Tuesday night the rising R&B star Frank Ocean did something important. At first, however, few observers agreed on what he'd done. Headlines varied on quickly assembled gossip reports, from the measured to the hyperbolic. "Frank Ocean: My First Love Was a Man." "Frank Ocean Comes Clean About His Bisexuality And I Applaud Him For It!" "Frank Ocean Pulls an Anderson Cooper and Comes Out of the Closet." "Frank Ocean Comes Out and Becomes the First Gay Rapper in History." That last one is wrong on several levels: Ocean did not use the word "gay," nor is he a rapper, nor would he be the first gay rapper if either of those labels applied. (The website added the word "Famous" to its headline later, qualifying its exaggerations somewhat.)
Ocean's act was this: after a journalist who attended a listening party for his new album, Channel Orange, noted that several of the songs were addressed to a male love object, the singer and songwriter turned to his own web page and published two long paragraphs which will likely be part of the liner notes for the July 17 release. They start with a declaration of empathy — "Whoever you are, whatever you are ... I'm starting to think we're a lot alike" — and proceeds to tell of the now 24-year-old native Louisianan's first romance at 19, with a male friend who apparently reciprocated on some level, but refused Ocean's ultimate attempt to name their love. Ocean unfolds his confession in a poetic but reserved manner, promising his former heart's companion one last thing: "Some things never are. And we were. I won't forget you. I won't forget the summer. I'll remember who I was when I met you."
Locating the intimate exchange in time and space, grounding it in lovely, painful detail ("He patted my back. He said nice things," Ocean writes of the moment his friend rejected him), this brief window into a summer place matters on a few levels. It is a kind of coming out: a revelation from a public figure that he's had serious relationships with both men and women. In the R&B world, this is nearly unprecedented. Los Angeles Times music writer Gerrick D. Kennedy called it "the glass ceiling moment for music. Especially black music, which has long been in desperate need of a voice like Ocean's to break the layers of homophobia."
At Ebony.com, Jamilah Lemieux noted that while few urban artists openly embrace homosexuality, many are in "the closet with the glass door," living a life they don't reveal in their music. "I hope that Frank Ocean doesn't become 'the gay singer,' for it would be criminally unfair for him to wear that label as so many of his peers are sleeping with and loving same gendered persons, while selling images of hyper-heterosexuality," she wrote.
There is another reason why Ocean can't be saddled with an easy label, and it points to an interesting aspect of his newly minted self-conception. In his note, instead of embracing an identity, Ocean shared a set of memories and explored complex feelings, just as he does in his songs. Unlike the standard coming out gesture – newsman Anderson Cooper's public email to his friend Andrew Sullivan, "The fact is, I'm gay" — Ocean's presented sexuality as something that arises within particular circumstances, defined by shifting desire and individual encounters rather than solidifying as an identity. In the age-old debate about whether sexuality emerges as something we are or through something we want or do, Ocean carefully rested on the side of feeling and deed.
I'll leave it to others to debate whether Ocean's way of expressing his sexuality goes far enough. (So far, the response online has been overwhelmingly positive.) What's for sure is that it fits neatly within the ongoing evolution of popular music. Pop artists have celebrated sexuality as fluid and dynamic for at least a century. Bessie Smith was just one of many early blues queens who sang of loving both women and men; Little Richard is only the most visible of R&B dandies whose queerness helped define early rock and roll. David Bowie's strategic polymorphous perversity could help rocket him to stardom partly because so many other rockers, from Mick Jagger to Janis Joplin to Lou Reed, played around with expanding visions of lust and love. Ocean's public statement about having loved a man definitely contributes to the cause of greater visibility for LGBTQ artists and people; but in his music, he's not so much pioneering as finding his place in a rich, if far from simple, history.
There is a lineage of African American artists who've presented broader definitions of sexuality through their songs and their public personalities, as well, though homophobia has certainly kept many more from living fully honest lives. Scholars and journalists are doing much to uncover their stories. Gospel music authority Anthony Heilbut's newly published book of essays discusses the impact of "the gay men of gospel," from key musical architects like James Cleveland to crossover figures like Bayard Rustin. (Kelefa Sanneh's 2010 New Yorker profile of the gospel artist Tonex explores how homophobia can impact an artist within that community.) David Hajdu's biography of Duke Ellington's collaborator Billy Strayhorn shows how the lyricist's life as one of the few openly gay men in mid-century jazz helped shape classic songs like "Lush Life." Joshua Gamson's book The Fabulous Sylvester celebrates the great gospel-soul singer and drag artist who, though too often confined to the margins as a disco novelty, was a key player in making careers like Ocean's possible.
The events of the past few days reflect the more difficult side of this story, too. In the fantasy space of performance, artists have often been able to articulate what they otherwise feel they must hide. Ocean's statement is a kind of performance; certainly it's a creative work. It's also a strategic move for a young man connected to mainstream R&B music, one whose path to LGBTQ pride isn't as clear as Anderson Cooper's (as Dream Hampton has noted). By telling a tale that also reflects the more problematic side of "fluid" sexuality, the side that's about denial and taking refuge in more conventional heterosexual relationships, Ocean reflects on a much-discussed experience within African American communities and avoids the kind of grandstanding that might put off some fans. Like The New York Times critic Jon Caramanica, whose eloquent profile of Ocean appeared just as this news was breaking, I thought Ocean might just be playing with characters when I first heard his songs using male pronouns. In a sense, he is — but in the same way that anyone on the down low does. The character you create may be your own tragically false self.
Right now, a new generation is figuring out how to negotiate identity's relationship to desire within music. So far, tolerance seems to be winning over silence and secrecy. Adam Lambert is a certified pop star; the Scissor Sisters and the Gossip play in front of huge festival crowds; and while hetero hubris still dominates hip hop and R&B, Ocean has a compatriot in his fellow Odd Future collective member Syd da Kid, who has never concealed her lesbian identity. Though the "No Homo" meme in rap tipped the discussion toward adolescent game playing and bigotry, even in stubbornly straight pop scenes, the trend is toward compassion.
We can thank Frank Ocean, not only for making a public statement that sweeps aside shadows and offers young fans another powerfully vulnerable star to admire and emulate, but for reminding us that while proudly declaring an identity can be a politically crucial gesture, often the human heart is not so sure-footed. The process of becoming and unbecoming, loving and losing, is what often makes for the most meaningful art.