Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.
No doubt you may have seen the name Frank Ocean in the past week or two going through your Twitter and Facebook feeds. But before we dive into why this 24-year-old singer-songwriter’s quick rise to fame matters, let me set up the context.
Fans have been anticipating Frank Ocean’s solo career debut for quite some time. First there was his guest spot in the Watch the Throne song “Made in America.” And then there was his work in the controversial rap collective Odd Future. But the hype for his debut solo album has steadily built since last summer when Ocean released the first cut from the album: the outstanding, falsetto-filled single “Thinkin Bout You.” However, lines like, “My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy, they pour when/I’m thinking ’bout you” left fans speculating: Was Ocean writing from a girl’s perspective or could he actually be bisexual?
The answer came when just a week before his debut album Channel Orange was set to drop, Ocean published a deeply personal letter on his Tumblr about his first love and surprised everyone when it turned to be another man. The blogosphere and social media outlets successfully transformed Frank Ocean into more than just an exciting new star in hip hop—he was a cultural icon now. Like Kanye’s outrageous tweets and his G.O.O.D. Friday project that led up to his album’s release in 2010, Frank Ocean’s Tumblr post solidified him as a new voice for the hip hop community even before his debut album had been heard (and before Pitchfork awarded the album a rare score of 9.5).
You can read the Tumblr post for yourself, but I think it’s safe to say that it took a lot of courage for Frank Ocean to do what he did. Despite the fact that he probably would have to explain quite a few lines off the album anyway (namely from “Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump”), his acceptance into African-American culture wasn’t exactly a given. After how much push-back Lil B’s provocatively titled album I’m Gay received last year, Frank Ocean could have just as easily received a similarly hostile response.
As far as music, ideology, and personality goes, Channel Orange lands somewhere between Drake, Kanye West, and The Weeknd. With all the earnest honesty of any post-Kanye hip hop artist, Ocean explores his love life with a double-edged sword, cutting through cliches and leaving a heavy sense of ambiguity at the emotional center of every verse he sings. Ocean doesn’t hide his sexuality, but he certainly doesn’t define it or put it a box either.
After all, Frank Ocean isn’t another Prince. He’s not known for wacky stage antics and gender-bending outfits. In fact, he is as much at home in hip hop culture as any of the other members of Odd Future. That’s exactly why his announcement regarding his sexuality came as such a surprise, but also why the culture’s response has been so important as a means of reconciliation within African-American culture. Perhaps the response of Frank Ocean’s Odd Future colleague Tyler, The Creator sums up the response of the community best:
hahaha yeah, ive know for a while, he told me a long time ago. it was just funny cause i was getting bashed as a homophobe or whatever and i kept saying dude how am i one? i have gay friends like what the f*** leave me alone haha. yeah thats my n**** tho, s*** is hard for him but he did that.
Tyler would later tweet:
My Big Brother Finally F****** Did That. Proud Of That N**** Cause I Know That S*** Is Difficult Or Whatever. Anyway. Im A Toilet.
It might not be graceful, but I think Tyler’s response shows a level of brotherhood that surpasses cultural distinctions and whatever he might think about homosexuality. My hope is that we as Christians would have a similar response to a world where being gay or lesbian is more than just a moral or sexual issue. We shouldn’t forget that “coming out” is also a people issue—a matter of cultural identity—which should demand a very different response from us as Christians.