Osheaga Festival, August 3

The Lives and Loves of Frank Ocean

Richard Burnett

Frank Ocean made music history when he publicly came out as a bisexual man on July 4 last summer, just three weeks before his sold-out July 29 concert at Montreal’s intimate Club Soda.

I can’t imagine Ocean will ever headline a concert hall in this city that “small” again, and everybody in the house that night knew it. This was a special and unique moment in local music history and the vibe was absolutely electric, as the mixed audience – white and black, gay and straight – hung on Ocean’s every word and gesture. The love-in was a beautiful thing to watch, to witness. It reThe worlds of hip hop and R&B – indeed, much of black culture – have been rightly criticized for their widespread homophobia, but none it was evident at his Montreal show.

“Homophobia is so ingrained in the black community and within the black church,” former MTV executive and author Terrance Dean told me when his terrific 2008 bestselling blind-item-filled book Hiding in Hip Hop shot up the bestseller charts. “It’s all about black masculinity. Hip-hop is all high-testosterone machismo and bravado. In the black community, you cannot be hip-hop and be gay. I think the white community is more tolerant of gay people.” Radar Online (the web presence of the U.S. national Radar magazine) last year reported that hugely popular bestselling author and NYC radio jock Wendy Williams – The Wendy Williams Experience is one of America’s highest-rated weekday syndicated radio broadcasts – has ‘outed’ just about every big name in rap, including Dr. Dre, Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs and Method Man.” I asked Dean if Williams is accurate. “The people that Wendy has mentioned on her show – she has not been off-base,” Dean replied.

It was to this world that R&B singer Frank Ocean – member of the hip hop collective Odd Future who has also written songs for Justin Bieber, John Legend and Beyoncé –bravely came out to in a blog post. Ocean wrote, “In the last year or 3 I’ve screamed at my creator, screamed at the clouds in the sky, for some explanation. Mercy maybe. For peace of mind to rain like manna somehow. 4 summer ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost… 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. He continues, “I don’t know what happens now, and that’s alrite. I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore… Thanks to my first love, I’m grateful for you. Grateful that even though it wasn’t what I hoped for and even though it was never enough, it was… I feel like a free man. If I listen closely… I can hear the sky falling too.”

Ocean’s landmark 2012 album Channel Orange also featured the songs Bad Religion, Pink Matter and Forrest Gump that reflect on his sexuality. The album was nothing short of extraordinary. So I wanted to interview Ocean for Fugues magazine to preview his upcoming concert at the Montreal’s outdoor Osheaga Music and Arts Festival on August 3. Unfortunately – but not surprisingly – Ocean is granting few interviews on his current world tour. He doesn’t need to since the tour is selling out everywhere he goes. To wit, June tickets for concerts on the Australian leg of his tour sold out in a matter of minutes. But about his now-famous Tumblr blog post, Ocean told GQ magazine for their 2012 year-end review, “The night I posted it, I cried like a fucking baby. It was like all the frequency just clicked to a change in my head. All the receptors were now receiving a different signal, and I was happy. I hadn't been happy in so long. I've been sad again since, but it's a totally different take on sad. There's just some magic in truth and honesty and openness.

Ocean continues, “Whatever I said in that letter, before I posted it, seemed so huge. But when you come out the other side, now your brain—instead of receiving fear—sees ‘Oh, shit happened and nothing happened.’ Brain says, ‘Self, I'm fine.’ I look around, and I’m touching my fucking limbs, and I’m good. Before anybody called me and said congratulations or anything nice, it had already changed. It wasn’t from outside. It was completely in here, in my head.”

Ocean also admitted he was afraid that publicly coming out would derail his career. “I had those fears. In black music, we’ve got so many leaps and bounds to make with acceptance and tolerance in regard to that issue. It reflects something just ingrained, you know. When I was growing up, there was nobody in my family – not even my mother – who I could look to and be like, ‘I know you've never said anything homophobic.’ So, you know, you worry about people in the business who you’ve heard talk that way. Some of my heroes coming up talk recklessly like that. It’s tempting to give those views and words—that ignorance—more attention than they deserve. Very tempting.”

The interviewer also asked the question everybody wants to Ask Ocean: Are you gay or bisexual?

“You can move to the next question,” Ocean replied. “I’ll respectfully say that life is dynamic and comes along with dynamic experiences, and the same sentiment that I have towards genres of music, I have towards a lot of labels and boxes and shit. I’m in this business to be creative – I’ll even diminish it and say to be a content provider. One of the pieces of content that I’m for fuck sure not giving is porn videos. I’m not a centerfold. I’m not trying to sell you sex. People should pay attention to that in [my blog post]: I didn’t need to label it for it to have impact. Because people realize everything that I say is so relatable, because when you're talking about romantic love, both sides in all scenarios feel the same shit. As a writer, as a creator, I'm giving you my experiences. But just take what I give you. You ain’t got to pry beyond that. I’m giving you what I feel like you can feel.”

Frank Ocean co-headlines Day 2 (Saturday, August 3) at Montreal’s 3-day Osheaga Music and Arts Festival, which runs August 2-4 at Parc-Jean Drapeau on Ile Ste-Hélène. For more info and tickets, surf to www.osheaga.com.

Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at http://blogs.montrealgazette.com/category/montreal/pop-tart/.

Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.