When President Obama openly voiced his support for gay marriage, the issue of gay rights became a hot topic in all social circles. Suddenly, everyone who was anyone was asked for their thoughts on the matter and the hip-hop community was no exception. Everyone from Jay-Z to A$AP Rocky weighed in, and the overwhelming majority agreed that discrimination is harmful and that gay people should have the same rights as straight people.
It didn’t happen overnight, but it has been hard not to notice hip-hop’s gradual maturity into a more open-minded culture. Hip-hop is growing up. The genre’s relationship with homosexuality has been an especially complicated one. Years of homophobic lyrics from popular rappers have given hip-hop a reputation for being anti-gay.
But lately, things have been shifting.
Maybe it started with Eminem and Elton John—it wasn’t the first time the issue had come up, but it was the first time it was addressed in such a public way. Since then, you still hear the word “faggot,” but when an artist uses that word, they’re forced to own up to it, and they’re forced to deal with a formidable backlash. And with Obama’s recent show of support came a slew of rappers and musicians, both young and old, who are siding with the president.
So far, hip-hop’s reaction to homosexuality has mostly been that of tolerant outsiders. While some have been outspokenly supportive, others keep their distance, taking on a tone of, “Well, I’m not gay. I’m definitely not gay. But I don’t care what other people do in the privacy of their own homes.” There is still this urge to assert one’s own sexuality, as if saying, “I support gay rights” somehow reflects one’s own preferences.
Last night, things got real. After rumors that Frank Ocean (an R&B artist but very much a part of the hip-hop community) was “coming out” on his soon-to-be-released album, Channel Orange, he decided to open up and share a letter called “thank you’s.” The letter was intended to be released in the liner notes of his album, but seeing the speculation made Frank want to get his own words out there. And his words were powerful ones.
Frank’s letter was written during a flight from New Orleans to Los Angeles. In it, he tells a story of his first love: “I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Every day almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide. Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence… until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant.”
He goes on to explain that his first love wouldn’t admit the same feelings. He recalls how painful it was, how much he’s thought about it, and how he’s grateful even though things didn’t work out how he had wanted. This wasn’t an, “I’m gay, so what” kind of coming out. This is Frank revealing a personal piece of his life in the most human way possible, and doing so with a thoughtfulness and honesty that is hard not to admire.
He also sounds unsure: “I don’t know what happens now,” he says towards the end of the letter. But as unsure as he may be, this is something he needed to share: “I don’t have secrets I need kept anymore.” Frank has reason to be unsure. While there are plenty of openly gay entertainers, he’s the first young star in the hip-hop/R&B world to come out, and even in 2012, he knows that there will inevitably be a lot of negativity sparked in hateful minds. In rap music, even today, homosexuality is still more controversial than homocide.
Frank’s willingness to come out in such a personal way is another step forward. It’s stronger than the outsider support. Taking the “they” out of the equation and inserting an “I” makes Frank Ocean’s coming out letter an important move towards a more open community comfortable enough with itself to be accepting of others.
“I believe that marriage isn’t between a man and woman but between love and love.” – Frank Ocean, “We All Try”