The irony could not have been lost on the man born as Christopher Breaux. On the anniversary of the birth of a notoriously homophobic country, Breaux, better known to the world as Frank Ocean, via an open letter on his Tumblr page, announced to the world that he fell in love with a man when he was 19.
The Hip Hop community reacted quickly to the news, as it tends to do. Homophobes hurled insults, while equally misguided individuals on the other end of the spectrum took to paternalistic tendencies and flaunting their moral superiority. Meanwhile, Frank Ocean went from one of many promising up-and-coming artists to being the highest-profile Hip Hop artist to ever meaningfully admit engaging in any sort of homosexual activity.
The relevance of Frank Ocean’s announcement isn’t the fact that it superficially contracts slurs hurled by Odd Future’s perpetually pedantic Tyler, the Creator. In fact, the relevance doesn’t even lay in the revelation itself. Many have correctly pointed out that Frank hasn’t necessarily revealed his sexual orientation. His letter, which is a work of art in itself, can be read to say that he is a gay man, but gay/bisexual and homosexual/heterosexual are false dichotomies; sexuality is far more complex than that.
Rather, Frank Ocean’s letter, the reactions that have followed, and the questions that have been raised, serve as a microcosm of Hip Hop’s evolving attitudes towards the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community.
A Gradual Evolution Towards Tolerance
“Now I can freak the fly flow / Fuck up a faggot / Don’t understand their ways / And I ain’t down with gays…”—Sadat X, “Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down.”
Homophobia has long been present in Hip Hop. It’s a well-worn subject, and until recently, not much had changed in Hip Hop artists’ attitude towards the LGBTQ community. Sure, rumors of a gay or lesbian emcee here or there surfaced, but in general, the approach has always been “fire at will.” In fact, one of the most oft-used insults in Hip Hop is to call a rival emcee “gay” or a “faggot.” It’s easy to dismiss homophobia as something that’s only present in “hardcore” Hip Hop, and is therefore somehow confined to particular types of artists. But that’s simply not true. Yes, DMX, whose homophobia is likely informed by his dogmatic (no pun intended) devotion to Christianity, is a prime example. But let’s look at an “enlightened” artist like Mos Def—sorry, Yasiin Bey—who once complained that “quasi-homosexuals is running this rap shit.” Aside from Eminem’s memorable Grammy Awards performance in 2001 with openly gay Elton John, and a passively supportive mention in an interview here and there, Hip Hop has generally remained in staunch opposition to anything “queer”—until very recently.
The Influence Of President Barack Obama And Kanye West
“A small part of the reason the President is black / I told him I got him / When he hit me on the jack / I’m talking about progress / I ain’t lookin’ back…” –Jay-Z, “What We Talkin’ About.”
Nowadays, it appears that Hip Hop’s artists and some fans are changing their stance on homosexuality—“evolving,” to steal a term from one of President Barack Obama’s speechwriters. Interestingly, President Obama’s change of heart may be where this exploration of Hip Hop’s growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community begins.
When the 2008 elections rolled around, Hip Hop artists showed tremendous support for Barack Obama. Common, Young Jeezy, and Jay-Z are just a few of the many emcees that were vocal in their support for the Democratic candidate. On May 9 2012, whether motivated by politics or policy, Obama announced his support for gay marriage rights. Unsurprisingly, shortly after this announcement, many emcees voiced their agreement with the President. On May 14, 2012, Jay-Z spoke with CNN, explaining that he’s “always thought it as something that was still, um, holding the country back.” It was a perplexing statement, given Jay’s decrying of “too much West Coast dick lickin’ ” on Reasonable Doubt’s “22 Twos.” T.I. also opined, asking “why some people are so against it.” Even Russell Simmons, whose former label Def Jam contributed significantly to anti-gay rhetoric via its artists, participated in the PSA below in support of marriage equality:
Aside from Hip Hop, what do these three men have in common? They’re renowned businessmen. What really goes on in Hov, Rush, and Tip’s minds is anyone’s guess. But one thing’s for sure: those calculating cogs never stop turning. Jay and Simmons may or may not actually support the LGBTQ cause, but their businesses and investments cannot entirely escape the grasp of politics. In fact, who’s to say they aren’t interested in becoming more actively involved in the political front? That would, at least, explain Simmons’ baffling presence at the Occupy Wall Street rallies in New York. And as for Jay and T.I., both men know that the LGBTQ community is not only a community that has been ostracized by Hip Hop culture, but as also an untapped market.
Financial Benefits Of LGBTQ Tolerance
“I try not to fight / And I hold the positive / Stop the violence / Because we gotta get past it / We gotta get money and affirmative action.” –Lil B, “I’m A Fag I’m A Lesbian (Based Freestyle).”
“LGBT consumers represent a powerful buying community that marketers cannot afford to ignore,” says a 2011 marketing research report from Community Marketing, Inc., which provides, “LGBT consumers make up 5% to 10% of the U.S. consumer market.” The report, which tracks the LGBT community’s usage of smartphones and social media, as well as buying patterns, provides that the second-and-third largest impact on LGBT purchasing decisions are “support [of] LGBT organizations or charities” and “support [of] LGBT political causes,” respectively. Simply put, LGBTQ community members purchase music, basketball tickets (Brooklyn Nets, anyone?), and buy dinner reservations (40/40 Club, ESPN on the screen). LGBTQ issues and characters are becoming more prominent in film and television. All of these things equal money, and money equals influence.
Perhaps Busta Rhymes had these thoughts in mind when he offered support to Frank Ocean, for example. Having referred to Wendy Williams as a “lesbian man-looking bitch” in a VIBE interview and spitting the f-word at will, Bussa Buss’ uncharacteristic support (followed days later by the announcement of his next album) has to raise a few eyebrows.
Androgyny And New Forms Of Artistic Self Expression
“It’s the return of the gangsta / Thanks to / Them niggas that get the wrong impression of expression / And the question is / Big Boi what’s up with Andre / Is he in a cult / Is he on drugs / Is he gay / When y’all gone break up / When y’all gone wake up nigga / I’m feelin’ better than ever / What’s wrong with you…” –Andre 3,000, “Return Of The ‘G’”
To be sure, not every emcee’s support of the LGBTQ community has necessarily been motivated by monetary or political desires. Some of this newfound support can possibly be linked to Hip Hop’s evolving artistic expression. Who’s to say that Nicki Minaj’s and Lil B’s rhetoric, which at times toys with sexuality, doesn’t mirror that of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust or Grace Jones’ androgynous imagery? Nicki fits the profile in particular, with her character Roman Zolanski clearly serving as an homage to Bowie’s prior work. Indeed, Nicki has provided that her toying with sexuality in her music does not mean she is required to comment on her personal orientation, though she eventually did just that. Lil B has openly criticized the use of phrases such as “no homo,” and even titled his album I’m Gay. Though presumably he added “I’m Happy” to the title at the behest of the label, Based God explained that the title was made in support of the LGBTQ community. Strangely, Lil B refers to one of his recent female conquests as my “dykin’ ass bitch” and a “faggot bitch” on the song “Pretty Bitch,” which recalls Kanye’s occasional substitution of “woman” with the word “dyke.”
Even artistic expression by way of fashion has changed rapidly. We love to joke about Lil Wayne’s zebra-print jeggings, but let’s look at it bit more closely. It’s safe to say that the ultra-macho and extra-large tees and jeans are no longer the norm, and have been replaced with tighter clothing, more vivid colors, and new hairstyles. Sure, a golden streak in Wiz Khalifa’s hair is neither support for or a victory for LGBTQ rights, but it’s a prime example that the Hip Hop mindset is changing. Of course, Tyler the Creator is a prime counterexample, who simultaneously rocks knee-high socks and cat t-shirts, and has no problem calling B.o.B. a “faggot nigga” and MC Lyte a “dyke.” The fact remains: emcees are no longer quite so concerned that fans—or their peers, for that matter—might consider something they do is “gay.” What’s evident is that emcees’ views of masculinity in 2012 are very different from their views in 1992.
Much of this change can be traced to Kanye West. West is a heterosexual, but his indirect popularization of vulnerable, first-person lyrics, flamboyant style, mingling with the fashion community were all taboo things that are still associated with homosexuality. On some level, a whole generation of easily-influenced fans saw that if West could wear tight pants, attend fashion week and pour out his heart via Auto-tune while still being attached to women like Amber Rose and Kim Kardashian a line was drawn. However, one of West’s most important endorsements isn’t found in any of his music.
“Anybody that was gay I was like, ‘Yo, get away from me,’” West recalled in his MTV Special, All Eyes On Me. “And like Tupac said, ‘Started hangin’ with the thugs,’ and you look up and all my friends were really thugged out. It’s like I was racing to try to find that constant masculine role model right there, right in front of me. I would use the word ‘fag’ and always look down upon gays. But then my cousin told me that another one of my cousins was gay, and I loved him, he’s one of my favorite cousins. And at that point it was kind of like a turning point when I was like, ‘Yo, this my cousin, I love him and I been discriminating against gays.’ But everybody in Hip Hop discriminates against gay people. Matter of fact, the exact opposite word of ‘Hip Hop,’ I think, is ‘gay.’ Like yo, you play a record and if it’s wack, ‘That’s gay, dog!’ And I wanna just come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends, ‘Yo, stop it fam.’”
Dissmissing Rumors And Innuendo
“See these girls talkin’ all that shit / I’m just tryin’ to see some tits / Let’s get it poppin’ like MC Lyte / Around some dykes…” –Tyler, the Creator, “Rella”
Several Hip Hop artists have been the subject of much public speculation as to their sexual orientation. Despite never having come out, Queen Latifah, Erick Sermon, and MC Lyte have long been hounded about their preferences. In fact, online publications irresponsibly surmised that Latifah, who headlined Long Beach’s Lesbian & Gay Pride event on May 19, was making some sort of statement about her sexuality. Not so, explained the rapper to Entertainment Weekly. Even in light of these rumors (and they are just that—rumors), these artists have maintained the considerable amount of respect capital they’ve built over the years. Maybe this signals that Hip Hop is not as averse to the idea of homosexuality as some may have previously thought.
The more instant example may be Mister Cee, where the famed deejay and producer was arrested after being caught receiving oral sex from another man in a parked car. Perhaps more surprising than the news was the Hip Hop community’s response, which was unexpectedly tame. Not only that, but 50 Cent came to Cee’s defense, telling Hot 97’s Miss Info, “I’ll get rid of Whoo Kid and make Cee my deejay any day.” It’s hard to argue that 50’s motivating factor for vocally supporting Cee was money; Fif is filthy rich. And it’s hard to imagine Cee doing anything for 50 in that department (or any deejay, for that matter). It appears here that, despite evidence that Cee engaged in a sexual act with man, 50’s respect for the veteran deejay mattered more to 50 than whatever preconceived notions the Queens emcee had regarding someone who is ostensibly a member of the LGBTQ community.
Whether these artists actually are homosexual or bisexual isn’t the point, nor is it our job to speculate. What does matter is that, despite some public perceptions that they are homosexual, these artists have not been treated as outcasts. Do these examples, though serving as anecdotal evidence at best, indicate a change in attitudes towards homosexuality?
“Never knew it would turn out like this / For so long he tried to fight this / Now it was no way for him to ignore it / His parents found out and hated him for it / How could I judge him / Had to accept him / If I truly loved him / No longer he said had he hated himself / Through sexuality he liberated himself…” –Common, “Between Me, You & Liberation.”
When the idea for this op-ed was originally conceived months ago, the question was posed: would there ever be a high-profile artist in Hip Hop to come out in the near future? It appears that Frank Ocean has answered that question (though the exact details remain unclear). Ocean contends in his letter that the reason he made his revelation is because he could not bear to keep his secret any longer. Perhaps that was the primary motivating factor, but there is something to be said about the fact that he felt secure enough to make this decision. Not just secure in his own sexuality, but secure in his safety, and secure in his career prospects.
Even five years ago, speaking of engaging in any sort of homosexual activity would be a career death sentence to any Hip Hop artist. Ocean, whose most high-profile appearance came as a featured artist on two tracks from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, has heard both of his collaborators—Hip Hop juggernauts—publicly offer support to the LGBTQ community. To what degree this support influenced Ocean’s decision is something we can’t know, but Hov and ‘Ye’s words couldn’t have gone unnoticed. Even Lil Scrappy provided (misguided) support to Ocean. Notable also is indie Rap vet Murs’ decision to not only write about the fierce discrimination gay couples face in the song “Animal Style,” but to bravely star as a gay man in its music video.
After witnessing an artist of Frank Ocean’s profile make such a revelation, it has become apparent that what motivating factors the aforementioned artists have for supporting the acceptance of all things LGBTQ in Hip Hop may very well be irrelevant. Artists like Ocean aren’t spokespersons for the LGBTQ community. But we are entering a socially and historically significant shift in Hip Hop’s attitude towards that community in large part because Ocean was willing to risk his career to “feel like a free man,” as he wrote in his letter. So whether motivated by greed or art, politics or a genuine change of heart, one thing is clear: the Hip Hop’s stance on the LGBTQ community seems to be changing for the better. And for those who have felt ostracized by some of Hip Hop’s most vile and homophobic works, it’s an encouraging sign.
Slava Kuperstein is an Ellicott City, Maryland native by way of Odessa, Ukraine who has been writing for HipHopDX since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @SlavaK87.