Frank Ocean comes out: a brave move in the exaggeratedly heterosexual world of hip hop

What it means to be the first out gay star in urban music.

Of the many remarkable things about R&B singer Frank Ocean’s announcement that he is gay, let’s start with his choice of words. Last night he wrote on his Tumblr that what he was about to post was originally intended for the thank you section of his forthcoming album, Channel Orange, but had been brought forward because of gathering rumours about his sexuality.

He then posted an exquisitely moving account of his first love affair with a man. “I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore,” he writes. “There’s probably some small shit still, but you know what I mean. I was never alone, as much as I felt like it… as much as I still do sometimes. I never was. I don’t think I ever could be.”

Ocean’s poetry and precision makes it a personal statement more than a political one, worlds apart from the stilted, formal language customarily used by celebrities coming out of the closet: remember Ricky Martin’s “I am a fortunate homosexual man” two years ago? You don’t have to be gay to identify with its sentiments. You simply have to know what it feels like to be in love.

But despite the quiet intimacy of the language, Ocean’s statement has made a big noise. For years, various big rappers, both male and female, have attracted speculation over their sexuality but none have confirmed it. Earlier this year underground rapper Lil’ B announced his new album would be called I’m Gay but quickly backtracked by adding a parenthetical “(I’m Happy)” and avoiding the issue. Now, in a stroke, the landscape has changed.

It should be noted that Ocean is a singer rather than a rapper and that the hip hop crew he’s affiliated with, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, is an unorthodox outfit which, despite its excessive fondness for the word “faggot”, already has one out member: female DJ/producer Syd Tha Kid. But Ocean has a major label deal and appeared on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s colossal Watch the Throne album so he has enough of a profile to qualify as the first out, gay star in the world of urban music. Hip hop mogul Russell Simmons calls it  “a game-changer”: “Today is a big day for hip-hop. It is a day that will define who we really are.”

It comes at an interesting time for LGBT musicians. Until this year, an openly gay artist had never topped the US Billboard charts: the likes of George Michael and REM’s Michael Stipe did so long before coming out. But in May, former American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert ended that drought with his album Trespassing. In the same month Jamaican dancehall artist Beenie Man recorded a video apology for his previous homophobic lyrics, while Tom Gabel, of Florida punk band Against Me!, declared that he would henceforth be known as Laura Jane Grace, making him not exactly rock’s first transsexual but its first arena-headlining one.

But Ocean’s move is still courageous. Openly gay musicians rarely fare well in the US; hip hop/R&B, where exaggerated heterosexuality is the norm, is uncharted territory. Even though the initial online response has been overwhelmingly positive, not every listener will be happy listening to Channel Orange, or last year’s brilliant online mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, knowing that the love songs are about another man. Ocean also risks being forever defined in the public eye by his sexuality. Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys once told me why he didn’t come out until 1994: “One of my reasons for not coming out [earlier] was that you get typecast, so you become ‘gay pop star Neil Tennant’, and I didn’t used to be that. People use the gay thing to marginalise you.” About his lyrics up to that point he said, “I always quite liked that ambiguity. Now people just say, Yeah, it’s gay.”

Time will tell whether Ocean’s candour affects the fortunes of Channel Orange, or whether he inspires some high-profile closeted performers to follow suit. But his impact on the wider world of hip hop, R&B and beyond is undeniable. Research regularly shows that the key factor in changing people’s attitudes to issues such as gay marriage is having an LGBT friend, colleague or family member: personal experience informs the public sphere. Conversely, gay celebrities can influence private views and deeds. Ocean may just have helped countless gay teenagers to realise that they are never alone.

Dorian Lynskey tweets: @dorianlynskey

Frank Ocean performs at Coachella. Photo: Getty Images

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood