You might’ve heard a little something about Mr. Ocean’s (No Billy) revelations about his sexual orientation. While it should be no one’s business whatever goes on in someone’s love life as long as it’s between consenting adults, Frank has made art from his highly personal struggles and has therefore made it a talking point as well. It’s a testament to the strength of his music that the release of his album hasn’t been overshadowed by the news, but why is it even such a big deal to begin with?
A singer has revealed a degree of ambiguity in his romantic life towards gender relationships (which in our society that likes to neatly label everything immedialtely means he’s “gay”). That’s really all we know so far, and Frank owes us no explanation further whatsoever. But said singer is a key member of a hip-hop crew, which, despite being an R&B singer, gets him a dual label: That of the “Hip-Hop Homo”.
I’m not even kidding, that was an actual headline in a Dutch newspaper this weekend.
Frank Ocean is the first guy connected to a rap crew who has openly admitted and embraced homosexual feelings. This is indeed revelutionary in a culture that has thrived on strong male posturing and battles. Anything that doesn’t fit into a strong male stereotype could potentially be a weakness and a cause to be spurned within its community. Through many years however, that stereotype has grown into various directions and some of rap’s biggest have been exactly those that didn’t fit any preconceived mold. From Biz Markie to Kool Keith to Eminem to Drake, our image of what a rapper can and should be has continually been adjusted and has never been as cast in iron as some media would like you to believe. As long as a rapper has the talent to prove himself, acceptance is within his or her reach.
Frank Ocean is certainly talented. But one thing he is not, and that’s a rapper.
Rap has had a long-standing affair with R&B, only strengthened by the efforts of Mary J Blige singing over classic hip-hop beats and R Kelly’s many rap collabos at the tail end of the previous century. During that time, even street rappers like Jadakiss hopped on R&B tracks and the line became blurred to the point that it was almost invisible to some. Still, the rappers were invited to provide a ‘harder’ edge to the ‘softer’ R&B tracks, and R&B singers often provided a ‘softening’ of the ‘harder’ rap tracks, especially for the singles, enabling a crossover between audiences and strengthening their commercial prospects. The image of the rapper or singer however, remained pretty much intact. Frank is obviously a singer, so the ‘harder’ image doesn’t apply to him, and he was already perceived as a softer side of OFWGKTA regardless of his sexual preferences.
Frank Ocean’s crew OFWGKTA is infamous for their liberal use of the swear word “faggot.” This might seem weird to a crew with members that are openly homosexual, like DJ Syd the Kid (a lesbian woman), or at least sexually ambiguous, like Frank Ocean. It’s an undeniably hurtful, derogatory slur to many, but these guys do not see to perceive it that way. Their casual use of the word describing any kind of person they don’t like or view as sellouts may still be derogatory but is devoid of sexual content in the way they use it. Why not use the word “douchebag” or any of its equivalents then? Paraphrasing Tyler: because it doesn’t garner the same effect. Ironically, it’s still in part due to the sexual connotations that people feel uncomfortable with it, which turns the word into such a succesful taunt. Among the crew itself though, this seems less so. It’s not a defense of the way they use it, just an observation. Casual use of a vicious slur in what perhaps can be seen as a different context? Sounds like something far from alien to hip-hop. It’s another example of hip-hop’s complicated relation with homosexuality.
Hip-hop isn’t necessarily straying away from its overt masculinity, it’s just bridging out into avenues where it’s less of a prerequisite. The genre and culture is still growing after all these years and can’t be defined as simply as some make it out to be. Several well known hip-hop artists already freely admit to not see any problems with homosexual colleagues. Raekwon and Game had encouraging comments to gay artists and on his new album, Nas derides homophobia in the same sentence as he does antisemitism: “You blame your own shortcomings on sex and race/ The mafia, homosexuals and all the Jews/ It’s hogwash point of views.”
The general acceptance of Frank Ocean among the hip-hop community and the seemingly less polarized positions are all good news. In all honesty though, we’re not there yet. It’s not surprising no gay rapper has actually come forward yet and the backlash they expect will probably not be imagined. Can you imagine a song like Meth & MJB’s All I Need from the perspective of a gay man? Can you imagine people rapping along with it, unafraid of being labeled “gay” themselves? Forget love songs, those are even hard for straight men to pull off in rap, can you imagine an openly gay man still being a believable hardcore rap artist? How long would it take for his name to wear off as a punchline in freestyles?
A lot of people still think “gay” equals “effeminate” and for an even slightly effeminate rapper there probably would not be much of a market because a strong masculine aspect is engrained in the genre’s DNA through its battle and beef aspects. Rap completely devoid of braggadocio would simply no longer be recognized as such. But the effeminate gay man is nothing more than a stereotype, and even though there certainly are effeminate homosexuals, not all homosexuals are effeminate. Maybe a hardcore rapper having the stones to come out of the closet might finally put that stereotype to the grave for a lot of people. It seems inevitable but the question wether a gay rapper will be accepted en masse remains unanswered for now.