Earlier this week, the notorious and equally infamous 50 Cent came out in support of Frank Ocean, after the singer announced that he was gay, or at least bisexual in an open letter posted on Tumblr. Now whilst this endorsement of Ocean’s coming out is in large very positive, the rapper also felt the need to highlight the fact that Ocean’s announcement arrived somewhat in line with the release of his debut album, Channel Orange. 50 Cent is not the first person to do so, and for the coming weeks I doubt he’ll be the last, but by speculating as to whether Ocean’s coming out was some kind of PR move the rapper somewhat undermines not only how genuine Ocean was, but the extent of courage it would have taken to break news of such a sensitive nature, essentially to the world. Whether the move could have been PR motivated should be irrelevant.
I won’t be the first one to tell you of Ocean’s revelation, but if you managed to miss the news, then i’ll just go ahead and assume that ‘Underneath A Rock’ happens to be the first line of your address. In a beautifully written open letter, the R’n’B singer shared the memory of his first love four summers previously, who also happened to be male, claiming that music had given him the strength to both admit to himself and others who he really was. The news not only made headlines everywhere, but also had the internet abuzz with discussion, some of it supportive and some of it not so much. In the original draft of this piece, i’d taken the time to mention those on twitter who’d made ugly, bigoted and unashamedly homophobic comments about the singer, with a proportion of fans claiming that they refused to listen to a gay artist, and would boycott Ocean’s music. I, however, see no point in wasting my time, and let alone yours, in acknowledging these people any further. As a music journalist that’s not my corner to defend, and though in person I’d do so every time, this isn’t the arena to tackle such a widespread issue.
What I do want to raise issue with however, is the discussion of Ocean’s coming out being inextricably linked to the release of his debut album, Channel Orange. Whilst you could argue long into the night for either side of the argument, I don’t believe that it matters. Firstly, I have no doubt in my mind, and in my opinion, neither should you, that Ocean’s letter was nothing other than genuine and heartfelt, from the first letter to the last full stop. You can read the letter here if you require any convincing. The artist has also spoken of how he had planned to have the very same open letter as liner notes in Channel Orange, but sought to break the news himself to avoid speculation and rumours about the singer’s sexuality. The problem, however, is when 50 Cent goes out of his way to praise Ocean, but at the same time speculate as to whether the move was primarily a PR influenced one, it’s almost a backhanded compliment.
Now it’s no secret that 50 Cent has a history of homophobic behaviour, so declaring his support for Ocean is an encouraging and positive step forward, however you have to call into question the reason why the rapper didn’t stick to heralding the singer’s decision, and why he felt the need to ponder the relation between the Tumblr post, and Channel Orange’s release date, as with others doing the same. There should be no suggestion of there being anything amiss; praise and support should be the only real agenda, unless of course you were to suggest that Ocean’s coming out before his album release in itself devalues the courage to do so, which only seem overly cynical and perhaps show a lack of some emotional understanding. Beyoncé wrote a simple handwritten message to Ocean, declaring her support and praising his courage, without calling into question whether the move was PR related at all, which should be a template for how others should show their endorsement of the news.
Some of you may be questioning why it’s a slap in the face to speculate such a thing, and why it’s irrelevant if it was all was a big PR move. The notion of coming out is already something deeply personal, let alone it being in a public sphere of any kind. As the shape of our culture is, with celebrity society running riot, being in the public sphere in 2012 essentially means that we, the consumer, are entitled to know anything and everything about anyone who’s ever graced a television screen, a car stereo or a cover of a magazine. Frank Ocean would have been more aware of this than anyone before he made the announcement, and he knew that once he’d opened that door to the world, it could never shut.
Now this story also might not be such a big deal for say someone in an indie band, but Ocean is the first black R’n'B singer to come out. The first. The amount of pressure the singer must’ve gone through is almost unimaginable. Firstly, he’ll inevitably become some kind of representative, someone to look up to and an icon, and Ocean’ll also be aware of this. It’s a move that’ll mean the artist’ll have somewhat of a responsibility, in the knowledge of being the first gay or bisexual male R’n'B singer. As to why this means a PR move is irrelevant, we should be heralding Ocean for the decision, not being cynical as to whether something so brave, and personally affecting would be used simply to boost album sales. Ocean of course had already planned to release the statement in the liner notes of Channel Orange anyway, and I would argue that exactly the same amount of press scrutiny and attention would have been piled upon him.
Whilst people may still view the move as a marketing stunt, unlike Freddie Mercury, who, though it may seem an obvious link is a good point of reference. When Mercury himself clarified his own sexuality, it was prior to some of Queen’s best known hits, and the band were already respected and popular and if people reacted badly to Mercury’s news, they had their music to fall back on. Ocean, on the other hand, has only released one mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra and appeared alongside Odd Future on The OF Tape Vol. 2 on only a handful of tracks. With Mercury, you could be the biggest homophobe in the world, but if you liked the music, you liked the music. With Ocean, he had a small pedestal to stand on and risked potentially losing large swaths of a future audience when he came out, which only adds to extent of how brave the announcement was.
Coming out at this stage was always going to provide Ocean with a great deal of scrutiny, which we have been witnessing in the past couple of weeks. The decision to open that door to this we can nothing other than commend. The main reason I can’t comprehend the cynicism around the topic is that the singer’s bravery should in no way be seconded. The bravery of being the first in his genre to come out, and the bravery to stand up tall and proud in the public sphere knowing who he is, and being brutally honest about it. Of course Ocean will become an inspiration to so many. Whether the singer expressly sought to become an inspiration in such a way is almost besides the point; he’ll be an icon for doing something no one had done before, for defying the flak of the ignorant for being honest with himself, his music and his audience.
Whether or not you believe Frank Ocean’s coming out was a well spun marketing move, I implore you not to second the singer’s bravery, because in twenty years time I can guarantee no one’s going to talking about a marketing ploy; they’ll be praising Ocean for the sheer breadth of his courage.
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