July has already been a momentous month for the LGBT community. Anderson Cooper didn’t so much come out as officially confirm that he identified as gay early in the week. Then, for some July 4 fireworks, Odd Future member Frank Ocean candidly talked about his past relationship with a man in a telling Tumblr post. A lengthy letter that was heartfelt and poetic (while never using the “g” or the “b” words) left no doubt that Ocean has come out of the closet as a member of the community — and as a bona fide hip-hop star.
There has been speculation on Ocean’s sexuality recently on blog buzz reviews about his upcoming album Channel Orange. MTV reported that he had openly used “him” in many of his songs which had been picked up on by those reviews. Ocean’s clearly in a more comfortable space, but could it be lost on the LGBT community?
Face it. We loooove it when a celebrity comes out because it helps make any causes more visible. Same-sex marriage? DOMA? Those mean just as much to Cooper and Chely Wright as they do to any anonymous LGBT citizen. Ricky Martin and Neil Patrick Harris have given warm faces to gay parenting which opens doors for national ad campaigns. When unlikely public figures come out — like British rugby star Gareth Thomas and basketball player John Amaechi — we not only welcome the new family members, but hail them for heroic stands within public arenas you don’t see too many gays in.
Ocean’s opening up hopefully won’t be lost on the community, as he’ll quickly become part of the fabric that we all are and a person who will (fingers crossed) wield his influence to the betterment of his art.
But what will Ocean’s coming out mean for the hip-hop genre? With contemporary icons like Jay-Z expressing their support of issues such as gay marriage, is the genre known for its misogyny and homophobia going to change?
“Just because there are queer people in hip-hop doesn’t take away the homophobia. People make the mistake that if a gay person engages in whatever, then it’s no longer homophobic,” says Harold Steward, artistic director of Fahari Arts. Steward works deep with local LGBT black artists in all mediums. With Ocean and Cooper’s admissions, he believes what will be more important than how their careers are affected is their future actions.
“This means a lot for the music and we should examine that oppressive system that he felt he couldn’t before. But these are first steps. If no actions after this work toward making coming out obsolete, then it’s just another gay person among us. Same for Anderson,” Steward says.
What puts Ocean in an interesting position is that the 24-year-old is a hot commodity. He was tapped to work on Beyonce’s 4 and Jay-Z’s and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne in 2011. His own album, Channel Orange, drops later this month. As a black gay musician, local Sanquan is thrilled by Ocean’s newfound status.
“I’ve never heard of an openly gay sought after writer/producer for R&B and hip-hop before. I think that means something because he’s been a major production force on those two albums,” Sanquan says.
Sanquan, who’s own self-title album is set for a winter release, credits West’s work with opening eyes within the genre.
“I would say he ushered in a new consciousness for hip-hop one that opened doors for Drake, Kid Cudi, and Wale, all of whom are gay friendly, well-respected, and successful in their own right,” he says.
Steward points out that the crucial step now is how the industry will react. Will he get the support or suffer from it. New York Daily News is reporting that so far, Ocean has received overwhelming support from the likes of Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Solange Knowles and — perhaps most notably — pioneering hip-hop mogul and Def Jam founder Russell Simmons. From NYDailyNews.com:
Def Jam founder Russell Simmons wrote in a post that he’s moved by Ocean’s “courage and honesty.”
“Today is a big day for hip-hop,” Simmons wrote on his Global Grind website Wednesday. “Your decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear.”
Steward agrees. Really, what this may boil down to isn’t Ocean’s place in music, but Ocean as a black man who openly expressed his affections for another man. We don’t know if he’s gay or bi and we don’t need to. Steward says that Ocean now has to figure out what this means for himself and we as a community can invest in his courage.
“Coming out is not for the cowardly and I admire his courage and self liberation. I’m celebrating it, but I am waiting to see what happens. Now, we, as queer black men, have someone who represents us on a certain level. And I appreciate that he told his story about love. It wasn’t about a sexual act, but as a queer black man talking about the capacity to love, it introduces something very different to a lot of other people. I applaud that.”