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July 6—When Frank Ocean’s new album, Channel Orange, was first available for playback on Monday, those who heard it noticed something interesting about his love songs—several of them appeared to be addressed to a man.
Later, Ocean—whose real name is Christopher Breaux—posted on his Tumblr that “4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too.” Thus followed a long but rather poetic narrative of a love lost when Ocean’s partner refused to express his feelings for another man, only to admit those feelings three years later. The letter, which appears to be a screenshot of an Apple computer word processor, expresses the pain and confusion Ocean felt then and since. The singer-songwriter “screamed at clouds in the sky. For some explanation. Mercy maybe. For peace of mind to rain like manna somehow.” He thanks everybody, notes he feels “like a free man”—and says “If I listen closely..I can hear the sky falling too.”
And indeed the sky was falling for the R&B community, which has never seen a coming out like this before. Los Angeles Times columnist Gerrick D. Kennedy noted that the internet missive, allegedly written December of last year on a plane from New Orleans to Los Angeles, was “undoubtedly the glass ceiling moment for music. Especially black music, which has long been in desperate need of a voice like Ocean’s to break the layers of homophobia.”
Black music, particularly R&B and hip-hop, has often been accused of being misogynist and homophobic. In the 2006 documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, rapper Busta Rhymes walked away from an interview when asked his opinion on homophobia within the genre. “With all due respect, I ain’t trying to offend nobody,” Busta said. “What I represent culturally doesn’t condone [homosexuality] whatsoever.” Even the rap collective with which Ocean is affiliated, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, has garnered criticism and protest due to the sexism and homophobia in their lyrics and actions.
Ocean has so far not announced whether all this means he’s gay or bisexual. At this point, it almost doesn’t matter. Just when newsman Anderson Cooper’s matter-of-fact coming out Monday showcased how commonplace such happenings were in today’s celebrity culture, Americans have been reminded that not all parts of pop culture are quite so welcoming. And yet the singer-songwriter’s announcement seems to be changing that, as hip-hop and R&B artists from across the spectrum (and within his own controversial collective) embrace Ocean’s sexuality. “Today is a big day for hip-hop,” mogul Russell Simons wrote on Globalgrind.com. It is a day that will define who we really are. How compassionate will we be? How loving can we be? How inclusive are we?”
The answers to those questions are still coming in—and so far, they are mostly positive.