Just A Few Thoughts: Frank Ocean, Sexual Labels, and the Power of Description

by R.L. Stephens II on July 5, 2012

Frank Ocean at Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, 2012

Frank Ocean is a dynamic songwriter with a masterful command of imagery, metaphor, and emotion. Beginning his career ghostwriting for other artists, Ocean’s popularity exploded with the self-release of his album Nostalgia/Ultra in early 2011. Frank Ocean is the eldest member of the Odd Future collective, and has collaborated with Jay-Z, Kanye West, Beyonce and others. His newest album, Channel Orange, will be released July 17.  

However, Frank Ocean’s celebrity has exploded in recent days with his recent announcement that his first love was a man.  It should be noted that Frank Ocean acknowledged Lil B before making his announcement saying “BasedGod was right“. Thank You Based God (literally this time). 

Frank Ocean is the most important artist of my lifetime.  

 In “Swim Good” he writes about suicide in an honest, yet subtle language that makes the subject eminently accessible.  

And I’ve got this black suit on. Roaming around like I’m ready for a funeral. Five more miles ’til the road runs out. I’m about to drive in the ocean. I’mma try to swim from something biggern than me. Kick off my shoes and swim good, and swim good. Take off this suit and swim good, and swim good, good. I’m going off, don’t try stopping me. I’m going off, don’t try saving me. No flares, no vest, and no fear. Waves are washing me out

There Will Be Tears” is a hauntingly brilliant song about fatherlessness and abandonment.

My grandaddy was a player, pretty boy in a pair of gators. See I met him later on, think it was 1991. The only dad I’d ever known, but pretty soon he’d be gone too. Hide my face, hide my face, can’t let ’em see me crying. Cause these boys didn’t have no fathers neither and they weren’t crying. My friend said it wasn’t so bad, you can’t miss what you ain’t had. Well I can. I’m said and there will be tears, I’ve no doubt.

It’s obvious that Frank Ocean is a brilliant songwriter, and I’ve found much of his writing to be personally relevant and even cathartic. I chose the above two songs because his words resonated with my experience struggling to cope with my father’s death. It was good to have such a talented artist offer me words that that I could not find for myself. He spoke openly about depression and suicide in a way that moved me and helped me to emotionally process thoughts that I myself have had.

So, when I found out he was writing lyrics that reflected his bisexuality, I was happy.  I’m glad that Frank is singing/writing/speaking a language that mirrors the experiences of many young queer people of color, including some of my friends. To have such a talented and courageous artist speak to your experiences can be life-changing, especially in a culture where so many young queer people of color are marginalized and abused (Free CeCe). I’m so glad he is not just coming out, but that he is putting words to his experiences and laying down the joy, the love, the confusion, and pain that he felt as he took his first steps towards expressing his sexuality.

I hope the discourse evolves beyond Frank Ocean supporters saying “I love his music *despite* his sexuality”. His personal experiences, including sexual ones, are completely relevant to his expression as both an artist and human being. I have walked with a handful of friends as they struggled through their first steps expressing queer sexuality. I don’t love them *despite* their orientation, I love them as people and I highly value their experiences, experiences that both reflect and exist beyond their sexuality. However, sexuality isn’t just about the act of sex, it’s the feelings, identity, and communication that surround the behavior.   He did not speak in terms of labels, but he used his Baldwin-esque literary skill to describe the joy and pain of an unrequited romantic relationship with a man, which makes his letter so poignant. His letter requires people to think beyond genitalia when thinking about queer sexuality.  Often we use labels so that we don’t have to connect to the person’s experience, we can just dismiss their existence by “othering” them. Frank Ocean’s sexuality isn’t presented with a label ready for us to consume (as was the case with Anderson Cooper).  He’s letting his experience stand alone; this isn’t an “it gets better” message. He is just sharing his feelings in a candid and accessible way.  Sometimes it helps if a person just gives words to the struggle and doesn’t try to point to the outcomes.  Frank’s letter about his first love simply embraces the struggle. 

Truth be told, he already “came-out” last march in the song “Oldie” by Odd Future.

“I’m high and I’m bi, wait, I mean I’m straight”

I believe that Frank’s music will not only give language and voice to his experiences as a queer person of color, but he will also use his staggering talent to confront heteronormative narratives and social structure.

I recall a friend of mine who loves to sing. He would frequently silence and mesmerize auditorium’s of people with his talent. Despite identifying as a gay man, almost all the songs he sang fit within the boy/girl narrative. I remember talking to him on late nights as he processed the shame he felt from his community for being a queer Black man. It is my hope that a songwriting talent like Frank Ocean will give my friend new songs to sing, and a new language to describe his experiences (much like Ocean’s music did for me).

May Frank Ocean’s labor save lives, and strike another blow to the heteronormative patriarchy.

Excerpt of Frank Ocean’s letter:

4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide. Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence … until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. 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. Back then, my mind would wander to the women I had been with, the ones I cared for and thought I was in love with. I reminisced about the sentimental songs I enjoyed as a teenager.. The ones I played when I experienced a girlfriend for the first time. I realized they were written in a language I did not speak yet. I realized too much, too quickly. Imagine being thrown from a plane. I wasn’t in a plane though. I was in a Nissan Maxima, the same one I packed up with bags and drove to Los Angeles in.

I sat there and told my friend how I felt. I wept as the words left my mouth. I grieved for them, knowing I could never take them back for myself. He patted my back. He said kind things. He did his best, but he wouldn’t admit the same. He had to go back inside soon. It was late and his girlfriend was waiting for him upstairs. He wouldn’t tell me the truth about his feelings for me for another 3 years. I felt like I’d only imagined reciprocity for years. Now imagine being thrown from a cliff. No, I wasn’t on a cliff, I was still in my car telling myself it was gonna be fine and to take deep breaths. I took the breaths and carried on. I kept up a peculiar friendship with him because I couldn’t imagine keeping up my life without him. I struggled to master myself and my emotions. I wasn’t always successful.

Letter in it’s entirity

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