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:

33RevolutionsPerMinute.wordpress.com

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”