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Frank Ocean performs at the MTV Video Music Awards in September 2012. (WireImage)

Frank Ocean's Big Year, And What Hasn't Changed In Hip-Hop

by Sam H. Sanders
Feb 9, 2013 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Sam H. Sanders

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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