Sexual Healing

Frank Ocean’s Coming Out as Bisexual Changes Homophobic Hip-Hop Genre

The rising R&B star’s revelation that he’s bisexual could help soften anti-gay attitudes in hip-hop’s macho culture, says Chris Lee.

Karl Walter / Getty Images for Coachella

To borrow language from Anderson Cooper’s acknowledgment of his preferences from earlier this week, the fact is, R&B singer Frank Ocean is bisexual.

On July 4, the rising urban-music star—who earned his stripes guesting on tracks for platinum acts including Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Kanye West, and has a much anticipated debut album out this month—took to his Tumblr blog to detail how his first love had been a man.

The intimate posting describes how Ocean emotionally struggled with the relationship and how his boyfriend ultimately spurned the singer’s attempts to justify their love. “I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after together. Every day almost,” Ocean wrote. “Sleep I would often share with him. 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.”

Now that the news has had time to register, support for the rising R&B star has come streaming in from across the cultural spectrum, with more than a few urban-music icons giving Ocean, 24, major props for abandoning the closet and tearing down the boundary that has required gay men to live on the “down low” in hip-hop.

Such positive response to the singer’s unprompted and wholly unexpected revelation is another tangible indication that the genre is making great strides toward abandoning its long-entrenched posture of homophobia and gay bashing. “Today is a big day for hip-hop,” urban music mogul Russell Simmons wrote in an open letter to Ocean 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.”

In recent tweets, British singer-songwriter Rita Ora called the singer “inspirational;” rapper Theophilus London extended a “thank you” to Ocean, providing a link to an op-ed written on Jay-Z’s Life and Times blog praising the singer’s decision to come out. And king-making mix-tape producer DJ Drama voiced unqualified praise, too: “I commend Frank Ocean on his courage. I support him & will continue to be a fan of his work.”

Ocean’s frequent collaborator, Tyler the Creator, leader of the hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, struck a tone that was simultaneously accepting, circumspect, and casually dismissive. “My Big Brother Finally Fucking Did That. Proud Of That Nigga Cause I Know That Shit Is Difficult Or Whatever,” Tyler wrote on hisTwitter feed. “Anyway. Im A Toilet.”

Ocean (no relation to pop singer Billy Ocean), who has written songs for Justin Bieber, Brandy, and John Legend, stands as the only urban-music crooner ever to self-identify as anything other than hyper-heterosexual. Arriving at a watershed cultural moment when both Young Hova and President Obama have voiced support for gay marriage, the singer-songwriter’s decision to come out as bi has certain far-reaching implications for modern R&B.

With its moist declarations of sexual yearning and ululating, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination articulations of carnal desire, R&B has remained pop culture’s horny uncle since the mid-1970s. Unlike any of R. Kelly’s odes to sexual swashbuckling or, say, Chris Brown’s brutalist exhortations (“I be smokin’ that fire, she be smokin’ my dick,” he sings on the recently released “Till I Die”), Ocean’s songs sometimes describe his object of lust with decidedly male pronouns. Such as “Forrest Gump,” the closing track on Ocean’s new album, Channel Orange (due out July 17) in which the performer addresses a paramour this way: “You run my mind boy/Runnin’ on my mind boy—Forrest Gump.”

According to NPR music critic Ann Powers, R&B has a long track record of embracing androgynous male performers like Prince—who can croon boudoir bangers and still seem competently hetero even while wearing thigh-high boots and a thong. But the boot-knockin’ genre has remained hermetically closed off to gay content until Ocean came along.

“We have the standard set for a flamboyantly feminine male R&B star. But that’s usually coupled with an even more intense expression of heterosexuality,” Powers said. “For explicitly homoerotic lyrics, it is uncharted territory. Lyrics that talk about love between men are not a part of mainstream R&B in the contemporary moment. This is really interesting in that way. It is a big deal.”

Moreover, poised on the brink of a kind of “post-genre” crossover stardom, Ocean holds music snobs of all colors and creeds in his thrall, expanding a fan base that’s more inclusive than R&B’s rank and file, Luther Vandross-loving purists. For this Coachella constituency—Ocean has performed at the hipster music fest twice in the past two years—matters of sexual orientation are secondary to an artist’s cool factor and street cred.

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“The reasons why Ocean [came out as bisexual] are personal but it fits into the marketing of an artist like this,” Powers said. “New R&B artists aren’t being marketed to the standard R&B audience alone. They’re reaching out to indie-rock fans, EDM fans, hip-hop fans, a new post-genre audience. In that world, the rules are different and shifting all the time.”

Still, the singer’s decision to publicly announce his bisexuality is all the more surprising given the gay-intolerant banter so favored by Odd Future, the rambunctious Los Angeles hip-hop massive that counts Ocean (government name: Christopher Breaux) as a kind of voice of reason-cum-elder statesman. In a statement last year, the Gay and Lesbian Association Against Defamation deemed frontman Tyler the Creator’s behavior “inexcusable” for his frequent use of anti-gay epithets in songs and interviews, and Sara Quin of the folk duo Tegan and Sara posted an open letter to Tyler, decrying the rapper’s album Goblin as “pockmarked with homophobic and misogynistic slurs and rape and murder fantasies.” For his part, Tyler dismissed the charges in a 2011 interview with the U.K.’s The Guardian, saying: “I’m not homophobic. I just say ‘faggot’ and use ‘gay’ as an adjective to describe stupid shit.”

Elsewhere in the stupid-shit department: despite a strongly worded press announcement to the contrary, rumors that R&B star Omarion is gay have largely overshadowed his creative output and continue to dominate any discussion of the 27-year-old singer-dancer more than a year and a half since the scandal first broke. And although the ratio of supporters to haters skews in Ocean’s favor by a ratio of about five to one, a number of social-media posters said they had deleted his music from their digital libraries upon hearing he’s bisexual.

But more tweets followed along the thinking of Flea, bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who on Thursday tweeted: “Strong move by frank ocean, makes me happy.” And Jackass star Johnny Knoxville hailed the singer’s decision as “a brave thing to do, and the right thing to do.”

Ocean has remained publicly silent on the matter since posting his last blog item Wednesday. That entry concludes: “I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore… I feel like a free man. If I listen closely…I can hear the sky falling too.”