It must have been early last summer when, on a whim, I downloaded the self-released album Nostalgia, Ultra by the then-relatively unknown Frank Ocean. A member of the notoriously rough and tumble Odd Future gang, I was not only impressed by the incredible talent he possesses, but I was surprised by the genuine love and grand sense of understanding which formed a current throughout the recording. Nostalgia, Ultra marked a pointed new generation of thoughtful R&B beyond the humdrum bump-and-grind catalogue of cheesy cliches for which the genre had largely become known. That’s not to say that Ocean’s music lacked sex appeal; on the contrary, it was incredibly sexy particularly because it didn’t try to be. Instead, he relied on the honesty of youthful misadventures we’ve all been through, evoking feelings of passion and desire through the most powerful tool of all – the very nostalgia he named the album after.
Like most of you, I never questioned the gender of the subjects of Ocean’s songs. It took no great inference or leaps to assume that he was presumably speaking about a woman – as much was explicitly stated in a few tracks – though admittedly, I didn’t give much thought to it either way. Who was I to second guess lyrics such as, “I believe that marriage isn’t between a man & woman/ but between love and love/ and I believe you when you say that you’ve lost all faith/ but you must believe in something”? What was there to second guess, anyway? It was refreshing to hear a voice so open and accepting – especially in a community which has faced its share of difficulties in accepting those who exist outside the cultural norm. Beyond that, not much mattered.
No doubt you will have heard the news of Ocean’s official “coming out” via his Tumblr earlier this week – and indeed, it was turned into major news, spread across blogs and major media outlets who hadn’t so much as previously typed his name in any of its past coverage, musical or otherwise. Suddenly he has become a headliner – albeit not for the reasons I imagine he’d hoped. Many sites have speculated on the various elements of this revelation – is it for publicity? Is Frank Ocean actively gay or bisexual? Has he secretly been singing about loving men all this time? Heavens me, what does it all mean?
In his letter – easily one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful pieces of prose I’ve been fortunate to read in recent years – Ocean opens up about falling in love with a man as a teenager and the relationship they shared over the space of two summers. While the love affair between the pair was never fully consummated, he admits to feeling thankful for the experience of the love they shared and the ultimate sadness he felt upon its end, crediting the experience to helping him become who he is to this day.
I hesitated to write an article on this as I don’t feel I have anything new to say that hasn’t already been said elsewhere – and far more eloquently, at that. Yet, I couldn’t escape the urge to acknowledge such a momentous occasion – if only to point out how non-momentous it actually is. For those who have related to Ocean’s lyrics – myself included – I did not do so on the basis of the gender of the subjects he sings about, nor, do I imagine, did anyone else who has listened to and appreciated his songs. My connection to his art did not decrease upon learning of his experiences with love – nor did my respect or admiration for him. Instead, I found that the latter had become so much more, as while Ocean may be one of the few to go public with his sexuality, he is certainly not alone in the position.
It seems absolutely preposterous to have to quantify such an honest expression of love and loss, or to feel as though such an experience is any less valid because it was between a man and another man rather than someone of the opposite sex, and yet many seem to expect just that. The amount of abuse Ocean has received via Twitter is astonishing. Many who have considered themselves major fans of the artist have now turned their back upon discovering Ocean’s sexuality, as if they had chosen to listen to him purely on the express condition of heterosexuality. Abandoners are one thing, but much of the feedback has been intensely upsetting to witness – terms like “faggot” have been thrown around endlessly, and several irate users have even wished AIDS and death on him. Such reactions are unacceptable, inappropriate and yet frankly, still a reality.
However, it’s not all bad news – on the opposite end of the spectrum, many have shown their support for Ocean’s courageous decision – from Florence Welch to Solange Knowles to Russell Simmons, many have shown their love and acceptance of the singer, who made his announcement at a point in his career which is largely still up in the air (his debut major label debut, Channel Orange, will be released later this month) but clearly at a time in his personal life when the power of truth seemed more attractive than any commercial success could ever be.
May Frank Ocean continue to make music – and love – about and with whomever captures his heart.