President Barack Obama's support for gay marriage was not the beginning of reevaluating the public's perception of homosexuality, but it did re-spark a nationwide discussion that even led high-profile representatives of the hip-hop community, like Jay-Z, A$AP Rocky and T.I., to express their acceptance of all despite their sexual orientation. The world in general has grown into a more tolerant place yet hip-hop has been one facet of culture that has been rather passive in regards to this issue for many years. Yesterday, Frank Ocean shook the world by publishing a personal letter, in which he reveals his sexuality as encompassing romantic interests for the same sex. The singer is the second public figure within a short period of time to publicly divulge his sexuality, the other being high-profile CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.
It is worthwhile to draw a comparison between Ocean and Cooper and their respective decisions to come out of the closet. The latter's revelation has made headlines in countless U.S. publications, but interestingly enough, it did not cause a major uproar within the American society. This absence of controversy indicates that the U.S. society is likely to have reached a true milestone with this generally held indifference towards a public figure’s sexual orientation. Obviously, there is no obligation for anybody to share intimate details of their lives with the rest of the world, but for Cooper it was less his sexuality that drew attention but rather why he brought his privacy into the public sphere. He noted that his visibility takes precedence over preserving his profession's shield of privacy:
“It became clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something - something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true.”
Along with Cooper's announcement and President Barack Obama's recent support of gay marriage, Ocean's revelation clearly is a sign of times. For him, however, the setting is a different one. Being praised as the new big thing in the music game, expectations for his first studio full-length Channel Orange (Island Def Jam) have risen to a level that probably can only be fulfilled by a very few of today's artists. And as we all know, expectations bear pressure. Adding to this stress, rumors of his bisexuality arrived earlier this week after several pre-release reviews detected ambiguous lines in his lyrics. While Cooper's homosexuality was an open secret to many, the sudden discussion of Ocean's sexual orientation surprised the music industry. Not even 48 hours later, the singer decided to come out of the closet by publishing a letter on his personal Tumblr. Although it dates back to December 2011, the timing of its arrival could not be any better. Sure, the marketing power of this revelation cannot be denied, as there is and will be guaranteed media attention for Ocean and his music coinciding with Channel Orange's release. However, one also must take into account the potential risk of losing a significant part of his fanbase within the urban culture – a sphere which is still known for anti-gay sentiments than for applauding same sex pride.
This coming out has arrived at the right moment because it carries a great symbolic character. Despite hip-hop's largely homophobic attitudes, a slight shift within the culture has occurred during the last decade. This "development" has happened subtly/stealthily as acts like Lil B and Frank Ocean's Odd Future conquered the masses with new styles that respectively pertain positivity and nihilism. These refreshingly rebellious approaches in hip-hop have brought along an increased open-mindedness within the culture, that is likely to overturn any creative boundaries. Tolerance will inherit much needed creative ground to a culture which has often been accused of stalled and non-innovative styles and sounds. As a member of the progressive Odd Future family and its strong sense of union, Frank Ocean was given a perfect foundation to develop and master his craft in a genuine and authentic way, while also being exposed to a global audience. The burden of his secrecy has disappeared now. Stating in his letter, "I feel like a free man," Ocean understands as well that freedom takes precedence over his privacy, for the sake of his art. Placing this announcement a couple of weeks prior to his album's release probably would have signified the end of his promising career "four summers ago," but in 2012, it signifies its very beginning.
Photography: Ravi Sidhu for HYPETRAK