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

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.