July 4th, 2012

On Frank Ocean

"Came out" was always so generic, a ritual as potentially objectifying as the hunt for the Gay Rapper. What Frank Ocean did was more nuanced, personal, and altogether harder to parse. It resisted generalizations even as its language remained, for the most part, vague. The presentation, tone and even the medium of delivery (Tumblr) were tailored to not only Ocean’s (in descending order of ugh-ness) aesthetic, image, or brand. The structure of black pop hath not been split in two by a symbolic figure. Rather, a highly-respected and extremely idiosyncratic artist has told us something about himself. It just happened to be a bombshell, submerged and possibly anchored by context.

Are we gently reeling? Or is this relief? This discovery, if we want to make audience into the protagonist, is fully a function of who we already know Frank Ocean to be. In the same way that it’s relatively easy for rappers to espouse support for gay marriage, only a total ass would go on the warpath against this kind of post-activist announcement. 

"How we feel about each other" is an impossible topic to chew on, and when introduced in those terms, invariably leads to either gun-shy platitudes or blind, thoughtless generalizations. Feelings about categories are feelings about the people who make up those categories, and without first-hand experience of said people, it’s a meaningless line of questioning. That’s the irony of the "black friend" cliche. The only way to have any remotely valid stake in this dynamic is to forge relationships, however ambivalent, with people not like yourself. Of course these relationships can’t serve as cover, and yet they remain the basic unit of progress here. And the sub-unit of a relationship is a person. You’ve got to give a fuck about another human being before it matters that your interaction is of some sociological importance. 

I’m straight, white, and fairly disconnected from hip-hop at this point. It says a lot, though, that Frank Ocean’s statement strikes me as both emotionally riveting and important. In 2011, I did a piece on homophobia in hip-hop for XXL; I walked away from it feeling that the biggest stumbling block wasn’t a moralized resistance or a fear of casual contact with gays. There wasn’t even an element of denial involved, which is nuts considering how taboo prison life remains. It was a blanket anxiety about what this mythical Gay Rapper would do to hip-hop. Structurally, what happens to the art form, the culture, if such a figure were to inhabit this space? It’s the most ordinary and garbled form of concern—”what does this sea change mean for me?”. No “I” fits so seamlessly into these categories so as participate in them at the level of abstraction. Nor does the, ahem, change agent arrive ready-made to predictably disrupt the order of things. 

Frank Ocean has made it harder and easier by raising the issue on his own terms. His words are distinctly, defiantly his; this is a template all his own. Anderson Cooper, for whom the stakes were far lower and the announcement a mere formality, also crafted a statement that could not have been offered by just anyone. At the level of style and substance, these were stories about two dudes many of us quite liked already. We still don’t know these people as anything more than celebrities. But both have made sure that, as they add this detail to their public profile, they do so in a way that belongs to them and them alone. It’s the personal touch elevated to a form of defiance: You might as well know this about me. It’s another part of the picture. 

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