Frank Ocean is set to take a victory lap at this year's Grammys. He's up for six awards for his album Channel Orange, including best new artist, and he'll be performing as well. But just a few months ago, Frank Ocean's music wasn't the story — his sexuality was.
To review: After a listening party for Channel Orange last July, a BBC journalist pointed out that a few of the love songs referenced a "him" where you might have expected to hear "her."
All of a sudden it seemed the entire Internet was asking one question: Is Frank Ocean gay?
Two days later, on July 4, he wrote about the matter on Tumblr. His now famous letter was poignant, especially one crucial line: "4 Summers ago, I met somebody, I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together."
It was a big announcement, but it wasn't definitive. Karen Tongson, a gender studies professor at the University of Southern California, says Ocean's statement represents a new normal: For him, and many others of his generation, coming out is different than it used to be.
"We're used to a very mainstream model of discussing sexuality — it's about being in or out of the closet, it's about being born this way or not — and not understanding that there is a tremendous amount of transformation that happens throughout the course of people's lives," Tongson says.
"[Ocean's approach is] not about losing labels altogether," she adds. "It's about the proliferation of different ways of naming your desire. What he's done, and the music that he makes, is really resonant with that."
If Frank Ocean's story was a big deal for the LGBTQ community, it was even bigger for hip-hop — a genre that, at times, seems to have homophobia in it's DNA.
It was there at the start — in the 1979 classic "Rapper's Delight," in which Superman is introduced as a sexual rival and then dismissed as a "fairy." Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message," one of rap's first prominent works of social commentary, used the word "fag." The Beastie Boys' 1986 debut Licensed to Ill would have been called Don't Be a Faggot if Columbia Records hadn't rejected that title.
In 2005, Kanye West told MTV, "Everyone in hip-hop discriminates against gay people." He clarified that the genre was not alone: "Not just hip-hop, but America just discriminates."
Frank Ocean's announcement was further complicated by the company he kept. Ocean is part of the rap collective Odd Future; after he wrote about his same-sex love, the leader of the group, Tyler, the Creator, tweeted his support. But that support was hard to square with Tyler's recent solo album, Goblin, because that album contains the word "faggot" more than 200 times. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation called the language on Goblin "frankly staggering."
Writer dream hampton wrote an open letter to Frank in response to his Tumblr post. She says hip-hop has always had layers of language, some of which conflict.
"In terms of Tyler's response, the first thing about it was that it was loving — and with hip-hop we're often trying to find the emotional tone buried beneath some very brutal language," hampton says. "That's been true of hip-hop for as long as I can remember. It's a part of the great ambivalence about it."
Some fans disagree with the "brutal" part. Michael Ruff and Deante Spillman — two teenage fans who support Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator — say that "faggot" and other charged words aren't always meant to insult and that sometimes they're just space-fillers.
"I don't think they sang it to be anti-gay. They just sing it because that's the words that fit they verse," Ruff says. "It just rhymes," says Spillman.
Tyler offered a different explanation in an interview published in NME: "I'm not homophobic. I just think 'faggot' hits and hurts people. It hits. And 'gay' just means you're stupid. I don't know, we don't think about it; we're just kids."
Despite prognostications about what Ocean could do for hip-hop, the fact still remains: Frank Ocean is a singer, not a rapper. And whatever barrier he's broken, there still has never been an out rapper who has experienced Ocean's level of success.
Gay rappers do exist — artists like New York's Le1f and Los Angeles' Deadlee have their own dedicated followings — but none has hit it big in the mainstream so far.
Some fans, like Janee Wall from Washington, D.C., say they wouldn't even buy a gay rapper's music "because you're supposed to be so hard, but you're so soft at the same time. I can't get with that."
Paul Terrance, another fan, agrees; for him, rap is about masculinity and toughness. "When you're a rapper, you gotta have street credibility," he says. "And when you see somebody being gay, you don't see them as being street or going hard, because they effeminate."
These fans say singers are given a license — with their personas, their sexuality — that rappers just aren't. And as striking as it might be, Frank Ocean's coming-out story hasn't changed that yet.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Now, a closer look at one of the artists Stephen just mentioned, Frank Ocean. He's up for six Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist. But just a few months ago, Frank Ocean's music wasn't the story; his sexuality was. NPR's Sam Sanders has this report. And please note, it contains strong language.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: On July 2nd, Frank Ocean was set to be the next big thing. He'd worked with Kanye West, Jay-Z, Beyonce. He made a mix tape that critics love. And his debut album was set to be released later that month. But after a listening party for the album, called "Channel Orange," a BBC journalist pointed out that a lot of the love songs in it said him when you would have expected to hear her.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD RELIGION")
FRANK OCEAN: (Singing) I can never make him love me, never make him love me...
SANDERS: People wanted to know, is Frank Ocean gay? Two days later, he wrote this on Tumblr: "4 summers ago, I met somebody, I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together." This was a big deal. It could be the moment hip-hop needed for change. Hip-hop is a genre that seems to have homophobia in its DNA. It was there at the start - in the 1979 classic "Rapper's Delight."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")
SUGARHILL GANG: (Singing) ...called Superman. I said he's a fairy, I do suppose, flying through the air in pantyhose...
SANDERS: Grandmaster Flash did it too.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MESSAGE")
GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Singing) Now, your manhood is took, you're a Maytag, spend the next two years as an undercover fag, being used and abused...
SANDERS: The Beastie Boys wanted to name one of their albums "Don't Be A Faggot." Kanye West once told MTV everyone in hip-hop discriminates against gay people. He wasn't proud of that it, and he hoped that would change. Last year, it seemed Frank Ocean and his story would be part of that shift. Ocean is part of a rap collective called Odd Future. After he wrote about his same-sex love, the leader of the group, Tyler the Creator, tweeted his support. So did several other prominent rappers. But that support was hard to square with Tyler's solo album, because that album contains the word faggot - more than 200 times. Writer Dream Hampton says hip-hop has always had layers of language, some of which conflict.
DREAM HAMPTON: Well, in terms of Tyler's response, the first thing about it was that it was loving. And with hip-hop, we're often having to find the emotional tone buried beneath some really brutal language.
SANDERS: But for some fans, that brutal language - words like faggot and dyke - aren't brutal at all. Michael Ruff and Deante Spillman, two teenage fans who support Frank Ocean and Tyler the Creator, say many of these charged words aren't meant to insult.
MICHAEL RUFF: I don't think they sang it to be anti-gay. But I think they sang it because that's just the words that fit they verse.
SANDERS: It just rhymes.
DEANTE SPILLMAN: Yeah.
RUFF: Something that probably sound good. There's some that would sound good to their raps or something, that if somebody was like, oh, that was nice.
SANDERS: OK. Here's another big point about Frank Ocean's story. He's a singer, not a rapper. And whatever barrier he's broken, there still has been no out rapper to experience Ocean's level of success. Some fans say they wouldn't even buy a gay rapper's music, like Janee Wall, a Frank Ocean fan from Washington, D.C.
JANEE WALL: Because you're supposed to be so hard, but you're so soft at the same time. I can't get with that.
SANDERS: Paul Terrance, another fan, kind of agrees. For him, rap is about masculinity, toughness.
PAUL TERRANCE: When you're a rapper, you got to have, like, street credibility, I guess. When you portray somebody being gay, like, you don't see them as being, like, from the streets or, like, go hard because it's effeminate.
SANDERS: These fans told me that singers are given a license, with their personas, their sexuality, that rappers just aren't. And as striking as it might be, Frank Ocean's coming out story hasn't changed that yet. In fact, he has yet to actually come out. In his letter, Frank Ocean never said the word gay or bisexual. Karen Tongson, a gender studies professor at USC, points out he just spoke freely about loving a man.
KAREN TONGSON: It's less about codifying one's identity and making a definitive assertion about this is where I stand on this spectrum or this is where I am or this is who I am. That's something really characteristic of some very recent public coming outs, whether or not it's Queen Latifah at Long Beach Pride, even Jodie Foster's speech at the Golden Globes.
SANDERS: There's ambiguity around what Frank Ocean said, Tongson notes. But he did do one thing for sure - open up a conversation. It's one that Michael Ruff says could change things.
RUFF: I don't think rap is homophobic. I just think that rap is ignorant of the gay community. And I know, like, how they actually would be, rap has never actually gave it a chance.
SANDERS: You think it will change soon? Do you hope it'll change?
RUFF: I doubt it - not soon - but possibly.
SANDERS: Ruff says there is a chance for hip-hop and rap to finally make a place for more than one artist like Frank Ocean. Sam Sanders, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST")
OCEAN: (Singing) Lost in the heat of it all. Girl, you know you're lost...
SIMON: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.