An Ocean of doubt in hip-hop

The hip-hop community supports Frank Ocean despite a rocky history with LGBT culture.

Leah Lancaster

At this point, more people are aware of Frank Ocean’s sexual preferences than the content of his first album, “Channel Orange.” On July 4, when he posted his now famous Tumblr story describing the heartbreak of his first love for another man, he gained more than 15,000 followers the next day and the recognition of being one of the first African-American men in the hip-hop community to come out.

With President Barack Obama’s recent statement about his “evolving” opinion on gay marriage, a handful of popular hip-hop artists have shown their support of Ocean, despite the fact that many of their lyrics are riddled with homophobic slurs. “Obama is for same-sex marriage. When the president is saying that, who am I to go the other way?” said rapper 50 Cent, who, in his song “Heartless Monster,” rapped about explicit violence against homosexuals. Jay-Z, who on his track “Gangsta Shit,” uses sexual expletives to spread stigma against the LGBT community, also praised Ocean in his Life and Times blog for coming out. What’s even more problematic are the statements issued from Tyler the Creator, a frequent collaborator and close friend of Ocean’s, who used the pejorative sexual slurs more than 200 times in his album “Goblin.” “I’m not homophobic,” said Tyler in an interview with New Musical Express, “I just think [these words] hit and hurt people. And ‘gay’ just means you’re stupid.”

This showcase of contradictory practices and debatable logic bring up many issues that question the hip-hop community’s supposed newfound acceptance of one of its own in the LGBT community. Accepting Ocean’s sexuality because the president claims to be an advocate is not a step forward toward equality but rather a dangerously superficial statement that only masks deep prejudices that still persist. I do believe that Ocean’s reception is a sign that progress is being made, but it can only go so far if prominent members in the industry continue to produce and endorse homophobic and misogynistic material. The support shown in interviews and blog posts doesn’t mean much when thousands of songs and music videos suggest the opposite. More importantly, it sends a very muddled message to the huge audiences that they reach.

It is also important to note that Ocean is being lauded as a bisexual man in the entertainment industry. It would be a different story if he were, for example, a political figure or military official. Audiences can accept Ocean because his sexuality is being presented in a nonthreatening way that doesn’t necessarily influence dominating power structures. Gay, bisexual and transgender men are less likely to offend people if they are simply performing.

These days the LGBT community is more visible than ever, but the path to its liberation is still full of obstacles. Too often do I hear people saying, “what he or she does in the bedroom is none of my business,” when the real movement and real acceptance goes beyond tolerating different sexualities —it’s about challenging heteronormative, hierarchal roles and the oppressive institutions they create for all. Until these ideas can be truly considered in private and in public media platforms — in the hip-hop community and beyond — acceptance is still a dot in the distance.