited love with the lyrics, “ I could never make him love me.” In the single “Forrest Gump,” Ocean is just as romantic describing his obsession as “so buff and so strong” and telling him that “you run my mind boy.” In “Forrest Gump,” Ocean is explicitly looking at his love, describing his body as he watches him run down the football field. It is perhaps this element – of having a gay or bisexual man look at and consider another black man as a sexual/erotic/romantic object that disturbs some African American men so much. In both instances on the train, the victims were verbally bashed for “looking” at the perpetrators. In the first incident the individual yelled, “What are you looking at you fucking faggot?” In the second, the middle aged perpetrator yelled, “What are you looking at? Do you need glasses?” In neither incident did the victims speak a word to those yelling the obscenities; they both sat in silence. When I witnessed the first incident, I was confused as to why the man yelled. The victim was wearing the “uniform” of the street in Chicago – an oversized white T-shirt and jeans, with tennis shoes. Then I figured it out; the victim was crossing his legs rather than sitting with both legs bent with knees and feet forward. This was observed as an effeminate trait. It did not matter if either victim were gay or not, they did not fit the social code therefore they were labeled as “faggots.”
Frank Ocean is as easily confounding. He has negotiated the hip hop community well, having been hired by some of the top people in the field to write them winning lyrics. Ocean dressed in hip hop or Kanye-preppy style and never stood out as anything other than heterosexual until the Tumbler posting when he announced, “I’m starting to think were a lot alike.” That, perhaps, is the most terrifying notion – that either all individuals have bisexual tendencies – or that being gay is really not all that different from being straight. And it is not as easily identifiable as some think. If one cannot immediately look at an individual and determine his or sexual orientation than the parameters of sex and gender become unstable. Perhaps in a world in which this paralyzing recession is crippling many working class African American men, gender stability and easily identifiable “difference” is all that they can hang on too. It is perhaps too early to determine whether Frank Ocean is a ripple or a tidal wave in the hip hop community. But he has opened the door.
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