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Frank Ocean's love letter a game-changer for hip-hop

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frankoceanout.JPGComing out as a gay celebrity used to be such a big deal. Ellen DeGeneres on the cover of Time: "Yep, I'm Gay." Lance Bass on the cover of People: "I'm Gay." Clay Aiken, same magazine: "Yes, I'm Gay."

Today, such news barely makes headlines. In the last several years, dozens of actors (from Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis to Neil Patrick Harris and Chris Colfer) and singers (Chely Wright to Ricky Martin) have revealed their sexuality without causing palpitations in the press. In recent weeks, TV reporter Anderson Cooper and sitcom star Jim Parsons came out via offhand comments, and reactions ranged from "yawn!" to "duh!"

But Frank Ocean's love letter last week is different. It's definitely a big deal.

Ocean, 24, a sought-after R&B singer who emerged from a controversial hip-hop collective, wrote a post on his blog about falling in love with a man when he was 19.

"We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Every day almost," Ocean wrote. "And on the days we were together, time would glide. Most of the day I'd see him, and his smile. ... By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love. It changed my life."

Fans tweeted surprise and screeds. Celebrities blogged statements of support -- including Beyonce, who posted a free-verse poem on her own blog encouraging Ocean to "Be Free, Be Yourself, Be in Love, Be Happy, Be Inspiration" -- cheering Ocean for bringing illumination to a music genre well-known for homophobic rap lyrics and R&B stereotypes that force many gay singers to exist on the "down low."

"It's great that so many people in the industry are giving him big ups for what he did," says Pierre "Prince Charming" Phipps, half of Chicago's Freaky Boiz, a gay hip-hop duo. "This will give artists, especially gay artists, a chance to show who they are and not be afraid to go on and still make good music."

Cynics decry the post as a publicity stunt. Ocean's new album, "Channel Orange," was scheduled to drop July 17; however, because of the publicity following his admission, the album was made available Tuesday on iTunes (where it shot to No. 1).


Odd fellows

Ocean's homosexuality is simply a surprising biographical line item given the company he's kept. He got his start as the crooning member of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, a Los Angeles hip-hop collective notorious for lyrics dealing with rape, murder, torture, blasphemy, misogyny and heaps of homophobia.

Exactly one year ago, in fact, many Chicagoans were apoplectic over the group's appearance at the annual Pitchfork Music Festival. Ocean wasn't present for the sprawling group's performance that day, but Tyler the Creator, the group's de facto leader, was the focus of local protesters. He'd previously been targeted by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for his homophobic rhymes.

Tyler, however, was quick to chime in offering support, tweeting last week that he was "proud" of his friend.


Hip-hop game-changer

Ocean's vocal talent has been tapped by A-listers from Nas and Pharrell to Justin Bieber and John Legend. Ocean co-wrote and sang on two tracks from last year's "Watch the Throne," the acclaimed collaboration between Jay-Z and Chicago rapper Kanye West.

West, notably, has been dogged throughout his career by unsubstantiated claims that he, too, is gay. West thus far has been uncharacteristically silent about Ocean's post. But in a 2009 radio interview, West had his say about such rumors and their context, stating unequivocally that he's "not gay" and acknowledging the prevailing perception that in "the hip-hop world ... the worst thing you can be is to be gay."

"First of all, what we need to get past, as black people especially," West said, "is the concept that gay people are bad, because ... the gay people I know are some of the most incredible people on the planet, actually."

Def Jam Records co-founder Russell Simmons hailed Ocean's courage as a game-changer for the genre: "Today is a big day for hip-hop. 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? ... Your decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear."


Unwelcoming history

Why are Ocean's admission and the industry's reaction viewed as so momentous? Because hip-hop and R&B are among the last firm cultural holdouts for unabashed homophobia.

Hip-hop's history is especially riddled with gay-bashing rhymes. In a 2003 article in The Advocate, a gay news magazine, Tommy Boy Records CEO Tom Silverman stated, "Hip-hop is the most homophobic genre there is." For years Judge Muscat, a member of San Francisco rap group Rainbow Flava, maintained Da Dis List, an exhaustive online database of anti-gay rap lyrics.

Ice Cube's "No Vaseline," for instance, disses former bandmates with numerous male anal rape metaphors. Big Daddy Kane once infamously proclaimed himself "anti-faggot." "Criminal" by Eminem, himself the target of a GLAAD campaign, laid out his position: "Hate fags? The answer's yes." Here in Chicago, rapper Rhymefest ran for City Council last year and had to answer for repeated use of gay slurs in his songs.

There are and have been plenty of openly gay hip-hop MCs and groups, but they've all operated commercially on the down low. St. Louis had Dyamond Theory, New York had Morplay, New Orleans had its own gay subgenre called "sissy bounce."

Is Chicago's gay hip-hop scene very strong? "Oh, no," Freaky Boiz's Phipps says, laughing. "We're it."

But, as in many cities, that's changing. The Freaky Boiz, comprised of Phipps and Terrance "TTgotIt" Wilson, became online sensations last year when they began posting YouTube videos of themselves rapping new, gay-friendly lyrics over karaoke tracks of current hit songs.

"People said we were breaking barriers and changing lives," Phipps says. "We were just having fun, but we were saying things that people wanted to hear, that they hadn't heard in hip-hop before."
Now they're writing their own material -- a single, "Bounce," was released last week -- and next month they tour Europe.


A tipping point

For years, signs have been mounting that hip-hop might be a more welcoming place for rappers and singers of any sexuality.

By the turn of the century, Eminem was on stage at the Grammys with Elton John, holding hands with him at the end; by 2010, the Detroit rapper told The New York Times he supported gay marriage. The year before, Lil Wayne was photographed kissing his frequent collaborator Birdman on the mouth, resulting in only brief online titters. In February, Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky (on stage this weekend at the Pitchfork festival), surveyed hip-hop homophobia and concluded: "It doesn't matter. You don't see people for being gay. People need to leave gay people the f--- alone. Like, who cares?"

Hand in hand with hip-hop, R&B is a historically sexually charged genre -- a certain kind of sex, anyway. NPR critic Ann Powers this week noted R&B's open embrace of androgynous performers despite demanding staunchly heterosexual content. "For explicitly homoerotic lyrics, it is uncharted territory," Powers said. "Lyrics that talk about love between men are not a part of mainstream R&B in the contemporary moment."

Finally, hip-hop journalist Dream Hampton posted her own response to Ocean's letter this week, noting that his words are revolutionary not because they're about sexuality (sex is never addressed) but because they're about love.

"The male pronoun of the object of your desire is practically incidental," she wrote in a post on Jay-Z's "Life and Times" site. "We have all been in a love that felt 'malignant ... hopeless' from which 'there was no escaping, no negotiating.' Your promise to your first love, that you won't forget him, that you'll remember how you changed each other, is so full of love and grace."

In a genre whose vistas don't often envision life beyond lurid sexual conquests and gritty neighborhood travails, if Ocean's sweet mooning opens floodgates for a new generation of soulful lover men -- that would be a big deal, indeed.



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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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