Shortly after the release of his album Channel Orange, Frank Ocean responded to the critics who were questioning his use of male pronouns in some of his songs by revealing on his Tumblr page that his first true love was with a man when he was 19 years old. The internet then blew up, with some fans commentating on ‘what’ sexuality he was to others pondering as to whether it would hurt his album sales (it didn’t). Ocean has garnered accolades for his albums and television performances, like this one on Jimmy Kimmel, and the SNL one below. His voice and sound are like nothing in R&B at the moment, offering something very different from the usual generic dance hits you can hear at the club.
After Ocean released his Tumblr blog, the news media began to refer to him as “the recently Out Frank Ocean.” And that got me thinking, what does it mean to be ‘out?’ When I read Ocean’s sweet description of his first love, I don’t see any announcement of him being gay, and he doesn’t explicitly state that he is bisexual either. In fact, he never once in his blog frames the relationship in an overtly sexual way, saying that the two slept alongside each other, and that they had a ‘peculiar friendship’ that was never fully realized into a relationship.
And that is what is so brilliant about Frank Ocean. He’s a true bohemian, a true artist. He encourages people to ask questions, but never answers them. He uses male and female pronouns interchangeably, but his music is ultimately universal, like when he touches on the theme of a lost first love in his song, ‘Thinkin Bout You.’ He doesn’t allow himself to be put into a box. He just is.
Just recently, I told a friend that I had a crush on Frank Ocean, and she replied by saying, “Umm….isn’t Frank Ocean gay?” Frank Ocean sings and raps convincingly about women, often in an explicitly gendered way (‘Songs for Women’ is an example, lol), but because of his one love for someone who happened to have a penis, we’re now labeling him as gay? Why are people who identify as straight never asked to defend their sexuality, even though there’s ample evidence that straight people may not really be born that way? (sorry Lady Gaga, I usually think you’re fierce but that song? Not feeling).
It’s not just his sexuality either, it’s in his music. Ocean has complained about the music industry automatically labeling him as an R&B artist because he’s a “black singer who can sing,” even though his music draws on electro, funk, hip-hop, and the introspective musing of an indie songwriter. Ocean himself admitted that he prefers to be referred to as a ‘singer-songwriter’ instead of an R&B singer, because “the former implies versatility and being able to create more than one medium, and the second one is a box, simple as that.” This human need to put people into neatly defined categories that make us feel more comfortable about our own identity and who we are is perhaps why we label Barack Obama as black, despite his multi-racial identity, and Rashida Jones’ character Karen on The Office as Italian, even though she’s half black, half white. Ambiguity scares the hell out of us. Labels keep us comfortable.
Frank Ocean’s Tumblr blog might prove progressive for a somewhat homophobic hip-hop community (Jay-Z and Beyonce offered their support), but in a way, I hope that he doesn’t become a poster child for the gay community. He’s approached civil rights in his music, like in ‘We all Try,’ where he defends people’s right to marry anyone they love, and for women to have control over their own bodies. I hope that he continues with his brand of secular humanism, and that he doesn’t allow anyone—the media, his fans—to categorize him, to force him to pick a single identity when his own is so fluid.
I doubt he will though. I mean seriously, did anyone catch his performance on SNL last week that was pretty much, the chillest thing ever? Ocean crooned his high notes to perfection on ‘Thinkin Bout You,’ and then while guitarist John Mayer hit a solo, crazy face contortions and all, he walked over and played a video game on the arcade set-up, letting John Mayer take the final spotlight of the performance. And I couldn’t help but think, “Frank Ocean’s not gay or straight. He’s just really. F#cking. COOL”