By David J. Malebranche
Last week, social media was set ablaze when Frank Ocean publicly released a letter describing a love experience he had during the summer of his 20th year of life. When he dared to not change the pronoun of his exquisitely described love interest from “he” to “she” in said letter, droves of people celebrated this young brother’s brave “coming out” as nothing short of a revolutionary step in hip-hop’s (and ultimately, the collective Black community’s) slow but steady progression towards acceptance of homosexuality. A slew of blogs, opinion pieces, and musings have since emerged analyzing this “love letter,” speculating on Frank Ocean’s motivations in disclosing his same-sex romantic interest in this manner, and the broader implications of his disclosure for the larger LGBT community and gay civil rights movement.
This week, Frank Ocean’s new album, “channel ORANGE,” was digitally released exclusively on iTunes, a full week before its original release date.
I cannot claim to know Frank Ocean’s intentions or what his motivations were in releasing his “love letter” to the general public last week in the manner in which he did. Perhaps at 23, he grew tired of having to change pronouns of loves found, retained, or lost when describing them to friends and family. Maybe he simply wanted to enjoy the normalized privilege that heterosexuals enjoy in telling a love story without a second thought on what reaction he will get from the general reading audience. Indeed, it could be much less of a profound proclamation than many want to define it as, and simply breaks down to an artist telling his story, or “Frank just being Frank.” Regardless, Frank Ocean’s disclosure of a personal same-sex love story notes a curious trend in how artists and performers handle their so-called “coming out.”
In the 1970s through the 1990s, R&B and Hip-Hop performers rarely acknowledged or admitted same sex love or desire. Back then, to do so was certain career suicide, and for many Black artists, the importance of marketing and profiting off music that heterosexuals could jam, groove, and make babies to was the priority. As a result, any inclination to stand in one’s own truth when that truth distracted from the image of the “straight” artist was wholly discouraged. We all talked and speculated about the sexual proclivities of celebrities such as Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and others, with each month bringing a new rumor that could neither be confirmed nor denied, but made for good water cooler or bar conversation, nonetheless. And we’ve all heard the stories about Puffy and Mase, Johnny Gill and Eddie Murphy, and even the late Whitney Houston’s sexuality was put in question regarding a personal assistant named “Robin” who was always by her side and whom she often thanked at award ceremonies. In many of these instances, none of us knew for sure if these artists were same-gender-loving or not, but maybe in our own wishful thinking, personal dreams, and fantasies, we hoped they were. Even if to just say in some instance about a Black same-gender-loving performer, s/he is “one of us.”
Moreover, the true rumors of same-sex behavior and an artist being “gay” would always emerge if a famous celebrity died unexpectedly. When Eazy-E died of AIDS, we all wondered if he had been “gay”; David Cole of C&C Music Factory died of “meningitis” and people grumbled about his sexuality; and the lead singer of Force MDs who reportedly died of “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” caused much speculation about his sexuality and whether Lou Gehrig’s Disease was actually the malady to which he succumbed. Interestingly, same sex desire and behavior became associated with not only a figurative “career death” in the entertainment industry, but a literal one as well.
Fast forward to today, and we are witnessing a very different dynamic when it comes to disclosing one’s sexuality and how it plays out in the mainstream media. While Ellen DeGeneres first took a hit for disclosing that she was a lesbian in the late 1990s and it torpedoed her TV sitcom, she has rebounded to become one of the most successful talk show hosts and personalities of this time, and a one woman empire in the domain of TV, movies, and books. Rosie O’Donnell soon followed. Ricky Martin kept his sexuality hidden for years in fear of the economic repercussions of his singing career, but recently “came out” as gay, and is now enjoying a star turn on Broadway in the revival of “Evita.” Clay Aiken initially lost album sales and possibly many fans after shocking the world (“gasp!”) with the public announcement that he was homosexual, but has since enjoyed much commercial success on Broadway, television, and singing performances. From TV sitcoms such as “Glee” to reality TV shows such as “Project Runway,” “The A List” and “Tabitha Takes Over” among others, the past decade has thankfully demonstrated that shows featuring gay people and characters can and will be profitable, both when targeting the “DINK” (double income no kids) demographic of gay couples, as well as the heterosexuals who love, support, and covet everything they do. From “American Idol” runner-up Adam Lambert to N’Sync’s Lance Bass, many LGBT artists have been able to honestly declare their sexual orientation and not have it torpedo their careers. A major exception to this rule was George Michael, a brilliant pop/R&B artist in his time who unfortunately had his sexuality exposed to the media through a public bathroom cruising incident, and has been in a downward spiral ever since.
I would be remiss to not acknowledge, however, that despite these same-sex disclosing “success” stories, the underlying foundation of race, class, and gender privilege that intersects with “coming out” in this country and cradles many White gay entertainers during this process, does not always handle Black entertainers in a similar fashion. Billy Porter, a brilliant singer, actor, and artist who enjoyed some early Broadway and R&B success in the late 1990s, struggled to find similar opportunities as his White counterparts, and is only now enjoying a career resurgence because he unapologetically blends being both Black and gay with a talent and ease that the Broadway community can no longer deny. And no matter how many times Beyonce borrows from the Black gay kids, incorporating our sense of style and creativity into her music, fashion, and every last music video she does, she presents us in the form of heteronormative package. It is a distinctly different context in which Black male entertainers “come out” within a social environment that embraces elements of Black gay culture unconditionally – one that is wrapped up in archaic stereotypes of Black masculinity and gender norms that can all but choke the life out of anyone attempting to live in their truth of a same-gender-loving existence and have a profitable career in entertainment. This context makes it significantly more challenging for Black male entertainers and celebrities to enjoy the same economic and career success after “coming out” as their non-Black counterparts.
Or does it? When Don Lemon revealed he was gay in May 2011, while many were not surprised, it certainly brought some major media attention his way, and certainly was timed well. His announcement came about a week in advance of the release of his book, Transparent, which went on to enjoy robust sales, and has led to many additional speaking and promotional opportunities he didn’t have before. Plus, he didn’t lose his job as a CNN anchor and continues to report the news and bring many more stories impacting LGBT communities to the forefront with a newfound freedom. Indeed, Don didn’t receive any strong negative backlash or repercussions to his career that I am aware of, which may have played out differently if he had done the same thing twenty years ago.
Which brings me back to Frank Ocean. While I cannot presume to know what is going on in his head and can only speculate as to his motivations behind the timing of his “love letter” release, it is curious that this letter broke into social media a week before the digital release of his album, leading to subsequent (mostly positive) buzz around the letter and support from major stars in the Hip-Hop and R&B communities (see Kanye, Jay-Z, and Beyonce); a live appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show; and likely multiple opportunities, speaking events, and appearances that may not have reached such a frenzied level if the letter had not broken into the media. Amidst all this, interviews and statements from Frank Ocean himself since the letter’s release have been conspicuously absent. So if we are going to discuss intersectionality in its truest terms, and how issues of race, class and gender all influence how one shapes and experiences their sexuality and public disclosure, we must also include the intersecting role that capitalism and material gains play in this equation. While I am certain of the raw truth, sincerity, and integrity in which Frank Ocean experienced love found and love lost, we would all be fools to think that the timing of all this is purely coincidental. In fact, this whole story may signal the ushering in of a new era of self-promotion and marketing that actually banks on the media blitz surrounding diversity and perceived taboos in sexual orientation, leading to increased attention and profit. In this brave new world, media interviews would go something like this:
Interviewer: “So, Mr. Black Newly Gay Celebrity, how long have you known about your attraction to other men, and why announce this now?”
Mr. Black Newly Gay Celebrity: “I’ve always been attracted to men, but it was never the right time until now. You can read about it in my new book called ‘I’m Queer and Loving It,’ available next week through e-readers everywhere, Barnes and Noble, Wal-Mart and Target.”
The old adage of “any press is good press” applies here. No matter if people knew of Frank Ocean before (and trust that many, including me, only knew him from “Watch the Throne” before last week), the release of his “love letter,” no matter if they approve or disapprove of his declaration of being in love with another man, his story brought him attention. And when it comes to entertainment, whether attention is good or bad, it leads to public curiosity, which in turn leads to increased consumption and profits. “Cash rules everything around me” has never been more appropriate when considering the entertainment industry, and being opportunistic about the predictable media frenzy over a “coming out” story for economic gain is no exception. To prove this point, Target got upset and threw a tantrum about the early digital release of “channel ORANGE” exclusively on iTunes this past week, and announced they would not sell his CD next week for the full original release date. While this was criticized initially by many, including Ocean’s manager as some king of homophobic response to his “coming out,” it turns out that Target has always been supportive of LGBT issues, and this was just about the money they lost to iTunes in taking advantage of Ocean’s newfound stardom. Only time will tell whether the sensationalized media attention surrounding his sexual orientation translates to increased sales in the long term, but I can tell you that his album is currently # 1 on iTunes overall music section, and prices for tickets to his upcoming concert here in Atlanta rose from $35 to close to $100 in one week, and sold out quickly.
The fact is, we live in a microwave culture where 15 minutes of fame is the rule, reality TV makes “stars” out of otherwise boring people, and the “accidental” Internet viral release of a sex tape with the younger brother of an R&B pop star can lead to a media empire and a slew of rich Black boyfriends (see Kim Kardashian).
So I say to Frank Ocean, with your beautiful, brilliant, talented self – I applaud your transparency and keen understanding that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. We are not living in the 1990s anymore, and people need to appreciate and experience how truly talented you are and the many intersecting identities that shape you. So if a sincere but timely leakage of information about your sexual orientation happens the week before you release your album that sparks discussion and interest in your talent and music, then so be it. If Rush Limbaugh can make millions in this country by standing in his truth of being a classist, racist, sexist, drug addicted homophobe, why can’t you capitalize off standing in the truth of your same-gender-loving tendencies as just one aspect of who you are?
I, for one, am not hating. Use the system young brother, for it will certainly be trying to squeeze everything it can from you.
Author Bio: David J. Malebranche is an Associate Professor within Emory University’s Division of General Medicine and a writer/activist whose work centers on the intersection of race, sexuality, and public health.